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June 26, 2003


“The university as a community of scholars.” Those words have a nice ring to them. They conjure up a picture of faculty working in a collective manner toward a common goal. While that may be a romantic or idealized version of the university, the question is whether the faculty of any university, including this one, can be seen as a community. From reviewing definitions in several dictionaries, it appears that crucial to the concept of community is the notion that its members have a common interest or purpose and work with each other to that end.

Universities have changed greatly over the past six decades. Before World War II, relatively few Americans were able to secure a university education. The composition of university faculties, except the Roman Catholic institutions, consisted overwhelmingly of white Protestant males who shared a good deal in common because of their socio-economic backgrounds. With the end of World War II, a veritable flood of returning veterans entered universities, joining secondary-school graduates who had been too young for military service during the war. The need to serve a greatly increased student body led to changes in the recruitment and hiring of individuals to teach at colleges and universities. Unwritten but clearly evident quotas and restrictions upon Jews, Italians and some others who were qualified to teach went by the boards over the next two decades. Some limitations, such as those related to race and gender, continued during the post-war academic boom, but these have been all but eroded.

Faculties are far more diverse than at the beginning of the post-World War II influx into the universities. The increased diversity of faculty by race, religion, family socio-economic status, gender and ethnicity, coupled with the increased extent of specialization in professions and most academic disciplines, has meant that, despite interdisciplinary programs in some areas, the sharing of backgrounds, interests and opportunities for broad, collective work have been reduced.

An argument can be made that the university today is not a community of scholars. Rather it is an aggregation of individuals engaged in teaching and research, each of whom is focused upon achieving his/her personal and professional goals, without much thought to the activities of others at the university, apart from their closest academic collaborators.

“Community of scholars” suggests broad participation in a joint, cooperative effort. Approximately 40 years ago I was a junior staff person on a study of medical school-hospital affiliations funded by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The study group included physicians, attorneys and health care administrators. For me it was a wonderful experience in many ways, because I not only gained an extremely helpful mentor, but was exposed to aspects of medicine, medical education and health administration that greatly influenced my subsequent professional activity. I especially remember a conversation during the fieldwork with the chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. He complained that his department was short of resources. A substantial part of the financing of medical school departments depends on clinical revenue earned by the faculty members. He pointed out that most of the pediatric patients he and his colleagues saw were the children of faculty and graduate students, who mainly needed well-child care. These physicians received few referrals for specialty pediatric care. He contrasted his department’s situation with that of the surgery department, which he asserted was flush with money. In his view, some of the resources earned by the surgery department should be shared with pediatrics, and other departments with little clinical revenue, because all the medical school departments were engaged in a joint enterprise to educate medical students and graduate trainees.

As I look at this University, I don’t see much that evidences community currently. Certainly there is collaboration between some investigators in research and some joint teaching by faculty members, but a picture of a community effort — a picture of a cohesive body of individuals working toward common goals — is not apparent. One might contend the University is a collection of large and small fiefdoms, struggling among themselves to maintain or improve their standing and shares of the University’s resources; however, competition, rather than cooperation and collaboration, appears to be the prime driving force of faculty behavior. Schools compete with other schools of the University; within schools, departments compete among themselves; and even within departments, programs or other faculty groupings compete with each other, their goals being to do better vis-à-vis those viewed as their competitors.

From the central administration’s perspective, it may be desirable to foster competition among the units to divert them from banding together and questioning the central administration’s processes in setting priorities and resolving resources issues. A reward structure for faculty that greatly emphasizes first authorship, PI status and national/international recognition as an academic “star” does not foster community building.

Individuals and small groups, placed in competitive situations, find it very difficult to focus much on the big picture, and develop a kind of solidarity with others in the pursuit of an overall institutional objective. Faculty usually see themselves as independent, semi-autonomous individuals when engaged in their scholarly activity. Even individual faculty members, brought together to work in a collective fashion to conduct or improve a program, almost certainly retain their primary interest in the areas in which they personally specialize.

Efforts to establish faculty collective bargaining at this University have been unsuccessful. The reason may be an absence of a sense of community, and may well reflect the preference of most faculty members to retain their independence, rather than join a large collective with a relatively disparate membership, in which each would have but a single vote.

Given the many forces, from outside as well as within the University, that operate to diminish community activity here, we should value and support structures that provide opportunities to promote a sense of community. The University Senate structures — Faculty Assembly, Senate Council and Senate committees — provide the only fora in which University-wide issues are considered and debated. Whether the issues are fundamental, such as resource allocation, faculty and staff evaluation and compensation policies and the University’s strategic goals, or quality of life issues at the University, such as respect for the individual and faculty/staff use of the Petersen Events Center facilities, the Senate is where “community” issues are given attention. Involvement with the Senate provides the opportunity to meet and work with faculty from various schools, professions and disciplines, and to contribute on the issues that affect faculty collectively.

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