Thursday, March 19, 2015

Six Cultures of the Academy 1: Collegial Culture

1. I'm intrigued by this 2008 book, which is an expansion of an earlier 1992 book.

I think the nature of the academy is in flux, and there is something about this book that is helping me delineate what you might call clashes of culture within the current university and seminary landscape.

2. When you dig into the first chapter of this book, it quickly becomes apparent that "traditional" education models in the United States themselves are not monolithic and involve a diverse set of influences. But Bergquist and Pawlak largely summarize a "collegial culture" as discipline and faculty research oriented. It conceives "of the institution's enterprise as the generation, interpretation, and dissemination of knowledge" (15).

There are different strands of traditional academia. The British and Scottish strands tend to live on in smaller liberal arts colleges, where the student environment was carefully controlled (in loco parentis) and there was an emphasis on the liberal arts. Contrast this with the German model that became very influential in the 1800s, focusing on a powerful faculty whose job is to generate knowledge in their areas of focus. The research institution has inherited the heightened German sense of academic freedom and faculty autonomy.

3. My sense is that many if not most of the players in my college context have unexamined assumptions about what it is that a university is about. As a Dean I have heard repeatedly the rallying cry for "shared governance," but there is no timeless dictate from God on what that necessarily should look like. For those who come to the university setting from outside academia, the power that faculty as employees have within the typical university is shocking. Indeed, it often seems inappropriate to outsiders.

The current climate in American education has made one thing overwhelmingly clear. More than anything else, a college, university, or seminary is a business. This is fundamental because it relates to the bottom-line existence of these institutions. You can have a great mission, but if you cannot pay your bills, you will cease to exist. But you can have a bad mission and continue to exist. This suggests that whatever mission or purpose one may ascribe to an institution of higher learning, it is a less essential component than solid business practices.

4. So a research institution can choose to exist to generate and perpetuate knowledge for its own sake. But it can only exist for this purpose if it can generate enough revenue to cover its expenses. A liberal arts or Christian college can choose to exist to inculcate a certain set of values in young people. But it can only exist for this purpose if it can generate enough revenue to cover its expenses.

But there is no single, obvious raison d'etre for all colleges. Each institution must decide what it exists for and, if it can sustain itself in some way financially, no one can say its purpose is illegitimate. A college could exist to help its students gain the kinds of skills that will get them a job. I suspect this type of purpose is most likely to make an institution financially viable.

But of course it would be unreflective to insist that this is the only legitimate purpose for a college. The generation of knowledge is a legitimate purpose for a university. The making of better human beings is a legitimate purpose. It is narrow-minded to think that we must choose one of these. Pish-posh ignorance. If a college can generate enough revenue to continue to exist for a particular purpose, so be it.

5. The role of the faculty in an institution of higher learning therefore cannot be reduced to a "one size fits all" either. This relates to a fundamental blind spot both of some faculty and administration. It is not obvious that the purpose of a faculty member is to generate research and scholarship. That is the German cultural model but it is not an absolute model. It is ignorance to think that is obviously what a faculty person is supposed to be or do.

The same of course goes to teaching. I know a seminary that has no students. Its faculty only do research. It would be just as ignorant to say that this sort of institution is illegitimate as it would be to say that an institution where the faculty do not publish but only teach is illegitimate. As long as the institution is breaking-even financially, it is a legitimate business.

6. Accreditation and the standards by which the government dispenses loans are clearly a factor in the viability of academic institutions because they affect the bottom line of an institution. But if students wanted to pay to go to a place that had no recognition of quality from these normal means, what could we ultimately say?

Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary is the largest seminary in the United States. It has chosen not to be accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, although it is regionally accredited through Liberty University. Yet what are other seminaries to say? The students have voted with their feet.

7. My point is that the traditional, "collegial" model, while completely legitimate, is not absolute in any way, shape, or form. The contours of the college of the future are up for grabs. There is no absolute standard for the role or expectations of faculty. The ultimate reality that trumps all other realities is the fact that education is a business. Period.

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