Faculty Autonomy and Obligation

By Hamilton, Neil W. | Academe, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

Faculty Autonomy and Obligation


Hamilton, Neil W., Academe


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.

Peer-Review Profession

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. …

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