Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2001 Issue »

    Editor's Review of The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education and Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century

    Matthew Hartley
    U.S. higher education has arrived at the new millennium in an environment that might charitably be called “dynamic.” A demographic incline is bringing a larger and more diverse student body to the doors of U.S. colleges and universities. New technologies are multiplying venues for education, but our institutions of higher learning are simultaneously facing enormous pressures from penurious legislatures, growing competition from for-profit universities, and regents and state boards of higher education flocking to the banner of greater accountability. In the midst of these challenges, James Axtell’s The Pleasures of Academe and Annette Kolodny’s Failing the Future offer compelling and ultimately competing visions of the state of U.S. higher education on the doorstep of the twenty-first century.

    The academic memoir occupies a small but important niche within higher education literature. There are literally hundreds of books in which members of the academy have reflected on their experiences and used them as a platform from which to explore broader issues in higher education. Henry Rosovsky’s University: An Owners Manual (1990) is probably the best known of the genre. In his delightful and insightful book, Rosovsky details his experiences as dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Most often, however, such memoirs have been the purview of former university presidents. Some of the more recent examples of this genre include James O. Freedman’s Idealism and Liberal Education (1996), Donald Kennedy’s Academic Duty (1997), and James J. Duderstadt’s A University for the 21st Century (2000). These works are valuable because they offer us a window into the lives of those who have led our finest institutions of higher learning. Their reflections certainly provide insights into colleges and universities as organizations, and they are instructive regarding how certain decisions come to be made. However, these books are not primarily policy documents or theoretical treatises. They are reflections on the personal ideals and values that informed the work of these education leaders. Axtell and Kolodny’s books, while residing within this literature, are of particular interest for several reasons. First, neither Axtell nor Kolodny is a former university president. Both of these books are the personal accounts of two caring and consummate academics who are concerned about providing high-quality education for students. Both are disturbed by the biased and distorted mental images that many key constituents (including the public, legislators, and even senior administrators) have regarding the work of the professoriate. For all their similarities, what fascinates me is the extent to which these authors arrive at strikingly divergent conclusions about the overall state of U.S. higher education. The accounts are shaped both by the disparate perspectives of faculty and administrators and by the fault line that separates the institutional “haves” from the “have nots.” Kolodny’s caution, and at times even consternation, and Axtell’s optimism and exuberance offer starkly contrasting views.

    Axtell’s Pleasures of Academe is a paean to higher learning. Concerned about rampant (and in his view uninformed) criticism of higher education, particularly the work of faculty, Axtell presents in lucid and elegant prose a rousing defense of higher education. Axtell is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary, Virginia’s prestigious public university. He brings an invaluable perspective as a historian and longtime observer of U.S. higher education: “Critics seldom temper their attacks with any appreciation of what the university means, can mean, or has meant to American society at large and to its individual students and professors” (p. x). Axtell then sets out to systematically appreciate these very qualities: “I want to devote . . . this book to some of the good news about academic life” (p. xii), which he does by reflecting on his own experience as a teacher, scholar, and ethnohistorian.

    Axtell divides his book into two sections. The second section (ch. 6–11) offers several delightful essays on particular pleasures associated with academic life. These include book collecting (ch. 6) and the ideal of the scholar-athlete (ch. 7). Axtell even pays homage to college towns (ch. 10). In the first section (ch. 1–5), Axtell describes the core work of the academy. Of Axtell’s book, these chapters are the most relevant for this review and constitute its focus.

    In chapter one, Axtell sets out to counter the calls for greater “efficiency” in the academy by describing the complex and often misunderstood work of the faculty in stunning detail. Axtell presents data from national surveys of faculty workloads, noting, for example, that in 1996 a U.S. Department of Education survey found that, across all institutional types, faculty members worked fifty-three hours a week on average (p. 6). Axtell complexifies such findings by analyzing six years’ worth of entries in his own daybooks in which he chronicles the rhythms of his own academic life. For example, he describes how the relentless demands of perpetual scholarship consume much of what external critics assume to be the “long, lazy summer vacations” (p. 7) of the faculty. He extends his analysis of the work of the faculty in chapter two by reflecting on his own professional climb toward a tenured position within the Ivory Tower. In chapter three, Axtell looks closely at the issue of scholarship and publication, outlining twenty-five reasons to publish. In chapter four, he describes the socializing influence of colleges and universities — the experiences they provide that require those in the community to encounter the “other.” He writes, “College is an intense, voluntary field of personal and cultural encounter” (p. 72). In this context, Axtell offers a fascinating window into his own inquiry scholarship regarding the encounters between colonial Europeans and American Indians. In chapter five, Axtell describes the qualities of an outstanding university, including an engaged and scholarly faculty, committed and diverse students, and excellent facilities and programs.

