What Ever Happened to the Faculty?: Drift and Decision in Higher Education
reviewed by William G. Tierney - March 05, 2007
Title: What Ever Happened to the Faculty?: Drift and Decision in Higher Education
Author(s): Mary Burgan
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801884616 , Pages: 264, Year: 2006
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Mary Burgan stepped down a few years ago as General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). She also had been a longtime professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington where she held a variety of academic postsdepartment chair and the like. As full disclosure I should mention that I know Professor Burgan from the AAUP where I have been a member and until recently was book review editor of Academe. I have been on panels with her and she penned a chapter in a book I edited.
Anyone who knows Burgan is likely to acknowledge that she is witty, erudite, well read, and thoughtful. She is an engaging speaker and cares deeply about the academy. Many will also admit that the AAUP is perhaps the most difficult of the higher education associations to lead in large part because the membership is primarily made up of faculty who resist being led. There is also an honest difference of opinion between those who see the AAUPs primary mission as that of an ardent defender of academic freedom and those who would like the association to be more focused on unionizing faculty. Although both perspectives are certainly not antithetical, they also are not necessarily complementary, hence, the tension within the organization. Burgan stepped into this position as the first woman to lead the organization during a time of change and upheaval. Some may have wished that she would have been more confrontational on issues such as the decline of tenure or the increase of managerial imperatives in the academic workforce. Virtually everyone will agree, however, that she made the AAUP a participant in the national dialogue about the future of higher education at a time when a faculty association could have fallen into irrelevance or disregard.
Whatever Happened to the Faculty: Drift and Decision in Higher Education is Burgans summation of where she sees academic life heading and what we might do to stem what she sees as the decline in academic life. The book is a brisk 238 pages with book-ended chapters first providing her version of the past and then what we might do in the future. The middle seven chapters are case studies of particular problems such as the weakening of tenure, the rise of distance learning, and the strengthening of administrative decision-making at the cost of faculty involvement in governance.
One ought not to be surprised at the elegant writing in the book. The tone is conversational, almost as if Burgan were in my study talking with me as I turned the pages. I wish, in fact, she had been present while I read the various chapters because we would have had a robust debate on some topics. In part, what makes the book readable is also a shortcoming. This book is more memoir than a dry text filled with data. A memoir makes for an engaging reading, but inevitably, it speaks to the authors experiences. The reader is convinced less by the logic of the data and is taken more with the manner in which an author portrays his or her life.
In a book that is ostensibly helping us think about the future we want for higher education I might have wished for a bit more data. One example of the lack of data and the problems it presents is that Burgan points out the worth of public higher education by commenting that at my own institution, a private university, it would be prohibitive for most of the [working class] families she had observed elsewhere to attend because of USCs tuition (p.11). But the average family income at USC is less than that of UCLA. Those of us who work on issues of access for low-income youth are also increasingly having students consider applying to private institutions because they will incur less debt than at a UC. To paint privates and publics in the manner that Burgan does is flawed based on the lack of data.
Part of my concern with the book is that Burgans text reads like an elegy for the academic pasta Paradise Lost. While one can certainly appreciate the authors clear devotion to academe as a special place with a treasured mission, we also ought not to overlook higher education as a bastion of upper/middle class, heterosexual, white male exclusivity for most of the 20th century. Much of the opening up of the academy came about not because of, but in spite of, faculty and administrators. Affirmative action, the GI Bill, and non-discrimination laws came about largely because external constituencies pushed the academy to be more inclusive.
Burgan also paints the past as if the faculty were vigorously involved in academic governance, when such a viewpoint has never been the case for the vast majority of institutions, and especially if one extends the view to more than a generation. Faculty involvement in governance has changed today, and there is much to be troubled about, but to wish things were like the good old days is to assume that they were good and that that goodness will fit the changed circumstances of the 21st century. I certainly do not begrudge anyone for looking to the past with fondness, especially in a memoir, but if we are to use the text to create the future then we need to assess that past, warts and all; such an assessment requires more data and analysis than what exists here.
Burgan does not mince words or hedge her bets. In her view, the academic world is divided into goods and bads. The market model is a colossal blunder. Although she is most certainly not a Luddite, technology will never replace the teacher in the classroom and its use is dubious. The portrait of the teacher engaged in dialogue with her students is optimal and anything short of that is secondary. Because she writes so clearly and is unequivocal, I found the text provocative. Unlike numerous memoirs of college presidents that are a snooze to read and have little to say, Burgan has a great deal to say and she says it in a quiet, thoughtful, inclusive voice.
Because she is on our side, Burgans exhortation that we could do better will more likely be heeded by faculty. My own sense is that I do not see the academic world divided into goods and bads. The market model that Burgan detests has the shortcomings that she points out, but also has made us reach out to students and families in ways that have provoked positive engagement. Technology certainly has its weaknesses, but the low-income students I work with also have found it to be lively, entertaining, and educational in ways that the traditional classroom is not. Faculty voice surely needs to be inserted more vigorously into campus decision-making, but lets also recognize that frequently Academic Senates spend valuable time on trivial issues when major problems confront the institution.
Burgan ends her book on ways to stage a comeback. Her suggestions are not revolutionary, and certainly are level-headed. She suggests, for example, that where Senates do not exist, they must be created. Faculty must be actively involved in determining the preparation levels of incoming students and make decisions about remediation. Data must be collected about budgets, contingent faculty, and the like, and it must be transparent. The suggestions are commonsensical and we would be well-advised to implement them. Even if we were to act on every suggestion, however, I am neither sure we would be adequately prepared to meet the challenges of the future, nor certain that we would recreate the past for which Burgan longs. Perhaps what I most treasure in this book is not the authors take on one or another problem that currently bedevils the academy, or her view of the past, or what to do about the future, but that she cares, passionately, about the academic life, and she is willing to let the reader hear that passion. For it is with such commitment that I suspect we will be able to get out of the current morass and develop some sort of reinvigorated academic community in the 21st century.