SHOWING UP SOBER ISN'T ENOUGH:
THE CULTURE OF AUTONOMY
AND THE CULTURE OF COMMUNITY1

Kathy Emmett Bohstedt


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Because I am a philosopher my paper is constructed as an argument, a contentious, and I hope interesting argument, whose implications cut to the core of academic life. In brief my argument is this: the current culture of the university doesn't work well. It is a culture of autonomy, within which rewards and rights belong to the individual, whereas duties and sanctions belong to the institution. As individuals, faculty are responsible to their department heads, the heads to deans, the deans to provosts, and so on.

Those who end up on the faculty of research and comprehensive universities have been trained into the culture of autonomy since graduate school by teachers who were also independent, self- motivated, self-critical, high-achieving and ego-driven. Graduate school closely imitates one's future relation to one's academic department. Successful graduate students must form a close working relationship with one or two faculty members whose good opinion is all-important. The rest of the department defers to the judgment of one's mentor who, after the early years of a Ph.D. program, runs interference for her students. Students compete for the role of the best and favorite student of a powerful mentor. Graduate students have gripe and study sessions with other graduate students, but their relationships are social, and a bit competitive. Fellow graduate students cannot be counted on to have one another's best interests at heart. After all, they are ultimately competing for the same limited resources--good jobs at prestigious places.

New faculty members are advised to try to form roughly the same sort of relation with the department head that they had with their dissertation advisors. When there is a personality conflict between new faculty and the chair, it is wise to form a mentor relationship with a powerful full professor in the department who has the ear of the rest of the departmental leadership, and who can plead your case at tenure and promotion time. When new faculty relationships with their colleagues those relationships are expected to be cordial, social, polite and professional. No one expects you to be their best friend, and if you try, you are likely, in most departments, to be rebuffed. Professional standards are impersonal, and have almost nothing to do with one's character. Thanks to ardent feminists (and I count myself as one) the term "collegiality" is no longer permitted in discussions of tenure cases. Yet it remains true that some very influential academics are very disagreeable people, and the ones I have in mind show no signs of wanting to change.

With tenure comes full academic freedom. In a culture of autonomy, academic freedom is construed as full claim to individual rights, including the right to be free of supervision, evaluation, or even peer review of teaching. It is the right to insist that one's own judgment is definitive, and thus to be unfettered by unchosen obligations to one's students, one's institution, or even to society as a whole.

This rights-driven culture of autonomy leaves out some important moral dimensions of academic life. In our culture there are explicit expectations concerning the quantity of one's publications, but none concerning their subject-matter, or interest, or contribution to the common good. There are explicit expectations concerning the number of publications we must have in refereed journals, but none concerning the quality of one's teaching or the conscientiousness with which one approaches one's relationships to students. There are no serious discussions at tenure time about service to the department, the institution, or the profession; one is expected to be an outstanding researcher as defined by one's professional peers, and a competent teacher. We are explicitly told not to sexually harass our students and colleagues, but we are not enjoined to be kind or even polite to them, or even to give them the time of day when that would eat into one's precious research time. There are explicit expectations about what counts as "research," but not about what counts as "scholarship." Yet the scholarships of integration, application and teaching are as valuable to a free society as the scholarship of discovery. Department heads are encouraged to raise the teaching loads of those who don't engage in research, narrowly defined, but when someone has a reputation for being a dirty old man or a blatant racist, we merely refer him to the overworked staff of DRES for a quick remedial course in how to behave like a decent human being.

Our culture of autonomy supports no sanctions of the sort originally supposed to be entailed by AAUP guidelines for tenure. The 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Tenure ends with the claim:

Academic freedom . . . carries with it duties correlative with rights.2

Curiously enough, that 1940 statement does not specify what duties go along with the rights to academic freedom. Thirty years later, a subsequent interpretive comment on this passage was added to amplify this claim:

The AAC and the AAUP have long recognized that membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities. Both Associations either separately or jointly have consistently affirmed these responsibilities in major policy statements, providing guidance to the professor in his utterances as a citizen, in the exercise of his responsibilities to the institution and its students, and in his conduct when resigning from his institution or when undertaking government-sponsored research.3

