Liberal Education

Presidents' Message: Disciplining Virtues

Caryn McTighe Musil 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 the academy.

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.

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