The Chronicle Review
October 6, 2006

What Has Happened to the Professoriate?


The new environment for higher education has created a situation in which professorial worlds are multiple, complex, and conflicting. I think I am not simply being nostalgic (though I "grew up" professionally at the end of the earlier world) when I assert that we have lost something along the way. We have lost a sense of commonality as professors, the sense that we are all in this together — "this" being a dedication to undergraduate teaching and not just specialized research. We have lost a belief in the relevance of teaching undergraduates for the health of our democracy. We have lost confidence that what we do in teaching and research is inherently good, and not primarily a utilitarian occupation. We have lost the conviction that we have a calling, that as professors our duty is to profess.

We have also, manifestly, lost our sense of belonging to an ascertainable and manageable community of teacher-professors. Along the way, we have lost our commitment to the particular universities in which we work: We have become superprofessionals, committed to our research disciplines and organizations rather than to local teaching institutions. Of course, all of the commitments and values I have identified exist among today's professors. But they are not the norm.

So I want to ask, what does it mean to be a professor these days? That is not a question most of us who inhabit the professoriate give much thought to, if only because we are too busy being professors to contemplate our navels — or our profession. It is a question that was forced on my attention, however, by reading two recent public-opinion surveys investigating the reputation of professors and the academy.

Both the surveys showed that the general public has a strong favorable impression of higher education and its faculty members. One, conducted earlier this year for the American Council on Education, showed that 79 percent of the registered voters surveyed approved of "higher education in America." However, the other, a telephone survey last spring commissioned by the American Association of University Professors, revealed variation according to age, education, political party, and political ideology. It suggested that while more than 40 percent of the public has "a lot" of confidence in higher education, almost 49 percent has "only some" confidence. Both surveys also revealed public squeamishness about the ideological orientation of faculty members, and a majority of people (according to one survey) think that professors are, on the whole, too "liberal."

Professors thus probably pass the Ed Koch test ("How'm I doing?") with the public, although there are reasons for genuine concern. But the more interesting and important question is how we rate ourselves. Are we really doing so well?

That, I think, is a difficult question, in part because even though the general public may think of us as a unitary professoriate, a professorial class, we are in reality a highly variegated and not always well-interrelated set of subclasses. At best, we are united by a tenuous commonality of work experience as postsecondary teachers. Consider the most obvious subclasses (apart, for those who know it, from the complex Carnegie system of classification):

University professors include those who are primarily undergraduate teachers, those who teach graduate and professional students, and those who spend all or nearly all their time as researchers. They also include the large class of Ph.D.'s working primarily as university administrators, many of whom seldom see a classroom or laboratory. There are huge differences within each of those categories — between professors in market-driven fields (some of the sciences and professional schools, and some of the social sciences, especially economics) and the rest; between those at private and at public institutions; between those at research universities and at primarily teaching institutions. Professors at four-year liberal-arts colleges constitute another distinctive cohort, but their institutions vary greatly from the elite, purely liberal-arts colleges and the much larger group of colleges increasingly turning to pre-professional education.

There are adjunct faculty members who are paid by the course, and who should probably be thought of as a group of professors with their own identity and interests; independent scholars who earn their living outside the academy but nevertheless carry on (sometimes significant) academic careers. Then there is the huge class of professors who teach in two-year colleges, instructing almost half of American undergraduate students. A large proportion of those faculty members have Ph.D.'s, but many do not. They are not ordinarily expected to do research, and they do not always identify with academic disciplines.

And more. We have a growing community of professors who work for proprietary institutions; free-standing professional schools of theology, law, medicine, business; and so forth. And, let us not forget, there is a significant group of professors (I am thinking for the moment only of those holding the Ph.D.) in secondary education, some of whom conduct research and publish — in many countries around the world, such individuals are called "professors."

In each of those groups, some professors work full time and others part time; some are unionized and many are not; some are handsomely paid, while others barely eke out a living. I am sure that I have omitted some important groups, but the point is clear: The professoriate is a mansion of many rooms. It is very hard to say what it means to be "a professor" in the contemporary United States, and it is difficult to know whether there is still such a thing as "the professoriate."

While there never was a golden age, there surely was a distinctive era of the professoriate during the first half of the 20th century. It was an era characterized by a small but fairly coherent group of scholars trained at a few leading universities, committed both to one another and to the institutions in which they taught. I can still remember visiting my Harvard University graduate-school professor, the historian Frederick Merk, in his Widener Library office in the mid-1950s. His walls were covered with large oblong photographs of gentlemen in black-tie attire (and a handful of ladies in long dresses) at the formal dinners that concluded the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now, a sign of expansion, the Organization of American Historians). Just about every professor who taught American history at the postsecondary level belonged to the Mississippi Valley association and turned up for its dinner. There were a couple of hundred of them, and Mr. Merk knew them all. Today there are more than 9,000 members of the OAH, most of whom do not attend the annual meeting, and I know only a couple of hundred of them. But they are a wonderfully heterogeneous group in every respect, from demography to job descriptions — many of them teach in secondary schools and in community colleges, and certainly their faces are not all white. Their diversity enriches higher education and the history profession. The downside, of course, is that we have far less in common. It is not clear that we are a community in any strong sense.