This vague disclaimer refers us for detail to a 1966 AAUP policy on Professional Ethics. This document begins with an interesting explanation of the difference between the role of the professional academic organization, and the professional organizations that govern law or medicine. Unlike law or medicine, academic ethics are enforced by one's faculty at one's own institution. I quote:

In the enforcement of ethical standards, the academic profession differs from those of law and medicine, whose associations act to assure the integrity of members engaged in private practice. In the academic profession, the individual institution of higher learning provides this assurance and so should normally handle questions concerning propriety of conduct within its own framework by reference to a faculty group.4

Hence the faculty of an institution is the final authority on issues of academic ethics. The statement goes on to articulate our responsibilities in terms of a description of the virtuous professor's life:

The professor . . . devotes his energies to developing and improving his scholarly competence. He accepts the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending and transmitting knowledge. He practices intellectual honesty . . . . As a teacher, the professor encourages the free pursuit of learning in his students. He holds before them the best scholarly standards of his discipline. He demonstrates respect for the student as an individual, and adheres to his proper role as intellectual guide and counselor. He makes every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to assure that his evaluation of students reflects their true merit . . . . As a colleague, the professor has obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. He respects and defends the free inquiry of his associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas he shows due respect for the opinions of others . . . . He accepts his share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of his institution.5

This passage underlines the culture of autonomy I have been describing. Notice, for example, that faculty ethical responsibilities are confined to specifying standards of individual performance, in scholarship, teaching, advising, grading and collegiality. Only the last sentence suggests that faculty may have obligations toward the institutional community, and there what constitutes one's "share" of faculty responsibilities is completely unspecified. As members of "the community of scholars," faculty are obliged to stick up for one another, to "respect and defend" each other's rights of academic freedom, presumably against the encroachment of institutional review boards and outside demands for accountability. In other words, faculty are responsible to each other only in the sense that they are responsible for defending each other's autonomy.

When the AAUP gets around to talking about faculty responsibilities, it does so in terms of individual responsibility to one's discipline, one's students, one's colleagues and only peripherally to one's institution, college, department or unit. I am responsible for being a good scholar, teacher and colleague, but nowhere is it specified to whom I am accountable in these multiple roles. When the AAUP speaks to dismissal for cause, it does so exclusively in terms of the rights of individual faculty members, and the duty of the President of the institution, or his designated representative, to bear the burden of proof in any charges brought against the faculty member. Tenured faculty are guaranteed the right to counsel, the right to call and cross- examine witnesses, and the right to be heard by a panel of their peers.

In order for a culture of autonomy to work effectively to detect, sanction and correct behavior inimical to academic life, individual performance must be observed, evaluated and reviewed. In other words, it must be known. If it is up to an individual to evaluate his or her own performance, it is to be expected that very little negative information would be likely to leak out.

We faculty have contrived a complicated system of self-governance within which we are our own evaluators. Schools with accreditation bodies aside, most of us work in situations in which we are responsible to on one but our heads or our deans for our annual performance reviews. Even in those departments that take annual evaluations seriously, and not all do, the head has very little real authority to impose sanctions. The worst we can do is freeze someone's salary or increase her teaching load, thereby ensuring that disgruntled and unproductive faculty will be systematically imposed on ever larger numbers of students. Heads have few resources aside from these with which to induce disruptive, uncooperative or angry faculty members to cooperate for the good of the department. One superstar with a chip on her shoulder can wreak havoc in a department, and even with a consensus within the department about the nature of the problem, there is very little a head can do when that person is tenured.

