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 Stories for May 6, 1998:

Regular Features:

Higher Education in the 21st Century

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted May. 6, 1998

Following the inaugural ceremony April 24, leaders in higher education gathered to discuss “academic duty” in the research university, and to speculate on higher education in the 21st century. Here is a summary of that discussion.

At a lively forum on “Higher Education in the 21st Century” April 24, newly invested Chancellor Berdahl was joined in Wheeler Auditorium by UC President Richard Atkinson, UC President Emeritus Clark Kerr, Stanford President Gerhard Casper, and Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy.

The jumping off point for the panel discussion, moderated by Academic Senate Chair William Oldham, was Kennedy’s new book, “Academic Duty” (Harvard University Press). In it, he argues that the flip side of academic freedom – academic duty – is in increasingly short supply.

Paraphrasing Henry Rosovsky, former dean of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, Kennedy said, ”the faculty of the modern American university often appears, especially to outsiders, as a society without rules. That is especially true of the research universities, and most especially true of the largest and most prestigious among them.”

A powerful set of external loyalties – to government agencies, foundations, institutes and professional societies – compete with loyalty to the institution, said Kennedy. And the pressure to publish continues to increase.

“There is a tendency for institutional obligations, including teaching and advising students, to fade in the face of research and external pressures,” said Kennedy. “Yet public expectations of the university about the duty to teach, and teach well, could not be stronger.”

Kennedy called for reforms in graduate education, more attention to teaching, and a less rigid university departmental structure to encourage more interdisciplinary scholarship and training.

Kerr thanked Kennedy for raising the issue of academic duty. “It’s hardly been discussed,” Kerr said. “The definition of academic duty has changed. . . . Nothing is said about what faculty should do in return for their contract with the university. . . . The teaching load has dropped by one half.”

Another problem, said Kerr, is that higher education has become so structured that it’s difficult for academic leaders to make necessary “hard choices.”

“Are external forces on the faculty so powerful they can’t be turned back?” he asked, noting that all-important university rankings are based on research, not on teaching.

Casper agreed that faculty show less and less commitment to their institutions. “It’s a seller’s market,” he said of academia, and because of that, “it’s hard to enforce obligations.” Predicting that lack of institutional loyalty will increase, he warned the audience “not to take the future of the university for granted.”

Kennedy said that the world wide web is not a threat to the university. Casper disagreed, saying, “a lot of research has already migrated to the web and is no longer located at the university.

We now have a ‘world-wide republic of learning’…a global academy which will further weaken faculty commitment to the university.”

At Stanford, small seminars have proven to be the best method of education, said Casper, but “the university may well disappear, although a virtual substitute is not a substitute.”

Atkinson, Kerr and Kennedy agreed that the academic decision-making structure is troubled. Atkinson took exception, however, to a recent Carnegie Commission report on the dismal state of undergraduate education, saying that trend had been reversed. At UC San Diego, where he was chancellor, “the faculty were incredibly committed to undergraduates,” Atkinson said. But budget cuts have increased the student-faculty ratio at UC from 14-1 in the ’60s to 19-1 in the ’90s, he admitted.

Atkinson disagreed with some of Kennedy’s suggestions for making graduate education less narrow, saying that PhD students “have to specialize and go deeply into a field to solve a very difficult problem.”

Last to speak was Berdahl, who likened the issue of academic duty to campaign finance reform. He quoted a former Chicago political boss: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”

“In the marketplace, capital has no loyalty. Should we expect different behavior from academic capital?” asked Berdahl, noting that Berkeley and Stanford raid each other for faculty.

Market forces have seriously distorted patterns of faculty review and salaries, Berdahl added. “How can an academic leader go against market forces swaying other institutions?”

Marketplace reality “cuts against the grain of loyalty, responsibility and community,” he lamented.

Berdahl differed with Kennedy and Kerr on the research/teaching conflict, saying the two produce a “creative tension that is productive on both sides.”

As for the threat of cyber education, Berdahl said, “we will never escape the need for face-to-face communication.”

In a question-and-answer discussion with the audience, Kennedy pointed out that “a loss of virtue goes with increased temptation…. A new negotiated understanding of academic duty is needed.”

Casper noted that Stanford will offer seminars to all freshmen next year, saying that “faculty need students to challenge them.”

Berdahl added that he will teach a freshman seminar on UC history in the fall “because I need to learn it.”

“We have to make the university more attractive,” said Casper. “We can’t let students or faculty destroy the universities.”

Noting that both he and Berdahl have served other universities, Casper said, “you have to be devoted to the institution where you are.”

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