    An inveterate scholar, Axtell has established his professional credentials through committed teaching, acclaimed scholarship (and copious publication), and service — traditional hallmarks of the responsible scholar. In this book, he describes what meeting these three responsibilities entails. For example, in chapter two, Axtell catalogs the varieties of “service” faculty are often asked to perform, including filling out biographical forms for educational and professional directories, serving on committees, reviewing manuscripts for possible publication, and accomplishing “heroic, unpaid service as departmental librarians, newsletter editors, budget directors, and schedulers” (p. 23). (Regarding service, Axtell also provides a fascinating account of his own work supporting the land rights claims of the Mashpee Indian tribe in chapter nine, “Extracurriculum.”) The fullness and complexity of Axtell’s description of academic life makes this such a valuable work.

    Axtell’s account of academic life has a timeless appeal. One cannot help but be impressed by his commitment to the life of the mind, to his discipline, and to his students. Today, when educational innovation and change seem constant, there is something refreshing in his account. The seasons of Axtell’s academic life are measured in years, with the fruits of inquiry and professional expertise ripening over three decades of painstaking (if gratifying and even joyful) work. This is pure scholarship. This is the academy, as it ought to be.

    By contrast, Annette Kolodny’s love affair with academe has been bittersweet. Like Axtell, Kolodny is first and foremost a committed (and well-regarded) scholar, and she is intimately familiar with the challenges and satisfactions of academic life. The genesis of Kolodny’s pessimism is clearly her five-year tenure as dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona in Tucson. In Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century, Kolodny trades scholarly pursuits for relentless budgetary pressures, ugly politicking, and the Machiavellian calculus that separates the winners from the losers at the university.

    What stands out in Kolodny’s account is the Sisyphean nature of her task. She begins:

    In the summer of 1988, I left my position as professor of literature at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institution . . . to become dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona in Tucson. With that transition, I became responsible for the smooth functioning of seven departments, five programs, and two research centers. I oversaw an annual state-funded permanent budget of $13 million and directly dispersed another $4-$5 million. . . . With just under 200 full-time faculty attempting to serve the needs of the 22,000 students (both graduate and undergraduate) who enrolled each semester in humanities courses, the money was always tight. I was constantly juggling dollars while begging for more. (p. 1)

    The sheer magnitude of the job is staggering; as one decanal colleague quipped, “It takes eighty hours a week just to be a dean” (p. 26). Kolodny quickly shelved her own research, and even administrative work of consequence was sacrificed in the scramble to respond to the budgetary vicissitudes of the state legislature:

    The deans were called upon to provide endless budget projections to cover endless eventualities. Consolidation, internal reallocation, and returning money to a nervous central administration became the order of the day. Semester after semester, year after year. What no one ever even attempted to quantify in this process was the enormous waste of human time and energy. . . . For months at a time, in consequence, everything else that was important to us — curriculum renewal, designing mentorship programs for undergraduate and graduate students, recruiting new faculty — got put on hold. For me, with an energetic agenda that I kept refusing to abandon, the university’s chronic budget difficulties played out like agonizing bouts of paralysis. (p. 17)

    Despite the challenges, Kolodny describes how her administration grappled collegially with some of the thorniest issues facing higher education. In chapters two and three, she describes the complex issues of tenure and academic freedom, outlining the collegial process whereby the College of Humanities reconsidered tenure and promotion polices in order to “maintain high standards for tenure while simultaneously ensuring a level playing field for the increasing number of women and minorities now entering the professoriate” (p. 44). (Ironically, this university-wide conversation about tenure practices was sparked by a particularly caustic report by Leslie Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes.) In chapter four, Kolodny describes the particular roadblocks facing women and minority faculty members. In chapter five, she argues for a more “family friendly” (read “humane”) campus, including the successful introduction of child care and elder care and the use of distance learning to reach out to new, underserved communities of learners. In chapter six, Kolodny wrestles with issues of recognizing and responding to “cognitive diversity,” a term she coins to describe the multiple learning styles of students. Chapter seven explains in detail how the College of Humanities set an ambitious agenda for change, including curricular renewal and affirmative action hiring and, perhaps even more ambitiously, rethinking the decisionmaking process for the college. In chapter eight, Kolodny explains how public schools are unable to prepare our country’s children for higher learning because of society’s unwillingness to own and effectively address the needs of its children, particularly poor children.

