Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2008

A Weighty Tome in More Ways than One

By William Bruneau
The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers [Jack H. Schuster & Martin J. Finkelstein. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2008; 600 pp; ISBN: 978-0-8018-8283-8, cloth $45 US; ISBN: 978-0-8018-9103-8, paper $35 US]
Callimachus (310–240 BCE), a diligent Greek-Libyan scholar, is credited with making an enormous and complete catalogue of the ancient Library of Alexandria. That catalogue, like the library itself, disappeared from view well before 600 CE. Still, we can be pretty sure Callimachus knew books and knew them well.

One thinks of Callimachus while reading The American Faculty, for he said this about writing little, but writing well: “Fatten your flocks, but keep your muse slender.” He’s also famous for “Big book, big evil.”

Schuster and Finkelstein’s book is overweight, but not evil. It would benefit from cuts, big ones. It wants to be slender, at least a third less heavy. It needs more human interest. We have to wait until page 113 in Chapter 4 for “scenarios” illustrating “The Changing Complexion of Faculty Work.” It’s a long wait from the chapters “establishing the framework” and showing the “professoriate in profile,” all filled with statistics, and not all of them necessary.

Nevertheless, The American Faculty is a worthy addition to the expanding field of higher education studies, and de­serves to be in Canadian university and college libraries. Apart from its value as contribution to the field of historical sociology of education, it is a resource for activists in faculty unions and associations.

We in the faculty association movement have always been, and shall continue to be faced — in bargaining sessions and in public debate and in our own councils — with misleading propositions about the academic profession, about who we are and what we want.

We hear again and again at the bargaining table and in the press about the preferences of university and college teachers for research over teaching, or the reverse; about professorial desires for early or late retirement; or (and these are downright dangerous) claims about the “natural ideology” of university teachers — too liberal, too conservative, too business-minded, too active, too passive. Schuster and Fin­kelstein remind the merchants of such generalities that they must be careful of their facts and cautious about the terminology they use.

To take one example, this book undermines the way many of our North American university administrators talk about competition — whether they are talking of competition be­tween profs and among universities to acquire the brightest and the best, or competition to move as fast as possible up the ladder of preferment, or the tendency to value material advantage over the “intellectual life,” and thus to be open to the allurements of private industry. Sure, some of us are competitive and ambitious and materialistic, but by the time you finish this book, the meanings of those loaded terms have been so transmogrified that it no longer makes much sense to talk in this simple-minded way about the academic profession. Yes, there is competition, but it is of a peculiar kind, and in the new globalized world that Schuster and Finkelstein describe, it operates in unexpected ways. (pp. 75–124)

At several points I was struck by the sheer strangeness of the American university/college system, and differences between it and our Canadian arrangements. Still, as a longtime student of Canadian higher education, and especially of our own professoriate, I was happy to have found a re­source for systematic comparison between us. One finishes this book with the conviction that it really is a system, even in the U.S. where more than three-fourths of degree-granting institutions are private, and thus theoretically free of some constraints on structure and function.

The American Faculty is, then, a kind of atlas of the acad­emic profession in the U.S. And like all good maps, this one summarizes masses of empirical evidence, and at the same time offers explanation and argument about the territory it portrays. It is a good example of survey research, especially that type of survey research favoured by policy analysts.

Callimachus might shudder at the last 200 pages, devoted mainly to descriptions of national faculty surveys and tables of not-quite-raw “data.” Appendix J gives us about 100 pages of tabular data on the sex of faculty organized by institutional type, the race and ethnicity of full-time and of part-time faculty members and the religious affiliations and marital status of faculty members. Further along in “J,” we find data on the formal education of full-time faculty members’ parents and spouses in 1968, 1992 and 1998; on faculty members’ allocation of time between the office, the classroom, the lab and home; on faculty preferences for teaching over research or the reverse, and so on. A CAUT member will be forgiven for thinking that she or he has accidentally picked up a copy of the American equivalent of CAUT’s Almanac!

