DEAR GAIL THAIN PARKER,
As I read The Writing on the Wall , it is mostly an open letter to college professors, so here's an open letter back to you, from a reader and, as it happens, a college professor -- with some experiences like your own. I too went into administration after a few years of teaching. I was impatient for change and wanted to help make it happen. I too spent four frustrating years on this project, though my post as associate provost at Wesleyan was not so exalted as yours as president at Bennington, nor my departure so dramatic. (Another difference is that 10 years ago I stepped back into the snugness of professorial tenure, while you, the dust jacket laconically informs me, are living in Vermont.) You've apparently read the book I wrote in post-administrative anger. Now I've read yours.
The likeness of our experiences may explain why I so often found myself nodding an enthusiastic endorsement to your acerbic and urgently delivered reflections on the sad state of academe today. The problems, you say, are part of the innate conservatism of collegial institutions and are perpetuated by self-serving professors. Yes, I agree "the instant and imitative traditionalism of the academic community has itself become a tradition, reflected not only in campus architecture but in the habits of mind of the academics themselves."
Yes, one does hear a lot about trying to do it the way it's done at Harvard or Stanford or wherever, and we academics do congratulate ourselves on our courageous iconoclasm while at the same time claiming social respect and special treatment by virtue of our priestly relation to eternal values. And admittedly we often, as you claim, refuse "to see that the particular forms characterizing American higher education today grew out of specific historical contexts" -- contexts which within the next 20 years will have changed so that citizens may be less willing to pay for our privileges, however ingeniously we manage to garble the rhetoric of eternal verities with that of job training.
And yes, we want it proclaimed that we are "a national treasure," as Dean Henry Rosovsky recently wrote of his Harvard faculty. We academics want it acknowledged that we are the university, yet, you're right, we very much do not want the responsibility of making the hard choices -- of budgeting, of institutional change -- that might make the university a creative force in hard times to come. You're right: we faculty cede power by default to our managers, then complain like the devil when they make educational choices as if they were businss choices -- which of course they in part are. So we go on fussing with minor adjustments in the curriculum more as a PR effort than as an attempt at "fostering critical intelligence" among our students and ourselves. As a result nothing much changes, except in response to economic and political forces outside the university.
I don't like the present balance of those forces anymore than you do. But I wonder if the kind of change you want in higher education can ever happen except through pressure from external forces -- when and if those forces are driven by democracy rather than profit. To suggest as you do that "only the professors . . . can restore the integrity of the higher learning" (and this after demonstrating through 180 pages that the actions of professors reflect only self interest) strikes me as a bit sanguine. Isn't it like saying that only doctors can create cheap and equal medical care?
I share your analysis of the problem. Its root is that we in higher education serve a "job-screening function in American society." We help reproduce the class system with our right hand, and it's hard to keep the left hand free to foster critical intelligence. We are not independent intellectuals floating somewhere above the economic system: we're part of it. From that truth follows the academic craziness you anatomize, and, in my view, solutions to that craziness can't ignore that fact.
To get rid of the B.A. as a credential, as you suggest we do, would be to retire our best selling product line from the shelves. To de-emphasize the PhD as a qualification for college teaching would be to give up the claim that we are professionals who deserve special privileges. In effect, we would be saying that our work is not necessarily grounded in a body of knowledge and method of which we are the only qualified dustodians; we'd be saying that anyone can teach. And to abolish tenure, as you also suggest, would be to throw away one of those special privileges that we've won through 100 years of billing ourselves as professionals and convincing the public that they can't do without our services. Not a chance.
The free flow of people between universities and the world outside, for which you convincingly argue, will not happen, I believe, through the agency of professors who have given up mandarin claims to superior wisdom and to freedom from accountability. It will happen, if at all, when there are no special privileges to be fought over, when job security and respect and critical throught are everyone's right. I know, it sounds as utopian as your scheme. But there are ways to aim for it. One is to make alliance with, not war on, other workers. Another is in our teaching and writing to ask "impertinent questions" (your phrase) about American society. Many of us are ready for that. Sincerely, Richard Ohmann