Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tenure and Academic Freedom

One of the comments on my post about ending the university as we know it, written by an old friend who is an academic librarian in South Carolina, brushes past my glib assumption that ending tenure is a silly idea and argues that tenure isn't necessary, that it lulls professors into early retirement, that a competitive market would be more productive, and that "historically it's done a lousy job of protecting radically outspoken critics from within the academy."

If we're talking about really radical critics (most recently, for instance, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado), I guess I would agree. But that's not the end of the story. The fact that BYU, my former employer, did not fire me over the 11 years during which I was a more and more outspoken critic, I attribute entirely to the fact that I had tenure. And in my work with the American Association of University Professor over two decades, most of it having to do with challenging administrative decisions that failed to provide due process or to share governance with faculty members, having tenure always put us on more firm footing vis a vis the administrator, serving as a lever in our negotiations, reminding the "administration" that their position at a university is only one of several, and certainly not the most important or essential one.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

End the University as We Know It?

Mark Taylor's recent essay in the New York Times raises a dizzying and sometimes ditzy (abolish  tenure as well as specialized dissertations???) set of issues. At one point he suggests turning disciplinary graduate and undergraduate programs into interdisciplinary groups:

The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

So far so good. Project-driven collaborative work makes good sense from the undergraduate classroom to the interdisciplinary evaluations that go on each morning in the local hospital. We named our Integrated Studies journal "Intersections" with precisely this in mind: multiple perspectives and approaches converge to create unexpected solutions.

What Mr. Taylor forgets is that perspectives and approaches come from disciplinary training. For his Water project, as he notes, he'll need trained hydrologists, legal experts, political scientists, and so on. Where will these people come from if the Department of Earth Studies and the law school have been abolished?

In our Program in Integrated Studies, we struggle with this conundrum every day. As our senior theses demonstrate again and again (at least the best of them), coming at a single problem from the perspectives of two different disciplines proves very fruitful. But our worst theses also prove that coming at a single problem without good tools learned in disparate disciplines is an exercise in futility.