Faculty are ‘weird’ and Students need them to be

By Guest Contributor Richard J Peltz Steele.

When I left law practice to teach, I knew little to nothing about faculty governance and academic freedom. The dean who hired me, Rodney K. Smith—now professor and director of the Sports Law and Business Program at the O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University—is a person of the utmost integrity from whom I learned a lot about leadership and the business of higher education.

When I was a green, 26-year-old instructor of law, I remember, I was joined at lunch by Dean Smith. I couldn’t bring myself to call him “Rod,” even when everyone else did, and it still sounds odd to me, decades later. Sometimes Dean Smith ate lunch with the crew of us who ate in the faculty lounge, a “king incognito” kind of thing, but, I think, totally genuine.

Dean Smith wanted to know how things were going in the new job. We chatted a bit about classes, teaching, students. He asked something about my interests in terms of developing new programs at the law school. I said something about being willing to do whatever he needed me to, because “you’re the boss.”

“No, I’m not,” he retorted quickly. And he waited for me to react in that MBTI-sensing-personality way that we Ns always find really aggravating.
That he was the boss seemed self-evident to me. In my law firm, all partners were the boss, and they could scream and yell or hop up and down or throw papers around or pretty much do whatever they wanted, and we associates were supposed to act like that was totally normal and appropriate. So this challenge to the natural order of things really made no sense to me.

“You’re the boss,” he added, as if that cleared things up. I was pretty sure that when I was hired, he had told me how much I would be paid. If things in fact were the other way around, I had really sold myself short.

“I work for you,” he said with the finality with which one tells a hard-headed child “because I said so.”

It took me a long time to wrap my mind around his meaning. When I had evaluation meetings with Dean Smith his tack was always “what can I be doing for you?,” to make me better able to do my job—teaching, research, and service. That was new for me.

As the First Amendment is part of my media law portfolio, and academic freedom is an aspect of the freedom of expression, I have, since that day at lunch with Rod Smith in January 1998, spent some part of my academic life studying the history, law, and policy of academic freedom and its partner principle, faculty governance.

I thought of this at a recent Faculty Federation meeting when President Cathy Curran, in describing the particular challenge of drafting HR policies that apply to faculty, said that faculty are “weird.”

We are weird. And it’s not something that’s well understood outside academia, nor by the students we serve, nor by administrators and staff.

Faculty are weird in a way that is critical to institutional governance, to student learning, and moreover to our society—not just American society, but human society. If the organization of human civilization is built upon a search for truth in a free market of ideas, and the university is “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” as Justice Brennan wrote, then the independence of faculty inquiry is essential to improvement of the human condition. That notion underpinned the constituting principle of academic freedom in the original universitas in 13th-century Bologna. And it’s only more true, more important, in the 21st-century information age.

Faculty governance of the academic enterprise is a corollary. As former Federation President Susan Krumholz aptly recalled at the same meeting, the administration of a university—from deans and provosts to chancellors and president—work for the faculty.

Yes, the administration manages budget, payroll, and enrollment, all things that might constrain faculty freedom. That’s the weird part. But it must not be forgotten that those functions exist only to empower faculty, whose ultimate mission is to seek truth and to inculcate students in that same pursuit.

Dean Smith was right, and the intervening years have only added to the urgency of his assertion. In an environment of higher ed financial crisis, burgeoning staff-to-faculty ratios, escalating student debt, and rampant bureaucratic overreach in the guises of assessment and accountability, we lose touch with the essential, classical purpose of the university at our own peril.

 

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