Origins Tumultuous Years page 6

 
 

The period beginning late in the 1970s brought disturbing economic changes with worsening financial conditions. There was a relatively sudden shift in the national economy from production to service and high technology. Manufacturing and steel plants closed raising unemployment to unacceptable levels; foreign competition created an unfavorable trade balance and the national debt was still growing. There was rising inflation and interest rates climbed to record levels.

At a time when higher education badly needed new funding sources, American industry was in need of extensive research and development to stay competitive in world markets. Industry and universities entered into a working relationship where industry and government contracted for research with university personnel, and universities gained additional revenue. The movement from fundamental to applied research at all universities was immediate and overwhelming. Some universities today are dependent on as much as 40% of the annual budget being derived from research.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, university faculties had become relatively complacent. Many of them had come into teaching directly after graduate school and they had little practical experience in their fields. Numerous faculty members were not professionally active. Universities had to gear up their faculties to meet the new research demands. This marked an era when there was enormous administrative pressure on faculty for research, professional accomplishment and national or international recognition. Pressure was applied across the board to all fields of study including art and design.

This administrative pressure on faculty coincided with expanded use of computers throughout universities including institutional records and operations as well as educational and research programs. Computers were not new to universities, but during the seventies, there was an explosive acceleration in their use on campus. Some schools went so far as to require students to show proof of computer ownership before they could register for classes. From the late seventies into the nineties, computer capabilities have greatly expanded. Computers have not only been essential to research activities, but they also have affected traditional instruction methods, course content and learning potential.

To improve faculty productivity, administrations introduced the merit system for determining retention, promotion, tenure and salary. Research, professional accomplishment and recognition, student teaching evaluations and service to the institution were the criteria. Grantsmanship and professional accomplishment received the highest rewards. Teaching was usually a second or third priority. Service to the institution counted for little or nothing. Teachers who might serve on two department, one college and one university committee soon realized there was nothing to be gained, and consequently refused future committee appointments. This has proven to be damaging to the conduct of academic affairs. Merit recommendations began with the department, moved to the college, and finally to the university level. In most instances, there would be final adjustments made by upper administrators. Overall, the merit system probably produced more cynicism and divisiveness among faculty than productivity. A number of teachers found the atmosphere and administrative pressures so unpleasant as to leave teaching altogether.

As might be expected with the other administrative pressures on faculty, retention, promotion and tenure procedures were tightened, and became insurmountable hurdles for many young teachers who could not meet administrative expectations for research, professional accomplishment and recognition. The administrative pressures on faculty tended to corrupt faculty integrity and traditional academic values.

As early as 1972, Kingman Brewster, president at Yale University noted in a paper on tenure: “strong universities, assuring freedom from intellectual conformity coerced within the institution is even more of a concern than is the protection of freedom from external interference.” He further stated, “…this common ethic (academic freedom) also requires protection from administrators and colleagues within the community” President Brewster’s remarks proved to be both insightful and very prophetic.

I will only briefly note the effect of Equal Opportunity legislation on behalf of minorities and women that became a factor in educational hiring during these years. The intent of the policies was well placed and overdue. However, abuses are found in how policies were implemented. When individuals are hired only because they represent a minority group or are women, I think it is wrong. I recall a Dean telling the search committee that he would not even consider any recommendation unless it was a black woman.

At many institutions, upper administration privately set quotas and pressured Deans who leaned on Department Heads who in turn coerced Search Committees to fulfill quotas. Clearly, the hiring of minority representatives and women became a higher priority than instructional quality, and this is questionable. Affirmative Action was never intended as meaning quotas.

Following the Thomas and Hill confrontation during Senate hearings, there was new legislation followed by university policies on sexual harassment. There is no question that sexual harassment cannot, and should not, be tolerated under any circumstances. However, it has often become a nightmare for faculty members. Universities were quick to establish offices and procedures for dealing with charges of sexual harassment, but only from the standpoint of prosecuting and not defending faculty members. Once a charge of sexual harassment is made against a faculty member, no matter how frivolous or unfounded, that faculty member’s record is forever tainted. The only recourse faculty members have is to hire a personal lawyer, and expenses are borne by the teacher. Again, it is a needed and well intentioned policy gone awry because of administrative overreaction and implementation.

In recent years, there has been pressure on faculty to be politically correct, PC. The imposition of conformity dictated by a vocal segment of the university community is unsettling. A university campus is perhaps the last place you would expect this type of coercion to take place.

PC is identified with a variety of social movements ranging from minority concerns, women’s rights to gay acceptance. There is an inquisitional atmosphere connected with PC, and again, once a teacher is branded as being politically incorrect, their record is tainted. Often times, the words or actions of teachers have been taken out of context, misquoted, or are unsubstantiated hearsay. There is almost no defense against these charges.

In recent years, traditional curriculum has been under attack as not reflecting cultural diversity. There has been pressure from both within and without universities to create new programs based on the cultural representation incorporated into present day American society. Coming at a time when universities are in difficult financial straits, the demands for broader cultural programs have created additional stress on faculty members and institutions. During the late eighties and early nineties, worsening financial conditions strongly impacted on all universities. At some public institutions, faculty received no salary increases for five years. When there were salary raises, they might only be 2 to 3 percent. There were many institutions offering special benefits to encourage early retirement. In some instances, faculty were actually released and educational programs eliminated or scaled back. Operational funds were reduced and experienced much of the same devastation as salary budgets.

 

My Teaching Years continued >
 

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