When rights belong only to individuals, responsibilities belong to the groups that contain them. This means that the group has no means of self-preservation. The institution of tenure as currently understood prevents imposition of the sanctions that were originally intended to be built into the system. Sanctions are imposed on the faculty by the faculty, who may be expected to show considerable restraint in criticizing one of their own for doing what we all know lots of people do. Only in the most outrageous and highly publicized cases are we likely to take action against our colleagues, because doing so would leave us open to the same scrutiny we are supposed to lavish on the alleged offender. Academics are particularly vulnerable to self-doubt and fear of inadequacy, in large part because we have no idea how well or badly we are doing relative to our colleagues. We don't attend each other's classes, read each other's papers, review each other's reports, or student and administrative evaluations. We hear stories. The rest of (paranoid) guesswork. The net result is that we are bound together by a brotherhood in which academic freedom is understood as freedom from review, scrutiny and accountability. Thus the culture perpetuates itself. Because we don't know how our fellows are doing, we prefer to maximize our professional invisibility. Few would voluntarily take off his clothes unless everyone does. Even though the AAUP never intended tenure to be guaranteed job security for incompetents, we have a history and culture that make it difficult if not impossible to dismiss tenured faculty for "cause." Incompetence is too difficult to prove and too narrowly defined. Going estimates are about one-half million dollars in legal expenses to get rid of jus tone tenured faculty member. In the current climate, individuals who do not perform at minimal levels of competence are gradually forced into retirement by having their more odious responsibilities increased, their salaries frozen, and their reputations undermined by elevator gossip and cocktail party stories.

In light of egregious cases of faculty incompetence some think that the appropriate solution is to abolish tenure. I do not agree that tenure should be abolished. Tenure can and should be preserved and strengthened. Instead, I recommend that the culture of autonomy be replaced by a culture of community. In a culture of autonomy, rights belong to individuals. The correlative responsibilities belong largely to the institution, and they are largely negative responsibilities whose impact is to free the faculty member from various sorts of observation, investigation, intrusions and inquiries. In a culture of community, on the other hand, the collective has rights, and individuals have correlative responsibilities. Academic freedom can and should be reconceived so as to connect individual faculty to their departments, students, institutions and communities at large. This one change would not only allow rewards and sanctions to work effectively and openly, it would also provide faculty with a sense of pride and fulfillment as professionals that we have long done without, to our psychological and spiritual detriment.

Imagine, if you will, a faculty review board that pressed for dismissal of a tenured faculty on the grounds that he is a terrible teacher who year after year teaches the same course by reading to his classes from dog-eared lecture notes, who harangues his students with offensive jokes, fails to so much as grade any tests for his sections, and, in the opinion of his younger colleagues, is completely out of date in his area. Imagine a faculty review board press for the dismissal of someone who routinely sloughs off departmental responsibilities, who ignores (or forgets) requests, demands and orders from the head to perform various service functions, who skips department meetings when she judges that "the matter does not concern me" and who regularly uses more than her share of departmental resources, including long-distance telephone charges, Fed-Ex, fax, xeroxing, and supplies. Imagine a faculty group in judgment of the familiar philanderer who is accused of humiliating his female students by staring at their legs or breasts, by putting his arm around them, or calling them "sweetie" or "honey," or of harassing his female colleagues by telling them off-color jokes in the mail room, and fondling them at the department parties. These behaviors are very difficult to prove occurred without the full cooperation of the irritated and embarrassed victims, and some even doubt their harmfulness. After all, who is directly hurt by these behaviors? We are all free here. Let the students transfer out of his classes, or let his colleagues warn the better students away from him altogether, let the head deal with the frustration of having this perfectly useless person eating up valuable resources when there are dozens of eager, bright, committed young Ph.D.'s out there who would love a chance to show they can do better.

We all know enough about how universities work to know that no such charges will be brought.6 Even though the AAUP guidelines clearly specify that tenure is not a guarantee of perpetual employment for the incompetent, the reality is that university--a culture of autonomy--is structured so as to prevent official sanctions from working effectively to correct or modify aberrant behavior or get rid of tenured problem cases.

I have been arguing that academic freedom, like the first amendment, has been used to justify practices that are destructive of the greater good of our universities, and of our society. The public suspects this too, although they get it wrong often enough to permit us in good conscience to dismiss them as fools. In a recent column, Thomas Sowell rails against faculty self- governance on the grounds that faculty should not be in charge of deciding whether students should take ROTC or whether the university's endowments should be invested "according to financial or ideological principles." ("Faculty a stumbling block in universities," Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 18, 1996). Sowell's examples are meant to be compelling, but they are at least twenty years out of date. No doubt he saw such things when he was an undergraduate. Sowell's point is that faculty "self-governance" runs counter to the interests of society at large. He would like to disband the faculty senate, and abolish tenure.

