Document Type

Article

Publication Date

3-2014

Abstract

Message from President: A temptation for the writer of a “welcome” column to a journal of academic controversy is to win faculty sympathy by selecting the error or abuse of the month and then targeting the perpetrators in some or other corner of the administration. Although it is true that Louisiana higher education suffers from frustrated and stymied as well as from less than altruistic management, it is also true that, up and down the state, faculty members avoid the exercise of assorted options that could make matters better. Given the slow flow of information in secrecy-obsessed Louisiana, it is no wonder that colleagues can see only a glimmer of their options, as if through a glass darkly. With no intention of casting aspersions on professionals who are already beleaguered, let us look at a few steps faculty can take to enter if not influence “the bigger picture.” Over the course of decades, faculty have come to believe that their best hope of defense against this, that, or the other impertinency is within departments. What can I do, a colleague asks, to make my zoology department bulletproof against rival claims and aspirations in religious studies? Far from serving faculty, departments promote isolation and interrupt the flow of information. They are more useful to the administration than they are to faculty, for they create factions and diminish the tendency toward group action. Whether by giving the best annual reviews to colleagues who influence the most campuses or whether by participating in statewide efforts such as the reform of retirement systems, faculty should consciously and occasionally defiantly challenge the departmental model of academic life. A correlate to emancipation from the self-imposed departmental silo is the recognition that, in those areas that matter most to faculty, whether compensation or research funding or working conditions, departments have no power whatsoever. In these and indeed all crucial areas, the action occurs at the system- or statewide level. During the worst days of the budget crisis, for example, defensive, self-interested administrations exploited faculty unawareness by encouraging campus-based faculty to resent fund-shifting schemes that, in fact, were among the very few strategies that kept whole systems, including flagship campuses, afloat. Faculty can favorably influence their future by bringing larger concepts into play during hiring, whether hiring of colleagues or administrators. Colleagues might begin asking questions about candidates’ understanding of higher educational systems (as a whole) or might seek evidence of aptitude in educational and budgeting policy. They might show a bit of ingenious, informed skepticism by wondering aloud whether promotion and tenure guidelines, with their concern for service to the community, might also authorize rewards for public and cross-campus engagement. Or they might take advantage of the dozens if not hundreds of opportunity for public comment, whether at management (Supervisor) meetings or whether at committee hearings at the state government. Many faculty labor under the belief that talking to legislators is forbidden by law, but nothing could be further from the truth (so long as one represents oneself as a private citizen). The de facto and somewhat timorous outsourcing to administrators by faculty of legislative commentgiving is surely one of the greatest calamities in the history of higher education. Faculty would do well to recognize that university legislative delegations represent institutional, not faculty, interests. One reason for the disengagement of faculty from the processes that shape their lives is commitment to a stereotype that emerged during the nineteenth century of the intellectual as a sensitive soul detached from the world and committed to refined research. This stereotype has as much of a grip on practitioners of the STEM disciplines as on liberal arts enthusiasts. Countervailing this model is the somewhat older idea of a cultivated statesman and also the somewhat newer model of the public intellectual. As explorers, faculty members should consider leaving behind the safe stereotype of the dreamy thinker and venturing into other, more engaged ways of public life.

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