What goes into the social contract between higher education and the society it serves?
Our work as individual professors and as members of the "faculty" requires a high degree of autonomy. This professional independence that we enjoy individually through academic freedom and collectively through peer review anil shared governance arises from asocial contract, a tacit agreement with the public about the contribution of our nation's colleges and universities to the common good. But that social contract cannot be taken for granted; it must be renewed in each generation of the profession. In the United States today, we are failing to teach our newer colleagues about their responsibilities under this social contract, an oversight that will have real consequences for the autonomy of our profession. In this article, 1 will explore the threats to academic autonomy and suggest steps toward renewing the social contract on which our profession depends.
We are in a period of intense technological, economic, and social change that is altering the social contract for higher education. Who would have predicted in the late 1960s, for example, that over the following thirty years, the number of part-time faculty appointments would increase by 164 percent at universities, 236 percent at other four-year institutions, and 801 percent at two-year col leges (compared with increases of only 59 percent, 36 percent, and 55 percent in full-time faculty positions at the same types of institutions in the same period)? Who could have known then that by fall 2003, 34.8 percent of all full-time faculty members would be in non-tenure-track positions, or that 58.6 percent of all newly hired full-time faculty started in non-lenure-track positions?1
What will the academic profession look like if we stay on this trajectory for another decade? If these trends continue, a scarcity of full-lime tenure-eligible professors will prevent faculty from carrying out peer review and shared governance effectively anywhere except perhaps at elite universities and liberal arts colleges.
Since the late 1800s, the peer-review professions in the United States have gradually worked out stable social contracts with the public in both custom and law. The public grants a profession autonomy to regulate itself through peer review, expecting its members to control entry into the profession and to set standards for how individual professionals perform their work. In return, the members of the profession agree to meet certain fiduciary duties to the public: to restrain self-interest to serve the public purpose of the profession, to promote the ideals and core values of the profession, and to maintain high standards of minimum competence and ethical conduct. The profession's ability to regulate itself translates into substantial autonomy and discretion for individual professionals. The public purposes served by the professions include justice, for the legal profession; health, for the medical profession; and knowledge creation and dissemination, for the professoriate.
Of course, professions can be structured according to different models to maximize benefits to society. In a market-driven model, society would trust the market, and the peer-review professions would no longer be permitted to set rules for, discipline, or license members of the professions or otherwise restrict entry into the professions. Under such a model, members of a peer-review profession would not differ from individuals in other occupations in terms of their dedication to self-interest, and they could expect to be subject to government regulation to protect the public from the excesses of self-interest rather than being trusted to regulate themselves.
The social contract that has historically governed the peer-review professions is premised on the public's trust that a profession and its individual members are serious about professionalism. High degrees of professionalism build confidence in the social contract. Failures of professionalism undermine the social contract. As William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, points out in his 2005 book, Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America, the public has a continuing interest in whether members of a peer-review profession abuse their professional autonomy to serve private advantage.
The Social Contract
University and college boards of trustees and regents represent society in the social contract between the public and the academic profession. The AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure provides that the boards "are trustees for the public."
In outlining the social contract, the 1915 Declaration declares:
It is conceivable that our profession may prove unworthy of its high calling, and unfit to exercise the responsibilities that belong to it. . . . And the existence of this Association . . . must be construed as a pledge, not only that the profession will earnestly guard those liberties without which it cannot rightly render its distinctive and indispensable service to society, but also that it will with equal earnestness seek to maintain such standards of professional character, and of scientific integrity and competency, as shall make it a fit instrument for that service.
The social contract grants individual professors and the faculty as a group particular rights of professional autonomy: academic freedom and peer review. As the U.S. tradition of academic freedom evolved over the past century, university and college boards-acknowledging the importance of freedom of inquiry and speech to the university's unique mission of creating and disseminating knowledge-granted exceptional rights of vocational freedom of speech to professors in research, teaching, and extramural utterance. These rights depended on two conditions: that individual professors meet correlative duties of professional competence and ethical conduct and that the faculty, as a collegial body, assume the duty of peer review to enforce the obligations to be met by individual professors.