Sowell erroneously singles out what he calls "faculty governance" as the problem. I, on the other hand, view faculty non-governance as the problem. Sowell's column is another example of the misinformation being spread around about universities and whose interests we are serving, and at whose expense.Sowell, like the rest of the general public, is inclined to suppose that our primary job is to educate the future workers and leaders of the U.S. and the world. Our preoccupation with our internal politics, enforcing "political correctness" (the right-wing's term for what they view as our excessive concerns for social justice, diversity and civility on campus) and, above all, for doing our research is irritating. Despite our in-jokes, this is not because the public is anti-intellectual, but because they know there are faculty who don't teach, graduates who can't think, and classes in humanities and social sciences in which machines grade exams. They remember Proxmire's "Golden Fleece Awards" and the Rolling Stone's "Trivial Research Awards" and suspect that much of what counts as "research" at universities is esoteric, silly and utterly irrelevant to solving real problems in our society. When they demand to know what we have done lately to address the deep social, technological and environmental problems of this nation they are entitled to a thoughtful and civil answer, no a rude "mind your own business" or a condescending "how 'bout them Vols?"

Our culture of autonomy offers no encouragement or reward to those who attempt to represent the university and its interests to the community. More of us should be talking about what we do here and why it is valuable, important, critical to the future of this nation. Otherwise we convey the impression that we cannot be bothered to explain ourselves to people too dumb to understand, but who may nevertheless be counted on to continue paying our salaries. Meanwhile, we have seen layer upon layer of administration buffer us from those we serve. If we do not represent ourselves effectively, how on earth do we expect administrators to do so? If we are indifferent or contemptuous of public opinions, how can we hope to be effective educators of the future citizenry? And if we do not band together and work out what we want to accomplish and how we will measure our success, how can we expect THEC to devise sensitive and sophisticated measures on which to measure us? We are going to have to make our cultural changes ourselves, or they will be mandated and enforced by people who haven't a clue what we are about here.

One difference between a culture of autonomy and a culture of community is that the former emphasizes individual rights and the latter emphasizes individual and collective responsibilities. As members of the university community, we already feel strongly that we have certain rights, community rights. For example, we have the right to police and fire services, to city water and sewers, to street cleaning and a clean environment. We have the right to be safe from crime. We have the right to be treated with civility and courtesy by those who do business with the university. We expect civilian motorists to obey our speed limits and crosswalks when they drive onto the campus.

There is already enough community ethos in our university to serve as a model for much larger cultural changes. When one of our colleagues is hospitalized we do not hesitate to each her classes, advise her students, take care of her telephone calls, mail and appointments, and even feed her cats. Why not extend this community support to those of us who have other sorts of trouble? Suppose a colleague has been working on a book manuscript for years with no signs of completing it and with little apparent joy. As a department we may have a communal right to our collective professional standards, but as colleagues we also have a responsibility to make sure that we are all supported to the best of our abilities. We might try to help this struggling author by asking him to give informal seminars on his manuscript as colleagues talking it through together. Suppose another of our number gets consistently low student teaching evaluations. Instead of leaving it to the head to deal with, why not have a faculty committee of committed and innovative teachers, a kind of classroom swat team to work with her to improve her performance? After all, she clearly does not know how to improve, or she'd be doing it. A culture of autonomy encourages us to think of ourselves as individuals fighting private battles. A culture of community offers support, help, encouragement and understanding. Many of us would be far happier in such a culture.

Connected to others with whom we share responsibilities, we can work together to articulate our vision of the common good and working to achieve it. To earn academic freedom I must earn your trust and respect, to show that I can give something back to you, my colleagues, and to share my experience in ways that you value. I am responsible for seeing that what I write and teach is important and right, as well as current and interesting. In a communitarian culture, we have responsibilities to each other, to our students, and to society at large.