Schuster and Finkelstein’s central argument is that Ame­ri­can higher education, and the American academic pro­fession, is in the midst of a revolutionary moment. It is not the first such moment: in the last century, the rise of the research university and the “massification” of higher education were just as revolutionary as this latest phase. But our authors think this is the fastest of them all. “Now things are … radically different, for higher education and its faculty, mainly because of the accelerating pace of market-driven and technology-enabled innovations.” (p. 5) Universities are experiencing new pushes and pulls in an unprecedented economy tied to the management of information and knowledge, and they are no longer “in charge” of any one part of that economy. Society (American society, anyway) sees higher education as a private rather than a public good, and as an industry that must be open to competition. And the whole thing is global in scale.

Meanwhile the number of school-aged children is de­cli­ning while the number of seniors climbs. Immigration has given American universities a new clientele and new, ad­ditional missions. And while the “clients” of the system are unlike any in the past, the system is itself behaving more and more like business, including the compensation of “academic stars” and CEOs.

It is a period of instability without parallel in the last 200 years of American history, Schuster and Finkelstein assert. So, the 100-year-long development of tenure/academic freedom is under explicit and mounting pressure, partly for demographic and economic reasons noted above. At page 78, we are reminded that the sheer quantity of work required of professors is greater (they have the numbers to prove it) than ever, but the time to argue and to maintain the elements of collegial governance is also lessened in each and every year (and they have the numbers to prove it).

If profs aren’t committed to death, they are under constant surveillance by managers and “clients,” i.e., students, involved in a round of apparently irrational activity. Schuster and Finkelstein reveal that the number of hours university profs worked in their institutions rose from 43.7/week in 1972 to 50.6/week in 1998 (data from six national surveys in all branches and disciplines of the university system). (p. 79) Meanwhile the number of hours that university profs gave to outside consultancy, in all its forms, went from 16.7/week to 5.0/week. (p. 85)

This finding did not entirely surprise me, but its amplitude in the U.S. was unexpected. Combined with figures on the rising commitment to research, the division of academic labour is arguably both an effect and a cause of the revolution.

In the scenarios of academic life offered there are clues about the ability of the system to persuade women, minorities and younger academics (particularly sessional appointees) to accept forms of academic work that have no obvious pre­cedent in history. (pp. 113–117) Here the combination of tabular data and personalized story is particularly effective in proving a point: that the new structures of work and reward in American higher education have the effect of disempowering nearly everyone.

I won’t replay the authors’ long discussion of “pathways to the professoriate,” but would like to agree with them that in Canada as in the U.S., the quality of university professors’ teaching and research overall is strong — by any measure.

The trouble is that the word is getting out: the academic profession has been undermined to a worrisome degree by competitive forces from the outside, and by the decline of participatory and communal institutions on the inside. The attractions of other professions will be harder to deny in the near future. Combined with academic overproduction in some fields, considering the coming demographic crunch, and in light of the expansion of information technology, the attractiveness of university teaching may quickly decline.

At the end Schuster and Finkelstein make tentative suggestions about a way to ensure continued health of the system and the profession. (pp. 354–363) Alas, they are too tentative. In their discussion of governance, for example, I waited in vain for a list of characteristics we should want in a good dean or university president. Nor did the authors ask serious questions about competition and reward: university teaching and research offer rewards that are not always or exclusively extrinsic. Why then should we assume that academic compensation, in all its forms, will forever define and drive our notion of the academic life? What are the other drivers, and why are they discussed so rarely in our profession?

The authors speak in neutral terms of the growing diversity of the profession. It seems to me that one way to renew and revolutionize university governance would be to ask how we can ensure that it’s participatory, that our legislative mechanisms (e.g., the academic senate) take back from our CEOs the curricular powers and the administrative rights that properly belong to us — that is, to us in the academic profession. In the end, a great university or college is possible only where there is respect for persons — not just in theory, but also in everyday practice.

By now you may wonder about the absence of two great categories of people crucially important to the future of higher education: students and their parents. Schuster and Finkelstein do mention them, but without asking whether or how they could or should reconfigure the profession. Students care about how they are taught and about the culture and society we are building together in universities and colleges. Because of the fixation of The American Faculty on meta-change — in technology, in international economic relations, in demography, and to a lesser degree, in ideology — the book misses an opportunity. In effect, it puts aside the roles of students, of families and of their society.

Callimachus recommended that writer-researchers should “drive their wagons on untrodden fields.” In their next book, I hope Schuster and Finkelstein will do exactly that.


William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a member of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.