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Wake-up call for academia

Academic Duty, by Donald Kennedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997, 310 pp.

William W. May

Academic Duty is an important book. It provides a corrective to what Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, points to as the academy's one-sided focus: academic freedom and rights at the expense of academic obligations and responsibilities. The book is structured around chapters dealing with eight dimensions of faculty responsibilities, but it is much more than a manual on academic duties. Rather, it may be seen as a wake-up call, beckoning those in the academy to understand and take their responsibilities seriously or risk jeopardizing an already fragile institution. Indeed, Kennedy's challenge to faculty is placed in the context of public concern, discontent, anger, and mistrust with and about higher education.

Kennedy bluntly states how important the faculty is: "In the way they function, universities are, for most purposes, the faculty." Still, it is clear that the book is also targeting another audience. Parents, legislators, trustees, and prospective trustees will find it a first-rate introduction to what is valued by faculty and how colleges and universities are organized and governed. In an introductory section, he gives a brief overview of the history and development of higher education in the United States and addresses the contemporary situation, post-1970, which has been characterized by tight budgets, an aging professorate, and tight job markets. Interested people or observers of higher education can also find out about governance (chapter 5), the role of research (chapter 6), indirect costs in funding (chapter 6), and academic tenure (chapter 5).

What are the duties?

Kennedy writes that "much of academic duty resolves itself into a set of obligations that professors owe to others: to their undergraduate students, to the more advanced scholars they train, to their colleagues, to the institutions with which they are affiliated, and to the larger society." He develops these duties in chapters entitled "To Teach," "To Mentor," "To Serve the University," "To Discover," "To Publish," "To Tell the Truth," "To Reach Beyond the Walls," and "To Change."

"Responsibility to students is at the very core of the university's mission and of the faculty's academic duty," Kennedy writes. Yet the public is beginning to question the university's commitment to this mission, and many faculty are unprepared for or unclear about their obligations to students. Although students expect faculty to be engaged in teaching, faculty often focus more on scholarly endeavors.

Much of the blame for this situation can be found in the nature of graduate student training. In research universities, where faculty throughout higher education are trained, students hone their skills in research in specialized fields. Then, as newly appointed faculty members, they quickly learn that their primary focus must be on research and publication in order to secure tenure. This intense focus on research, frequently lasting for more than 10 years, makes it unlikely that faculty are suddenly going to change their orientation toward undergraduate teaching, mentoring, and advising.

Except for setting teaching loads, many institutions say little about what faculty members owe their students. "The very fact that 'professional responsibility' is taught to everyone in the university except those headed for the academic profession is a powerful message in itself," Kennedy writes. And the expectations of citizenship are set very low. Until the reward system in terms of tenure, promotion, and salary increments recognizes teaching more fully, the incentive to maintain the status quo will be strong.

Teaching values

In examining the important and controversial question of what to teach, Kennedy focuses in particular on criticism that universities fail to teach values. He asserts that values are important, referring, as I understand him, to basic democratic values such as respect for persons, liberty, equality, justice for all, and fairness. He makes two important points. First, he distinguishes between values and conduct. Referring to a statement made by William Bennett about getting drugs off campus, Kennedy argues that such efforts concern the regulation of conduct, not values. Correct. Second, he stresses the importance of students encountering different traditions and modes of reasoning as the basis for forming their own values. (Elsewhere in the book, he also emphasizes the importance of teaching critical thinking and analysis, a position with which most academics feel comfortable.)

Space does not permit comment on each of the duties addressed by Kennedy, but I will focus on two that struck me as having special significance. The chapter in which Kennedy's passionate concern is most evident is "To Tell the Truth." Returning to the theme of the university and public mistrust, he says that "higher education's fall from grace in the past decade" has resulted partially from research misconduct. The resultant media attention, congressional hearings, and personal attacks within the academic community have caused severe damage.

Kennedy reviews some well-known cases, including those of Robert Gallo, Mikulas Popovic, and David Baltimore, and argues that the academic community to date has failed to deal well with the research misconduct issue. Scientists have been either too tolerant or silent in the face of misconduct or careless in their analysis and judgments, he believes. In turn, universities, with their too private and too nonadversarial internal processes, have erred in two directions: They have been "overly protective of [their] own faculty . . . or overly responsive to external cries for a scalp." Government investigations, aided by panels of scientists, and prosecution efforts have been ineffective as well, he says.

The upshot is that careers and reputations have been badly and unfairly damaged. Redress of these wrongs has come too late and has often been inadequate. Kennedy suggests that appropriate procedures will have to evolve. Surprisingly, he recommends-contrary to almost all university grievance procedures-early participation by legal counsel and an opportunity to challenge witnesses.

Another chapter that deserves mention is "To Reach Beyond the Walls," in which Kennedy promotes technology transfer as the newest academic duty. Fulfilling this duty, however, has created some complex conflict of interest problems regarding patenting, limits on faculty obligations to their institutions, and appropriate compensation levels. Kennedy's discussion of the issues involved usefully demonstrates how new duties raise new problems. This theme is picked up in the final chapter on the duty to change.

Minor flaws

Although Academic Duty is a timely and thoughtful commentary on the current state of higher education, it doesn't sufficiently address three areas. First, the book is primarily focused on research universities. Although Kennedy tries to include a discussion of liberal arts colleges, state colleges, and community colleges, his analysis is understandably based on his experiences during almost four decades at Stanford. The emphasis on classroom teaching and mentoring, the concept of faculty loads, and the basis for tenure decisions are substantially different in many of the nonresearch-based institutions. Accordingly, faculty in those institutions respond to different expectations and reward systems.

Second, the book is too heavily weighted toward science, Kennedy's field of work. Yet there are important differences between science and the humanities and social sciences that affect how graduates think about undergraduate teaching. For example, many science graduate students are financially supported by research grants; students in the humanities and many of the social sciences, by teaching assistantships. As a result, while science students are working as lab assistants, other graduate students are assisting in and teaching undergraduate courses. In the best assistantship arrangements, the beginning graduate student works with a professor in an apprentice relationship, learns how to mentor in discussion sessions and while providing guidance on term paper development, and anticipates that teaching will be a major part of his or her professional responsibilities. Indeed, many humanities students find the teaching and mentoring experiences much more rewarding than research and thus decide to focus their careers on teaching.

Finally, Kennedy's discussion of academic freedom and academic duty as counterparts is a stretch. He correctly points out that "academic freedom refers to the insulation of professors and their institutions from political interference." He adds, again correctly, that there is too much talk about academic freedom and not enough about academic duty. But I disagree with his suggestion that faculty have neglected their academic duties because of the focus on academic freedom. Although many of the duties that he enunciates are "vague and obscure," I think that the reasons have little to do with claims of academic freedom. Kennedy acknowledges that the focus on research at the expense of teaching is rooted in the nature of graduate training, not academic freedom. A different set of problems are raised about mentoring, but again they are not based on academic freedom. The problems cited in serving the university and publishing also have many sources other than academic freedom.

Academic Duty can profitably be read by people both inside and outside of the academy. The author knows educational institutions, and, from his rich experience as president of Stanford, he engages the reader in a critical discussion about our obligations to both students and society.

William W. May is associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California.