“Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”
The idea at the core of this quote has been rehashed so often and by so many public figures that it’s now difficult to be certain of its origins (Woodrow Wilson?). But the relevance and longevity of the quote likely owes less to the actual insignificance of the debates in higher education, than its unrestrained quality. We have a tendency in higher education to not hold back.
There is no end to the topics worth debating: rising costs in higher education (and who’s to blame), identity politics, the “adjunctification” of academic labor, and rising calls for accountability, to name but a few. The role of educational technology is now a frequent focus.
There’s more of it, too. The Internet has dramatically increased the number of venues to facilitate debate. And just as importantly, its’ allowed many of the interactions between warring camps to be anonymous – a perfect recipe.
Faculty v. Administration
Debate in higher education is frequently organized along the lines of faculty versus administration. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and the differences are striking.
More often than not, the context for public debate favors academics. The rules of engagement and the skills required to compete effectively suit them well.
Academics tend to be granted more freedom to publicly and passionately weigh-in on issues pertaining to higher education. Of course, serving as public intellectuals is considered part of the job – although only a fraction of academics do this regularly. The opportunity to speak-up is not limited to the academic’s area of expertise (e.g. neuro-engineering), but includes anything related to the institution. And when they do speak, it’s as individuals, buffered by academic freedom, not as representatives of an institution.
It’s not surprising, then, that academics feel able to speak from the heart and with more passion, which in turn tends to generate more attention and, amongst audiences with limited knowledge of the topic under discussion, passion, certainty and the title of “professor” is often more than what is required to be perceived as in-the-know.
Not least important, academics tend to be very good at debating. It’s a core skill of the occupation and I think, as a group, they may be more comfortable with the flurry and exchange of ideas than almost any other category of professionals.
Administrators, on the other hand, are expected to be far more circumspect in their public statements. When they speak publicly they are representing an entire organization, unlike academics. Nor do administrators have the protection of academic freedom. Not surprisingly, administrators are often less skilled at debate.
Administrators may be at a disadvantage, then, given the rules of engagement that structure public debates. This isn’t to suggest that administrators are powerless. Indeed, I think it’s safe to assume that administrators have more power and universities are “more manageable” than a quarter century ago, much to chagrin of most academics. But this increased power may not be a result of administration’s effectiveness at public debate.
Having said this, both faculty and administrators are operating within a broader social and political climate that limits thoughtful debate. We seem to have less patience for nuanced arguments, quicker to publicly shame people we disagree with, and more anxious about offending others (and lawsuits). Freedom to speak honestly and accurately, regardless of your views or the position you hold, improves the quality and value of debate for everyone. At a time when the issues shaping higher education are more important than ever, we can’t afford to suppress conversation further.
Mary Lewis, PhD, Professor of History at Harvard has been compiling a list of interesting articles that concern key subjects of debate in higher education. Available here.
Keith Hampson PhD is part of the team at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture.