Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies
reviewed by Erica D. McCray - July 18, 2019
Although not a book on the history of higher education, Steven Cahns text traces some of the promise and peril of academia as he experienced it throughout his career. The author reflects on his experience as a professor of philosophy and as an administrator in various positions at a range of institutions. These anecdotes are punctuated with the work of other scholars. The subtitle, Professors, Politics, and Policies, points to the challenges and solutions involved in excellent teaching in higher education.
In the first chapter, Cahn shares his opinion on professors and their view of faculty work. It was surprising to see faculty painted in such broad strokes as somewhat self-absorbed and primarily focused on their own scholarship. In fact, faculty are described as viewing staff as non-essential workers, administrators as facilitators of faculty work, and students as a job requirement. The contrast between scholarship and teaching continues throughout the book. Chapter Two highlights the narrow perceptions of some that teaching is easy enough that anyone can get the hang of it. Beginning in graduate school, teaching is treated as a professional obligation that faculty neglect or abandon to the detriment of students interest in and pursuit of lifelong learning.
Chapters Three through Five describe a pivotal period that shifted the authors thinking about pedagogy and the value of good teaching. Chapter Three recounts the literal turning point in the authors graduate school career. He encountered a professor who approached teaching from a different pedagogical orientation than his previous professors. He recalls Richard Taylor as a professor who challenged students to be philosophers, not just study philosophers. This was apparently what the author needed to spark his curiosity and spur action leading to a career in academia. Further, Taylor encouraged scholarship and the relationship between thinking and writing: He made clear that putting ideas into writing was indispensable to precise thinking (p. 14). In Chapter Four, Cahn delineates three pedagogical principles described as applicable across contexts and levels: (a) motivation of students, (b) organization of content, and (c) clarity in presentation. Additionally, he is explicit in discussing the need for graduate students to have structured opportunities to learn to teach. Doctoral preparation often provides extensive training for research with little attention to teaching.
Cahn notes that the work of professors occurs within the context of academic units under the supervision of administrators. In Chapters Six through Eight, he addresses departmental culture, the administration, and their selection. Chapter Six emphasizes holding excellent teaching in as high regard as exemplary scholarship. The author urges faculty to shift the culture to emphasize teaching in the same way as scholarship, providing support to new and current faculty in teaching. This chapter brought to mind Boyers model of scholarship, which includes teaching as a priority (1990). In Chapter Seven, the role of the administrator is discussed in terms of supporting a culture that respects teaching. According to Cahn, the policies supported by the administration often demonstrate the value of teaching and meeting students needs. For example, the level of reward and recognition, internally and externally, for research differs greatly compared to teaching. To lead faculty to value teaching as well as research, the author suggests the ideal administrative candidate should be principled yet practical (p. 45).
Chapters Nine through Thirteen examine the politics of the curriculum. Institutions and programs range in emphasis and structure, raising the question: what is the goal of a college education? For some, the curriculum is exploratory and organic, allowing students to take the lead with the support of an advisor. Others believe the curriculum should be structured, leading to very explicit experiences and outcomes. Faculty should play an important role as they are considered the guardians of the conferred degree. The author doubts that many faculty view this as a significant responsibility.
Cahns experience and beliefs are consistently made clear. He presents four arguments for a liberal arts education and offers a different perspective on how liberal arts education could be conceived for the greater good. The inarguable essence of his pitch is that every member of a democracy should be able to read, write, and speak effectively so as to be able to participate fully in the free exchange of ideas that is vital to an open society (p. 52). Cahn goes on to provide additional rationale for aspects of liberal arts (e.g., foreign literature) that might be esoteric to most and feasible only for an elite few. Specific exemplar programs are described, including Columbia College, a liberal arts college within Columbia University widely praised for providing depth and breadth through a core curriculum (Chapter Thirteen).
The remaining chapters describe structural features and processes that are often politicized and maintained through policies. The department is the level at which most successes and difficulties (and politics, according to the author) play out. Faculty are hired and assigned to departments or similarly structured academic units. This relatively manageable grouping does not require similar specializations, work styles, professional strengths, or passions. The author provides various scenarios of dys/functional departmental interactions and roles played by various members that easily explain the inevitable difficulties. Interestingly, Cahn offers that at times there is an exception when a faculty member demonstrates the ability to think clearly and offer practical solutions. That person is apt to become a departmental chair and, if willing, may be on track to a career in administration (p. 75).
As positions become available, faculty typically advocate for hires in their own best interest rather than the best interest of the program and students. The dean has power in this situation to take a macro-level view of needs and provide guidance, but they often defer to the faculty with regard to hiring (Chapter Fifteen) as well as tenure and promotion (Chapter Sixteen). There are varied perspectives on the privileges and rights afforded by tenure. Chief among them is academic freedom. The author poses the question: Might academic freedom be preserved without tenure, perhaps by some form of multiyear contracts? (p. 83). The process of earning tenure puts the burden of proof on the untenured to be vetted by only the tenured so as to remove conflict or competing interests. The process can be contentious at various stages as different opinions come to bear on the tenure case.
The complexities of the tenure process are illustrated through an interesting case example in Chapter Seventeen. The author draws attention to unusual decisions based on conflicting votes at every level. Ultimately, lack of clarity about expectations created a predicament that the university thought was a more significant issue, which led to a surprising final decision and revisions to the guidelines and process.
In addition to academic freedom, faculty life affords other freedoms, as described in Chapter Eighteen. Autonomy is the promised land on the other side of tenure and, in some ways, pre-tenure. Faculty enjoy autonomy and command of their own schedules and tasks in ways not afforded to many other professionals (e.g., corporate leaders). The autonomy of faculty allows, to some extent, free choice in research, teaching, and service. Ideally, faculty are maximizing their autonomy to pursue research assiduously, teach attentively, and serve their schools consciously (p. 93).
Overall, this text is easy to read with effective examples of issues that arise in academia. The author offers thought-provoking cautions about emphasizing scholarship to the detriment of teaching. Further, he offers rationale and strategies for preparing future doctoral graduates to appreciate and engage in excellent teaching. I found the insights meaningful as I value both teaching and scholarship and am invested in how organizational culture can nurture or stifle high-quality learning experiences.
Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.