The Public Role of the University Professor

By Tackach, James | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Public Role of the University Professor


Tackach, James, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


According to the contract that governs my professional life at Roger Williams University (RWU), I must teach four courses each semester, hold four office hours, serve on at least one academic committee (if asked), advise up to twenty-five students, and attend my university's annual convocation and commencement ceremonies. The evaluation section of the RWU faculty contract also stipulates that I may be assessed every five years--I am tenured--on a wide variety of professional endeavors, including research and publication, participation in conferences and seminars, grant writing, curriculum planning and development, and community service.

My duties at RWU rarely take me beyond the grounds of our beautiful campus alongside scenic Mount Hope Bay in Bristol, Rhode Island. Once or twice per year, I am expected to attend a professional conference off campus and interact with colleagues from other academic institutions. Other than those semesterly or yearly ventures, I work for and with the students, faculty, and administration of RWU. Perhaps that is fitting and proper. For the most part, the students of RWU (a private, tuition-driven institution) pay my salary and, hence, deserve to receive the lion's share of my labor.

I suggest, however, that college and university professors consider taking on a more public role that carries them, with greater frequency, beyond the iron gates or concrete pavements of their own academic institutions into the public sphere--not merely for high-income consulting but with the goal of educating the general public.

Certainly many college and university faculty members already perform this role very effectively. But for most academic professionals, these kinds of public activities are secondary or tertiary considerations; the goal of most college and university faculty members is to serve their own institutions through teaching and committee work and to inform and impress their academic colleagues by publishing their research in refereed academic journals that are rarely read by the general public. Furthermore, the evaluation system in place at most colleges and universities rewards these kinds of traditional academic activities--teaching, serving on campus committees, revising curricula, and publishing in academic publications.

As a result of this rather insular view of our academic workloads, our nation's professoriate has, to a great degree and in important ways, lost touch with the public surrounding our campuses. In my academic field, literary studies, for example, professors have been filling the pages of too many scholarly journals with a form of gobbledygook prose understandable only to a small number of specialists in the field. I have advanced degrees in English, but even I am often unable to decipher the arguments put forth in critical articles in literary journals in my field. I suspect that academicians in other academic fields have similar complaints about the stuff that their colleagues produce to fill the pages of academic journals and thereby secure tenure and gain promotion. …

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