Liberal Education, Fall 2003
Presidents' Message: Disciplining Virtues
by Caryn McTighe Musil, who served as interim
president of AAC&U while Carol Geary Schneider was
on a short professional leave. She contributed this
President's Message during that time.
I was a faculty member for sixteen years before I made the
transition to national higher education associations. While
I have loved this work, there are days when I still miss the
magical exchange that only occurs in a classroom. On e-mail-clogged
days in my office, I still ache for the crisp intellectual
discipline of preparing for a class or the rigor of wrestling
a research question into some coherent argument. However,
when I read Martin Finkelstein's lead article, "The Morphing
of the American Academic Profession," I had second thoughts.
His analysis describes an academy that is being altered at
its very core, buffeted by the gravitational pull of market
forces. My own memories of my teaching days suddenly made
me feel as if I were the aging Ebenezer Scrooge who--with
the help of the Ghost of Christmas past--indulged nostalgically
in remembering the happy days of his youth when he worked
for Mr. Fezziwig. Dickens describes with precision how Fezziwig's
world, located as it was on the cusp of the industrial revolution,
is inevitably swept away by the mercantilism of the nineteenth
century. Both a way of life and a set of communal values evaporate
with his demise. When Scrooge is lured away by the more profitable,
"modern" firm of Fezziwig's competitor, he doesn't simply
change jobs; he changes his core commitments.
That is the possibility for higher education that I conjured
from reading Finkelstein's article. He carefully takes us
through the "seismic economic realignments" of our current
revolution, one spurred by globalization and the market, where
higher education is no longer seen as a public good but rather
a private one. Denied public support--some state institutions
receive as little as 8 percent of their budgets from public
funds--colleges have had to become entrepreneurial to survive.
The academy thus becomes subject to familiar business practices:
reducing labor costs, shrinking worker protections, developing
a contingent labor force, for example. Is there no alternative
to reconfiguring faculty work as a "delivery system" made
ever more efficient and nimble in serving its "customers"?
If one goes back to A Christmas Carol, the vantage
point of history is instructive. The industrial revolution
that swept Fezziwig's world away was indeed irreversible.
Its economic force transformed society. But its excesses,
which at one point seemed an inevitable part of its ascendancy,
were eventually curbed, not by a competing economic force
but by a set of values. People eventually organized collectively
and used political processes for the common good. But market
forces are not natural events. They are structured ones, driven
by human beings not hurricanes. In this issue, the disciplining
virtues that promise to offer a countervailing force are either
implicit or emerge with startling collective reiteration,
and they are virtues that reassert the public purposes of
Susan Traverso evokes the language of "shared community,"
"reciprocal obligations," and "civic professionals." Similarly,
as James Pence describes the occupation and vocation of an
academic dean, he quotes John Tagg's vision of a "purposeful
community of practice" where people "form and shape a holistic
vision of the institution they want to become." At Franklin
and Marshall College, Joseph Voelker and John Campbell explain
how their college reorganized general education around the
school's core civic mission and asked, "What kind of citizen
might a liberal arts curriculum produce?" KerryAnn O'Meara,
Regina Kaufman, and Aaron Kuntz propose an operating set of
values governing institutional life even in the face of anxious
and insecure times.
And finally, Nate Olson, the undergraduate who closes the
issue, repeats the language of stewardship that Finkelstein
cites as what the profession holds in trust as its basic responsibility.
Olson shows that it is liberal learning that spawns disciplining
virtues powerful enough to propel us from passive surrender
to ethical activism. "We are all trustees of the earth," he
asserts, and "we are all trustees of one another."
It is possible, then, to do more than simply submit to market
forces in our academic institutions. We can also shape, curb,
and discipline them--inspired by virtues of interdependence
rather than superiority, collective well-being rather than
individual ascendancy, and mutual obligation rather than personal
acquisitiveness. "We've tied education to the free market
rather than to democracy," Judith White of Duke University
said in a conversation the other day. This issue of Liberal
Education suggests to me that a different, realigned
role for faculty is possible.
I have a daughter who is a third-year doctoral student. She
has already been seduced by the magic engagement of minds
and hearts searching for clarity and conviction in the classroom.
She is not simply following in the wake of globalization's
tidal wave; she is riding the wave of change as she uses the
power of analysis and investigation to understand and discipline
those forces. Like Nate Olson, she gives me hope that a new
academic and social compact is possible. Fezziwig's firm may
be obliterated, but not the core commitments that sustain
communal civic life. The latter offers the disciplining virtues
that can guide higher education's necessary transformation,
not in Christmas past but for the future.