Most of the contemporary academic disciplines emerged between 1870 and 1920, during the period in which the modern forms of classical higher education took shape. The training of Ph.D.'s in the disciplines provided the human resources for the universities that had evolved from the church-related colleges of the 19th century, and for the liberal-arts colleges that appeared alongside the universities. Doctoral students were broadly educated in their disciplines, examined on the full range of material in their areas. When I received my Ph.D., for instance, I was expected to be able to teach all of American and British history.

And there was not a great deal of job mobility — professors tended to remain in the service of their first employers. That made for institutional stability, with networking provided by the expanding group of national disciplinary organizations. Mr. Merk spent his entire teaching career at Harvard, and his professional world was the overlapping communities of Harvard and the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. I doubt that he ever felt any conflict between his double loyalties. Similarly, my philosopher father-in-law taught his entire career at Mount Holyoke College.

Interestingly, the pre-World War II professoriate was to some extent self-consciously constructed. As the 20th-century university emerged, Walter P. Metzger and Richard Hofstadter wrote in their classic 1955 work on The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, the academic profession took on "the character, aspirations, and standards of a learned profession." As it did so, organizational problems emerged that alarmed thoughtful academics. The creation of the American Association of University Professors in 1915 marked both the movement toward professionalization and its response to assaults upon professorial academic freedom and (even more important) conflicts between professors and those who managed their universities for the right to control academic decision making.

The great leader of the AAUP movement was John Dewey, who characterized the problem in his first address to the association: "We are in a period of intense and rapid growth of higher education. No minister of public education controls the growth; there is no common educational legislature to discuss and decide its proper course; no single tribunal to which moot questions may be brought. There are not even long-established traditions to guide the expansive growth. Whatever unity is found is due to the pressure of like needs, the influence of institutional imitation and rivalry, and to informal exchange of experience and ideas. These methods have accomplished great things," Dewey wrote. "But have we not come to a time when more can be achieved by taking thought together?" For Dewey, that was a political as well as professional point, for he believed strongly in the role of professions in sustaining democracy.

It is important to remember that the AAUP aspired to create and represent an academic community, and it helped to do so in its first decades. But the situation then was fairly static, and the community not large. The postwar boom in higher education, both in response to the GI Bill and to efforts to be competitive after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, changed everything, ushering in an era of exciting and much-needed new vitality. New institutions (and classes of institutions) were created, new disciplines and subdisciplines proliferated, research spending skyrocketed, and an entirely new infrastructure of research emerged. The brave new world of research universities burst upon the scene, with all of its tremendous potential for creating knowledge and teaching a larger and larger cohort of the general population. At the same time, what had been a WASP gentleman's profession began to be democratized, diversified, and internationalized. With expansion, however, Ph.D. training was also distributed across the country and became highly specialized. Job mobility became the norm rather than the exception, and commitment to national disciplinary and research organizations began to displace loyalty to employer institutions.

The reorientation of the profession from teachers to researchers and from local communities to national and international ones has had serious practical consequences. Since we have so little loyalty to our particular universities, we are less likely to serve them well, either in the classroom or in the performance of other necessary functions. The apparent disarray of the recent attempt at curricular reform at Harvard would seem to be an example of just that phenomenon. It was not at all clear that the Harvard faculty was committed to any change, and it was quite clear that it shared little in a way of common understanding of either curricular problems or possible solutions. Deans by themselves cannot create educational change.

Just as important, the current situation of the professoriate renders it difficult for us to develop and maintain either norms of conduct or of intellectual substance. The proliferation of controversies over academic misconduct, especially plagiarism, bears witness to the weakness of commonly accepted professional standards of behavior, as does the inability of professional associations in the humanities and social sciences to specify and adjudicate standards. And the more and more common intradisciplinary disputes over research methodology (witness recent debates about what counts as evidence in political science) demonstrate the centrifugal character of academic units. The center will not hold.

We simply share too little in terms of either background or experience with our colleagues, and frequently we are genuinely unable to understand where they are coming from. I fear that it may be fair to say that the AAUP itself suffers from this historical dilemma, since it seems to be trying to balance two (hugely important) issues — academic freedom and academic working conditions — rather than creating a Deweyesque single community of professors. But how could it now do otherwise?

Going back to the public-opinion surveys I mentioned at the outset, I certainly acknowledge that it matters deeply what the public thinks of us. Ours is a public profession. We serve society both by training its young (and, increasingly, its old) and by creating socially necessary knowledge. But in so doing we need to have our own standards and professional imperatives.

The public evidently still gives us high marks in meeting our goals. But it is troubling that so much of the public discussion seems to assume a uniform profession. Is it any wonder? I have become convinced that our most profound problems have to do with our unwillingness to inquire into our own situation. We cannot expect the public to understand the complexity of today's professoriate if we, ourselves, do not.

That is, we need to be clearer about how we see ourselves. For many of us, the academy provides such high pay and satisfying working conditions that the professoriate has become hard to distinguish from other highly professionalized work. Our professorial subgroups are islands, sufficient unto themselves. But isn't there some substantive core of academic professionalism that ought still unite us and give greater meaning to the underlying calling that we share? I would like to think that there is.

If I am correct that we are, professionally, "professors," then each of us, in whatever segment of the professoriate, has a duty to teach. At the very least, we need to ask whether teaching should not once again be the core of our mission, accepting that "teaching" is now a much more complex and variegated activity than it was a century ago. Granted, teaching is more central to the function of a liberal-arts, general-university, or community-college faculty member than it is for those at a research university, but in most academic disciplines we are training all faculty members as though they will inevitably become research-university professors — and few will. Those institutions in which teaching is the central faculty function need to be clear about that fact, and their faculties need to embrace it — although we should keep in mind that they could perform best if their institutions could provide adequate working conditions for them. And research-university faculty members must also accept that every one of them needs to teach and relate to students with the same passion that they bring to their labs and the library.

We need to ask whether our doctoral education has become so narrow that it can neither support broad-based research or train postsecondary teachers. Critics have long alleged that doctoral students know more and more about less and less. That is surely true, and not necessarily intellectually productive. But it is surely bad for the training of future college and university teachers. When the American Historical Association surveyed all of the nation's doctoral programs in history a few years ago, we discovered, to the horror of the investigating committee on which I served, that almost none of the departments examined had formal teacher-training regimens for doctoral candidates. As the recent and important Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (set up by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and on whose advisory committee I served) has shown, doctoral education is increasingly disrespectful both of the larger intellectual contours of the disciplines and the needs of future teacher-scholars. The reform of doctoral education may well be the crucial focal point for reforming the future professoriates.

We also need to inquire whether our university workplaces cannot once again be the centers of our activity, and whether, indeed, professional responsibility does not include responsibility to our institutions. The problem is not just that the continuing trend toward disciplinarity creates the staggering mobility available to the most-adept researchers and an upper-end professoriate of academic grasshoppers who have little familiarity with either the undergraduates or the future paths of graduate students at the particular way stations along their career route. The problem is also that even among faculty members with fewer prospects for upward professional mobility, many find that outside obligations erode their commitment to local institutions.

If we are to create the conditions in which dedicated teachers and institutional innovators can flourish, we must ask whether it is not possible to devise systems of promotion and reward that more fairly and effectively define the breadth of our educational goals. That, too, is a challenge for the professoriate. The reward structure in too many institutions serves the needs of the research community narrowly defined, but it is commonly recognized that it is dysfunctional for the other crucial functions of the professoriate. It prejudices teaching, community service, nontraditional scholarship, and, in general, academic risk taking. In the end, it is probably not nearly as efficient even for the promotion of research as is commonly assumed. This is the toughest challenge for reform in higher education, and we have put it off too long. If professors were more willing to be self-reflective about their roles and responsibilities, they might begin to meet the challenge. Again, this is the business of professors, not deans.

Nor can we address such issues fully and honestly if we don't ask whether we can expect adjunct professors who spend their time putting together a (poorly paid) career at multiple institutions to participate in any professional and institutional life; whether we are aware how the growth of all kinds of non-tenure-track positions affects our wider professional community (whether or not we, ourselves, have tenured jobs). These are questions of professional ethics, and also of institutional integrity. The professoriate should feel responsible for both.

I believe it all comes back to the values that Dewey espoused a century ago, and to the nature of the professions. Too frequently even the most thoughtful academics are fixated on academic freedom as the crucial challenge. Academic freedom — the freedom to teach and to learn — is central. But it must follow from an acceptance of the duties of professionalism. We have such academic "rights" only if we embrace the duties of a public profession — to instruct the untrained and to create knowledge. That includes the obligation to identify the standards by which practice can be assessed and to enforce adherence to them. Seen from that perspective, professionalism is the core of democratic behavior, since it entails the acceptance of the principled provision of public services, without which a modern democracy cannot be expected to succeed.

Addressing the challenge of professionalism is a huge task for the professoriates, and it must be a focus of our postsecondary institutions, disciplinary associations, higher-education associations, and other groups. But I think it can also at least begin in a simple place — with the willingness of senior members of the professoriate, especially in the elite universities on whom so many other institutions model their behavior, to reconceptualize and reconstruct the role of teacher-scholars and university citizens. All effective reform is local, and it begins with individuals.

The diversification of higher education has had innumerable benefits for society and the professoriates. We are now more diverse, more evenly spread around the country, more capable of performing diverse tasks, and in some ways more robust. But for me, what we have gained through the breathtaking expansion of higher education does not make up for what we have lost. I know that what I regret we have abandoned may seem both nostalgic and elitist. But I would like us to consider whether there are not recoverable values and practices in the world that we have lost — and also new ones more appropriate to the 21st-century professoriate. Shouldn't we at least be asking Dewey's question: "But have we not come to a time when more can be achieved by taking thought together?"

Stanley N. Katz is lecturer with the rank of professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies.

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Review
Section: The Chronicle Review

Volume 53, Issue 7, Page B8

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Professoriate: taking thought together?
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