This tradition of peer review of professional competence and ethical conduct is the linchpin of academic freedom in the United States. Tenure, from a legal standpoint, is a bargained-for protection against disciplinary sanctions without sufficient cause; the burden of proof in faculty discpline rests on the employer. Many public employees who are not faculty members also have tenure. The key difference is that in higher education, peers make the initial judgments about sanctions for professional misconduct, and their judgments are supposed to be given deference. This is academic due process. Shared governance is a natural consequence of peer review. The board defers to the faculty's expert judgments concerning competence and ethics, not just on matters of academic due process, but also in areas such as curriculum, hiring, promotion and tenure, post-tenure review, and standards of faculty and student performance.
The profession's failure to socialize new faculty members in the ethics of duty has resulted in problems. "Faculty Conduct: An Empirical Study of Ethical Activism," published in the March-April 1999 issue of the Journal of Higher Education, describes a national survey of ethical violations among faculty in the late 1990s. Sixty-five percent of female faculty members and 51 percent of male faculty reported some or a great deal of faculty misconduct on campuses. Respondents characterized 31 percent of faculty complaints about other faculty members' conduct as "very serious."
In June 2005, Nature published a major study of a broad range of questionable research practices based on self-reports from a large and representative sample of early and midcareer scientists. The study concluded that mundane misbehavior presents a greater threat to the scientific enterprise than high-profile misconduct cases such as fraud.
The respondents reported a lower but still significant level of serious misconduct in the previous three years, including such lapses as falsifying research data (0.3 percent) and using another's ideas without obtaining permission or giving due credit (1.7 percent). They reported a higher incidence of other misconduct, such as failing to present data that contradict the researchers' own previous findings (6 percent) and changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source (15.5 percent). Nearly all studies of these issues focus on the sciences, but why would professional misconduct be less common in the social sciences or the humanities?
The limited work that has been done on faculty misconduct focuses mostly on research, but one study addresses the incidence of misconduct in teaching. Based on a sample of 4,200 undergraduates at fourteen colleges and universities, higher education researchers John M. Braxton and Melinda R. Mann report in a chapter in the 2004 book Addressing Faculty and Student Classroom Improprieties that 19-6 percent of the respondents in the study said they had had instructors who had not planned their teaching properly, 5 percent had teachers who showed favoritism in grading, 5 percent had professors who showed condescending negativism toward students, and 1.8 percent experienced breaches of norms against moral turpitude. These data indicate that we cannot rely on osmotic diffusion of academic tradition from one generation to the next to produce clear understandings among faculty of the social contract, academic freedom, peer review, shared governance, and faculty professionalism.
Some evidence suggests that faculty members realize the importance of education about professional ethics. In "Ethical Problems in Academic Research," published in the November-December 1993 issue of American Sciential, researchers Judith P. Swazey, Melissa S. Anderson, and Karen Seashore Lewis report that a survey of research misconduct found that 88 percent of faculty respondents and 82 percent of graduate students surveyed believed that "ethical preparedness" training should be an important part of their academic departments and universities. Paradoxically, the survey also found that "only a minuscule proportion (4 percent of faculty members and 3 percent of students) thought that their departments actually take a very active role in this area."
Each generation of the profession has an obligation to demonstrate to those representing the public-the government and university and college boards (and, practically speaking, the boards' senior advisers in the administration)-that the profession is honoring the principles of professionalism and deserves autonomy. All the peer-review professions carry the same burden with respect to protecting professional autonomy with their employer (including inhouse lawyers) and the government. Significant evidence suggests that some federal government agencies and many boards believe that U.S. faculty have not on their own initiative adequately maintained standards of professionalism, and some boards and governmental agencies have acted to reduce professional autonomy. For example:
* The federal government has mandated that universities that accept federal research funds must address research misconduct.
