The Faculty: What’s in a Name?

We were just about to publish this post when Chris Newfield issued his summer round up, “Faculty Need Do Better than This.” We’ve been reading similar things this summer, it seems. Newfield’s reading has prompted him to be “increasingly focused on how better methods can help get us out of the blocked debates we’re suffering now.” We are too. One issue is how we understand “the faculty.”

Relentless calls for university faculty to fix what ails higher education are wishful thinking. We can’t seem to do anything in concert. It’s important to understand why.

“The faculty” exists in name only. When academic reformers or university administrators address this entity, they are in fact talking to highly segmented and stratified audiences. No single message can be expected to inform–that is, address and give shape to–this audience. “The faculty” are connected by complex, interlinking, and multimodal communications that bind them loosely, if at all. Unless the diverse dispositions and interests of these audiences and modes of address are taken into account, calls to unified action are bound to fail.

Any effort to address “the faculty” as if it were a collective agent needs to begin by remembering that tenure-stream professors are a minority of instructors. This minority has found it notoriously difficult to represent the interests of their non-tenure stream colleagues. Despite advice to the contrary from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other professional organizations, tenure-track professors often construe contract lecturers as a threat (while assenting to staffing models that require them). Similarly, departments that rely on graduate student instructors have often preferred to think of them as “students” rather than as employees who might, for example, join unions.

The tenure track faculty audience is itself internally fragmented, perhaps necessarily so. Professing is a solitary profession, a “long lonely job” in John Ziker’s memorable phrasing.

Our work is not well understood. The helpful FAQ “What Do Faculty Do?” provided by the AAUP has not demystified faculty work. University of Wisconsin professors have been reminded of this fact in their running argument with state government about how they spend their time. (The argument has been expressed as a database.) What individual faculty do with their days can be mysterious to their peers as well. Colleagues on any reasonably large campus probably know less about each other’s work than they think they do.

And yet, a cherished story keeps alive the hope that “the faculty” will come together to run the university. Often there’s a good bit of nostalgia involved: once upon a time, the faculty had a greater role in decision-making, but now all orders come from above.

Newfield’s Ivy and Industry (2003) offers a salutary corrective to that nostalgia by treating limitation of faculty power as the American research university’s foundational bargain. At the turn of the last century, professors ceded budget control to administration in exchange for “freedom of intellectual inquiry.” Newfield believes “the faculty” must renegotiate this deal. Over the years, he’s done his best to cajole us into budget meetings.

We favor a more active role for “the faculty” in setting budgets, but the sorry state of affairs described in Making Sense of the College Curriculum (2018) suggests that day will be a long time coming. Nearly 200 interviews conducted by the authors yield a portrait of faculty who cannot even manage to revise the majors they teach. The answer to the question “Why has there been so little curricular change?” over the last fifty years turns out to be that professors don’t want anyone (even their faculty colleagues) telling them what to do. Professors interviewed “defined as essential the academic independence that encourages the pursuit of knowledge and expression of thought without constraint,” observe Robert Zemsky, Gregory R. Wegner, and Ann J. Duffield. Professors respond to change as individuals, they conclude, rather than as a group. We eagerly embrace new pedagogies (flipped classrooms!) because these are under our individual control and thus reinforce a “faculty member’s sense of personal space and independence, of self and personal success.”

Cathy Davidson’s The New Education (2018) offers corroborating evidence that individual professors can be very good at change when we want to. She regales her readers with stories of faculty members who collaborate with administrators and donors to set up centers and launch innovative courses that they then run. These experiments, however, can be precarious, insofar as they depend on the leadership of the professor who launched them in the first place. Innovation often appears as individual accomplishment rather than programmatic change supported by “the faculty.”

Indeed, faculty resistance to curricular planning is a recurrent theme in university history. In the middle of the twentieth century, for instance, a committee of Harvard faculty members developed the grand plan published as “General Education in a Free Society” (1945). The ambition and reach of the proposal was quickly recognized by President Truman’s administration in Washington, which borrowed key policy ideas from it. However, even as the effort was attracting national attention, Harvard’s faculty could only succeed in implementing a diluted version of it, and on a trial basis. Paul Buck, historian, Provost, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the committee that authored the plan, reported “the Faculty was particularly troubled about the implications of General Education proposals as they affected the freedom of the undergraduate in electing courses, and as they affected the Tutorial plan.” Faculty could agree, that is, to leave the curriculum mostly up to the students.

We want to believe. We’d like to imagine that “the faculty” exists in itself but not yet for itself, that there really is a community of interest that might, in precarious times, rally to a common cause.

It certainly is harder to imagine our colleagues as members of highly segmented and differentiated audiences than as a class that could rise up as one. But it is also more accurate to understand them as so divided. In our collaborative scholarly work, we have learned that to reach any readers among the faculty we have to forgo the desire to reach them all.

It turns out that some of the most complicated of the university’s many audiences reside within. It would be best to think of “the faculty” not as a mass actor, amenable to persuasion, but rather as a puzzle or a challenge requiring greater attention to the diversity of communications used to inform it.