For most of us, reputation is far more important than salary, and yet we have as little control over our reputations as we do over our salaries. In a community culture our reputations would be widely known. We would know how we are doing relative to each other on a variety of measures, because we would meet regularly with colleagues to discuss performance measures and goals. Sometimes we would be able to help, and sometimes we would be able to learn. Sanctions would no longer be gossip and rumors, but rather shared information about our skills, successes, shortcomings and improvements. The reason sanctions do not work in a culture of autonomy is that information is kept private, allegedly to protect the minimally competent member's individual rights, but in practice this "privacy" is merely public access without right of rebuttal. Ironically, our insistence on due process and individual rights may have produced a system in which due process is never invoked because it's too expensive and too hard. It's easier to get rid of tenured faculty by shaming them into early retirement than to invoke the full legal procedures. Our principled zeal for rights has helped destroy what we wanted to protect.

I believe in tenure for many reasons. The role of universities in a free society is to teach the next generation what knowledge we have, and how it is made. Tenure is absolutely necessary to protect freedom of inquiry from the periodic ideological assaults and purges that would otherwise destroy our continuity. My point is that freedom of inquiry is not freedom from accountability to the wider community, from having to articulate what we do, and explain it in such a way that makes sense to the society that supports us.

We must become more self-conscious about the whole mission of higher education, not by promoting more and more faculty to administrative positions--too often a way of ensuring their irrelevance--but by taking responsibility as faculty for institutional self-governance. It is time to wake from our fussy labors into an engaged alertness. Let us begin by asking ourselves why we chose this line of work in the first place. Why did you get a Ph.D.? And then what drew you into the life of a faculty member? I respectfully submit that our current culture assumes that we became professors because we had powerful desires to be left alone to write our own fussy little texts free of human company. It's not true. Most of us got into this because we wanted to be part of a larger community of people dedicated to the same values and visions that inspire us.


THE COLLABORATIVE COMMUNITY MODEL

Things would be different if the cultural change I am recommending were to take place. To think of oneself as part of a collective, a community, a group of colleagues whose values and goals one shares is intrinsically rewarding. Colleagues who share common goals, aspirations and standards of excellence, who work together to achieve these, and who hold each other responsible to common goals are many times stronger than the same collection of individuals in isolation who worry about what others think of them and whether they are getting their fair share. Academic freedom is not the right to do what one pleases. It is the freedom to make knowledge.7 That is the academic common good. What we want to achieve depends on what our students need to know. What criteria we trust to measure our success will determine our responsibilities.

Our responsibilities as faculty include the responsibility to serve as a worthy role model, to make of one's life a reflective monument to what we have learned, and our joy and sorrow in having learned it. Most of our students will never read our articles, but they will learn from us who they may aspire to be, personally, intellectually, culturally and spiritually. We must show them lives in growth, in reflection, lives according to considered values. Every time we say "I am on the faculty at UT" we give our audience permission to generalize from us, and not merely from our articles.

What we stand to gain in return for fulfilling these responsibilities is extraordinary. We gain pride in our role, and respect for ourselves within our scholarly community and outside it. We gain legitimate job security in a changing society. We gain an authoritative and respected intellectual position in society. Above all, we gain meaning. We could be proud members of the most precious microcosm of democracy our society has yet produced, whose collective values, goals and allegiances are known to all. The culture we create here is an experimental model of what we can imagine, what we can create as the best society that humans working together can achieve.


REFERENCES

1. Thanks to my sisters, the Hers-Bryn Mawr class of 1995, who showed me the power and joy of community.

2. AAUP Policy Documents and Reports, AAUP, Washington, D.C., 1984 edition, p. 3.

3. Ibid., p. 5.

4. 1966 AAUP Statement of Professional Ethics, AAUP Policy Documents and Reports, op cit., p. 133.

5. Ibid., pp. 133-134. Italics added.

6. In my tenure at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville I have seen three people dismissed for cause (there may have been others--I only know what I hear in the Hermitage Room) and each of those people was first charged and convicted with a felony.

7. I owe this phrase to my colleague Jim Nelson, who I suspect is a communitarian.


Copyright Kathy Emmett Bohstedt

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Last updated: July 18, 1996