* Many boards have concluded that full-time tenure-track faculty are the problem. Changing market conditions, they argue, call for more "flexibility" in the workforce. Many institutions have undertaken a sweeping reconfiguration of academic appointments away from tenure-track positions. Two-year institutions are now largely staffed by part-time faculty, and many four-year institutions are moving toward having a majority of non-tenure-track appointments.
* Part-time and non-tenure-track full-time appointments (contingent positions) not only provide significantly less professional autonomy to individual faculty members, but they also reduce the professional autonomy of the faculty as a group. Turnover among contingent faculty is high. They receive little or no commitment from their employing institutions and must accept heavy teaching or research loads. At the same time, they get scant collegial support from their tenure-track colleagues, and they are much more vulnerable to coercion from students, full-time faculty colleagues, administrative leaders, and forces outside the university. Because they have little or no opportunity to be involved in peer review or shared governance, their remaining full-time tenure-track colleagues must shoulder heavier burdens.2 When the number of full-time tenure-track faculty members falls below a critical mass at a particular institution, effective peer review and shared governance is impossible.
* Some boards think faculty shared governance causes faculty to move too slowly on issues presented by the board. When it takes faculty a long time to reach a decision, boards can lose confidence that the faculty can respond within what board members consider reasonable time frames, leading to reduced consultation with the faculty.
* The recent report of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education emphasizes the need for accountability measures for the university and professoriate. It seems highly likely that accountability measures imposed to control costs and to measure student performance will reduce professional autonomy.
Responding to Change
Institutions of higher education, like other organizations and enterprises, operate in an increasingly dynamic environment. Boards and academic leaders must respond to changes in society's needs or put their institutions at risk. Governments, as sources of funds and loans, also must take such changes into account. The dynamic forces that universities and the professoriate must address are substantial.
Technology will continue to advance rapidly and to affect how knowledge is created, disseminated, and learned. Universities will face intensifying competition. Traditional institutions will compete with one another to attract leading scholars, grants, gifts, rankings, and high-achieving students (principally through tuition discounting). They will also face competition from the continuing expansion of for-profit higher education and from foreign universities that will, over the next ten years, market themselves more aggressively to U.S. students. In addition, parents and students, who have an increasingly consumer-oriented attitude toward higher education, are demanding more luxurious housing, exercise facilities, and other student services.
Another force affecting higher education is increasing corporate funding for research, which will augment efforts to control the processes and results of research and, at the same time, decrease state funding. Higher education can also anticipate the introduction of more accountability measures (this may be the age of accountability). Calls to control costs and demonstrate results will rise dramatically because of the increasing importance of higher education for entry into all of the professions and much of the rest of the knowledge economy.
Universities must respond to these changes, even if they try only to change the perceptions of the public or students (for example, by deemphasizing the importance of university rankings, such as those published by U.S. News and World Report). Faculty must help their institutions. In periods of dynamic change, it is particularly important for peer-review professions to focus on generational renewal of the social contract in ways that respond to challenges and build public trust in the professions.
Erosion of Autonomy
As I noted previously, a peer-review profession's social contract is premised on the public's trust that the profession honors the principles of professionalism in the actions of both individual professionals and the peer group. If the public comes to believe that the profession is not honoring these principles, the publie's representatives restructure the social contract to reduce professional autonomy.
That is what happened to the medical profession. Over the past thirty years, society has sought to control the growth of medical expenditures after the profession proved unable to do so. The public redrew the social contract, reducing professional autonomy and subjecting physicians to much higher degrees of accountability by government, insurers, and managed-care employers.
In the realm of higher education, governments and the boards must respond to failures of faculty professionalism and the dynamic changes I have outlined above. If professors decline to assist in addressing failures of professionalism and dynamic change, they will undermine the social contract.
Some changes-for example, technological advances that affect research, teaching, and learning-are inevitable. But faculty could deal with these changes in a way that would strengthen rather than erode the social contract and our professional autonomy. The profession has a responsibility proactively to renew the social contract in each generation, demonstrating to boards and the government that we merit the public's trust because of our commitment to the profession's public purposes and our professionalism in responding to dynamic change.
Many faculty members do not understand the social contract or our correlative duties of professionalism. Those who do must make sure new and veteran faculty members, as well as boards and administrative leaders, are educated about the social contract, academic freedom, peer review, shared governance, and professionalism. Conversations about these issues among different constituencies would build the trust required to take the risks necessary to respond to institutional challenges.
All the peer-review professions are struggling to socialize their members in terms of the social contract and professionalism. We can learn what works from one another. As scholars, we often criticize the ethical failings of other professions and business. But are we as a profession modeling the ethical socialization that we want to occur in all the other professions and occupations?
Although calls for more accountability in higher education are everywhere, professors and administrative leaders say they need more autonomy and express skepticism about accountability, according to Frank Newman, Lara Couturier, and Jamie Scurry in their 2004 book, The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market. But autonomy in a social contract is earned. The faculty cannot argue for more autonomy without acting to increase professionalism-and that includes holding ourselves accountable.
The academic profession needs the help of all those with a deep stake in its health: boards and administrators at individual institutions, accrediting agencies, national academic organizations, disciplinary societies, and government and business leaders. All these groups have an interest in having faculty internalize a higher degree of professionalism.
The social contract and our autonomy require aggressive leadership regarding professionalism from the faculty, especially at individual institutions. Perhaps the single most important step would be to start with self-assessment of the degree to which faculty at an institution have internalized these concepts into a mature professional identity. This aggressive leadership is going to demand courage, since the failure of socialization has created a false sense of entitlement and complacency among many faculty members. The question we must consider is this: do we have the courage?
What Makes a Professional?
Professionalism in a peer-review profession means that
* Each member of the profession agrees to meet the ethics of duty-the minimum standards of competence and ethical conduct set by peers within the profession and discipline and by the employing organization.
* Each member of the profession should strive, over a career, to realize the ethics of aspiration-the ideals and core values of the profession, the discipline, and the employing organization, including internalizing the highest standards for professional skills. By accepting employment at a particular institution, a professor agrees to attend to the institution's specific mission. In the event of conflicts among duties to the profession, the discipline, and the institution, those articulated by the institution are typically the only legally enforceable duties (most colleges and universities incorporate duties required by federal or state law into their institution's rules). However, a professor should aspire to fulfill the highest ideals and core values of the profession, discipline, and institution, even if those ideals exceed legal considerations.
* Each member of the profession agrees to act as a fiduciary (with the corresponding duty to avoid conflicts of interest) where his or her self-interest is outweighed by responsibilities to those served by the profession and its public purpose (the public purpose of the academic profession is the creation and dissemination of knowledge). Implicit in a professor's fiduciary duty is a continuing reflective engagement, over a career, on how much private advantage in work is appropriate in light of the principles of professionalism. Excessive private advantage might encompass, for example, overemphasis on earning income through consulting, failure to work a professional work week, or unwillingness to undertake a fair share of governance duties.
* Each member of the profession should, over a career, grow in personal conscience in carrying out the duties of the profession, including both the capacity for self-scrutiny and moral discourse with professional colleagues and the stakeholders of the profession.
* Each professional individually and the faculty collectively as a peer group agree to hold colleagues accountable for meeting the minimum standards of the profession, the discipline, and the employing organization and to encourage others to realize the ideals and core values of all three. (This includes the public defense of academic freedom for members of the academic profession.)
* Each professional agrees that public service in the area of the profession's fiduciary responsibility is implicit in the profession's social contract and that he or she should devote professional time to public service.
THIS TRADITION OF PEER REVIEW OF PROFESSIONAL COMPETENCE AND ETHICAL CONDUCT IS THE LINCHPIN OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN THE UNITED STATES.
