The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education, Joseph C. Hermanowicz, Editor

By Davis, James | Radical Teacher, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education, Joseph C. Hermanowicz, Editor


Davis, James, Radical Teacher


The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education, Joseph C. Hermanowicz, Editor (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)

A profession is defined by the degree to which its practitioners control the terms and conditions of their work and by the autonomy they enjoy from the influence of the public and politicians. The key question addressed in The American Academic Profession is whether and how these attributes have been maintained in higher education, particularly in the face of neoliberal policies and practices ascendant since the early 1980s. In one sense, it seems academic in the worst sense to pursue this question while neoliberalism has dealt others fates far worse than it has dealt college professors. But as the best chapters in this collection illustrate, examining the vitality of any profession --whether law, medicine, or academia--is a way of assessing the constellation of social, cultural, and economic forces that impinge upon it. The patterns discernible in higher education--such as the stratification of the faculty and the diminution of tenure, public disinvestment, and administrative bloat--reflect broader trends in corporatization, shifting costs and risks downward while directing capital and power upward.

The American Academic Profession may be considered a contribution to the emerging field of Critical University Studies, though its proponents have tended to be humanists while this volume leans decidedly toward social science. Its contributors favor empirical research, measured claims, and a detached rhetorical posture. Despite some empassioned and ambitious arguments, they marshal data and methodically chart case studies, and the volume thus complements the existing humanities scholarship. Its strength lies in its striking breadth of subject matter and the expertise of its contributors. Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades, who co-authored Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (2004) contribute separate essays here; Jack Schuster, co-author of The American Faculty (2006), introduces the book; and among the other leading higher education scholars represented are Steven Brint, Roger Geiger, Joseph Hermanowicz, and Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia. Sullivan's chapter is among the finest and is noteworthy in light of her attempted ouster by Virginia's Board of Regents soon after the book's publication. (There is no direct causal connection, but her chapter advances an account of threats to shared governance that presage the threat to her job.) Taking the temperature of the academic profession in the new century, the book's thirteen chapters fall into five sections: Structural and Cognitive Change, Socialization and Deviance, Experience of the Academic Career, Autonomy and Regulation, and Contemporary and Historical Views. Readers who are weary of the invective and jeremiads that sometimes characterize commentary on higher education may find relief in this book's empiricism. They will certainly find fodder for thought and a firm basis for action.

Significantly, few contributors to this collection acknowledge the paradox at the heart of today's academic profession: while professionals are by definition distinct from "mere" workers, today it is principally through behaving like workers that faculty stand a chance of preserving autonomy and exerting control over the terms and conditions of their work. As two leaders of a recent faculty strike at the University of Illinois--Chicago write, "We've all begun to realize that, whatever it meant in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the 21st century that distinction is pure ideology. Professionals are workers--and professors are workers." (1) Many contributors to The American Academic Profession assume the traditional opposition between professional and worker, despite their own evidence that faculty are increasingly "managed professionals," in Rhoades' phrase, their work overseen or influenced by others beyond their peers, from funding agencies and accrediting bodies to review boards, citizen groups, and private enterprise. …

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