    If Kolodny appears to be occupying another world than Axtell, it is for good reason. The books illustrate two important divides in the universe of U.S. higher education: the divergent worlds of the faculty and the administration and the disparity between institutions that “have” and those that “have not.”

    Faculty members and administrators — at least in these two accounts — operate in very different universes of influence and interest. Despite the wealth of detail that honors the complex work of the faculty, Axtell’s description seems, ultimately, familiar. His account confirms a long-held observation of higher education — that faculty members are as bound to their discipline as they are to their institutions (Gouldner, 1957). Axtell’s community of scholarship is as much the American Society for Ethnohistory as it is his own academic department. This is not to suggest that Axtell is not a committed and engaged member of his institution — his account clearly suggests he is. Rather, it underscores that his academic peers are as much other ethnohistorians as members of his own department.

    Conversely, Kolodny’s experience as dean draws her deep into the life of the University of Arizona at Tucson. She notes: “What I realized with a shock as dean, in other words, was how abysmally ignorant most faculty — including myself — really are about the workplace in which they function” (p. 14). That work entails attending to endless “administrivia” and maneuvering through internal politics to secure what few discretionary funds are available to shore up an underfunded college. Kolodny spends countless hours re-educating a revolving carousel of provosts (see p. 21). Meanwhile, she is responsible for focusing on the welfare of the collective — the entire College of Humanities. While Axtell’s academic labors bring profound personal satisfaction, Kolodny and her colleagues are engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival.

    This brings us to the second division — that of the “haves” and “have nots.” Zachary Karabell (1998), remarking on the state of U.S. higher education, notes: “The real frontline struggle in higher education is not within the groves of elite academe. At places like Harvard and Wellesley, Princeton and Georgetown, there is a deceptive calm. Everything looks much the same as it did twenty or thirty years ago” (p. xiv). Karabell might well have added the College of William and Mary to his list. When discussing the importance of departmental service, Axtell writes, “Since universities are largely governed by their faculties and not by professional administrators, considerable faculty time must go to service on departmental and college-wide committees” (p. 23). In fact, many institutions of higher learning are not governed by faculty members. Faculty members at many universities have lost power to a startling degree and much of the power now resides outside the university. At the University of Arizona, Kolodny outlines the degree to which decisions made by the state legislature profoundly affect the lives of faculty and administrators. Funding changes by the legislature resulted in near constant “contingency planning” (p. 17) within the university’s administration, at times paralyzing it. The legislature responded to constituent concerns about rising tuition by freezing faculty hiring, which scuttled the College of Humanities’ efforts to rebuild itself after a decade of being understaffed. Kolodny writes, “By the late 1980s, when I first became dean, enrollment in our various humanities majors had been growing by 35 percent over a five-year period, but our share of state support was actually shrinking” (p. 64). Kolodny’s sense of powerlessness is heartrending, with decisive victories few and far between. It is no wonder that, as she handed off her position to a colleague at the end of her tenure, Kolodny concluded, “I knew I was handing on to him — a good friend — a fundamentally lousy job” (p. 27).

    Despite all her challenges, one gets the sense that Kolodny, as dean, did whatever was necessary to protect the academic life that Axtell describes. Kolodny and Axtell are in agreement that preserving this life is an imperative. But Kolodny’s account demonstrates how fragile this “right” is and how necessary it is for committed and politically savvy faculty to abandon for a time the privileged (albeit well-earned) “pleasures” of academe to engage in the struggle to preserve that life.

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    Summer 2001 Issue


    The Relative Equitability of High-Stakes Testing versus Teacher-Assigned Grades
    An Analysis of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)
    Robert T. Brennan, Jimmy Kim, Melodie Wenz-Gross, Gary N. Siperstein
    Poverty and the (Broken) Promise of Higher Education
    Vivyan C. Adair
    Affirmative Action and Education in Fiji
    Legitimation, Contestation, and Colonial Discourse
    Carmen M. White
    Voices Inside Schools: The Poet, the CEO, and the First-Grade Teacher
    Mary Ellen Dakin
    Voices Inside Schools: Moving Beyond Polite Correctness
    Practicing Mindfulness in the Diverse Classroom
    Barbara Vacarr

    Book Notes

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