How Professional Are We?
In contrast to our sister professions, law and medicine, the professoriate tends not to study its own ethics. Legal ethics, medical ethics, and even business ethics-we offer courses on all of them. But academic ethics? The empirical data available regarding faculty understanding of the social contract, academic freedom, and faculty professionalism indicate a widespread failure to understand academic professional ethics. In research undertaken between 1983 and 1985, the Study of the Academic Profession at the University of California, Los Angeles, interviewed 170 faculty members in six fields of study at six institutions. Noting the importance of academic freedom to the academic profession, interviewers asked respondents what it meant to their own work. The responses indicated a limited and generalized understanding of the rights of academic freedom and virtually no recognition of its correlative duties. (See Burton J. Clark's 1987 book, The Academic Life: Small Worlds, Different Worlds, for details.)
A 1993 study of 2,000 faculty members and a similar number of graduate students in chemistry, civil engineering, microbiology, and sociology stated that about half of the faculty reported familiarity with the university's and discipline's policies on research misconduct. (See "Misconduct and Departmental Context: Evidence from the Acadia Institute's Graduation Education Program" by Melissa S. Anderson in the spring 1996 issue of the Journal of Information Ethics and "Ethical Problems of Academic Research" by Judith Swazey, Melissa Anderson, and Karen Seashore Lewis in the November-December 1993 issue of American Scientist for details.) Seventy-four percent of the faculty respondents believed that, in principle, they and their colleagues should, to a great extent, exercise collective responsibility for the conduct of their graduate students, but only 27 percent judged that they or their departmental colleagues actually did anything about their shared responsibility for their students' professional ethical conduct.
Fifty-five percent of the faculty respondents believed that they should, to a great extent, exercise responsibility for the conduct of their colleagues (meaning that 45 percent failed to understand a major principle of professionalism, a predictable outcome of limited socialization in professionalism), just 13 percent judged that faculty in their department exercised a great deal of shared responsibility for their colleagues' conduct. Thirty percent reported very little or no manifestation of collegial responsibility.
Only 35 percent of the graduate students reported that they received significant instruction on the details of good research practice from someone in their department. Swazey, Anderson, and Lewis concluded, "Our survey data, and statements by faculty and graduate students whom we have interviewed, challenge the idea that faculty actually practice an ethic of collective governance."
A 1999 study of graduate students in eleven arts and science disciplines from twenty-seven universities (4,110 responses) reported, "The data indicate that the ethical dimension of faculty and professional life-how to act responsibly and in the best interest of the profession, is not, as often assumed, part of graduate training." The authors concluded that "the health of the academic profession, with norms of self-regulation and peer review, depends on shared values and practices. Students told us that they are unclear about many of the customary practices that rely on a shared understanding of ethical behavior. Those responsible for doctoral education cannot assume that norms and practices are routinely and informally handed down." (See At Cross Purposes: What the Experiences of Doctoral Students Reveal about Doctoral Education, a 2001 report prepared for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved May 22, 2006, from www.phd-survey.org.)
MANY BOARDS HAVE CONCLUDED THAT FULL-TIME TENURE-TRACK FACULTY ARE THE PROBLEM. CHANGING MARKET CONDITIONS, THEY ARGUE, CALL FOR MORE "FLEXIBILITY" IN THE WORKFORCE.
THE SOCIAL CONTRACT AND OUR AUTONOMY REQUIRE AGGRESSIVE LEADERSHIP REGARDING PROFESSIONALISM FROM THE FACULTY, ESPECIALLY AT INDIVIDUAL INSTITUTIONS.
1. For details about these statistics, see Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein's 2006 book, The American Faculty: The Restructuring oj Academic Work and Careers (Baltimore, Md. Johns Hopkins University Press).
NEIL W. HAMILTON
Faculty Autonomy and Obligation
Neil Hamilton is director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas and the author of Academic Ethics, published in 2002. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.…