Arts and Sciences
Recapturing The Lost Promise of
begin, by thanking the Faculty Association for this recognition, and those
faculty members who supported my nomination.
I would also
like to thank my publicist who, just coincidentally, happens to my wife, Marianne Jaffee – for her
unconditional support and sage advice on my various academic activities, both
conventional and heterodox. But I must
add -- she was also totally convinced that my abrasive personality would make receiving
this award absolutely impossible. This
is not what you would expect to hear from your publicist -- but it is probably
“par for the course” coming from one’s spouse.
And, I would
also like to personally recognize the other nominee – Chip Klostermeyer – who
has a long record of exceptional and exemplary scholarly achievements, and
service to UNF – as past president of the FA and now as interim dean of the College
of Computing, Engineering, and Construction -- that is more than worthy of this
would like to thank and recognize the students -- who make it all worthwhile
-- when they exhibit their passionate weirdness, their
commitment to social justice and the common good, their intellectual curiosity
and, of course, most importantly, their autodidactism.
Let me just
begin by saying that I consider myself fortunate to have landed in sociology,
as it fits perfectly with my “glass half empty” approach to life.
And I also regard
sociology as the greatest possible academic discipline -- for at least three reasons:
is nothing sociologists haven’t studied, from the mundane to the apocalyptic.
This allows us sociologists to easily shift from one area of inquiry to another
and, even if engaged in academic administration, to write about the sociology
of the always crazy, unpredictable, and disorganized world of university life.
sociology is the most interdisciplinary of the academic disciplines. We have
political sociology, economic sociology, social psychology, bio-sociology,
mathematical sociology, the sociology of science, the sociology of education,
historical sociology, and, even something called planetary sociology. Apparently,
sociology is preparing to go where no discipline has gone before. In short, we proudly encroach upon the
territory of every and any other discipline. No wall can prevent these
disciplinary border crossings and territorial incursions.
And third, in
our discipline we have what is called “public sociology”.
sociology is a recognized and legitimate scholarly approach within the
discipline, that encourages academics to take what they study and research, and
make it public, outlining the political implications, through various
media venues in order to shape public awareness and public policy. Thus, we sociologists
do not have to assume the academic guise of objective indifference when it
comes to matters of the human condition.
During my academic career I have tried my best to take
full advantage of these three unique features of sociology.
But I am not
here to engage in disciplinary chauvinism. The virtues of sociology speaks for themself.
should first note that most of my career as a sociologist has been devoted to acritical analysis of
institutions and socio-economic arrangements.
And I feel it is only appropriate to continue that practice here today.
So, in the
spirit of that sociological tradition, I would like to direct my critical comments
to the institutional setting in which we find ourselves today, and in which I
have been fortunate to have a rewarding career – the institution of higher
education. While I am personally content
with the comfort and privilege that accompanies the position of full professor,
this cannot preclude a sober assessment of the current state of the academy.
So, in the
words of Henry David Thoreau, "As the time is short, I will leave out all
the flattery, and retain all the criticism.”
these observations as an institutional auto-critique – of the institution I am
a part of, of a university I belong to, and of the faculty I am a member of,
and of my own role as a faculty member. Let me make one thing clear at the outset,
I do not in any way hold myself immune, above, or apart from the many
shortcomings that I will identify. These are complicated issues that concern me
greatly, and with which I continually struggle.
university, the academy, stands as a unique institution in its espoused value
for intellectual enrichment, free exchange of ideas, and the promotion of
public good. These are ideals; and I consider myself an idealist.
must admit that higher education in the United States, especially over the past
thirty years, has to a large extent betrayed its noble mission. There are many
forces responsible for this betrayal, and I cannot address them all here.
But my hope,
in bringing these issues forward, is that we can all reflect on how we, and the
larger academic community, might work to achieve greater alignment between the
heroic claims of an indispensable institution, and its operational reality.
So, what is it that we want higher
education to be and to accomplish?
If we want education to serve as a
“great equalizer”, rather than a reinforcer and reproducer of inequality
, we must address the increasingly
strong correlation between a child’s social class background and the quantity
and quality of their educational attainment. This cannot be done if we are shifting
from need-based to merit-based aid, obsessing over US News and World Report
Rankings, recruiting wealthier students who are more likely to cover the full
cost of their education, using standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT as measures
of intellectual or retention potential, or as strategies to demonstrate
prestige and selectivity. All of these practices, and many more, have produced what
is now accurately labeled a “hereditary meritocracy” – the markers of merit,
that is academic credentials, on which privileged positions are allocated, are now determined largely by family income
and wealth. Under these conditions, equal
opportunity will continue to remain an elusive aspiration.
If we want higher education to regain
its status as a public good,
we will need to reject the prevailing view of college as a private
human capital investment. This has resulted in millions of students taking
out student loans on the illusory promise that they will inevitably get a so-called
“return on their investment”, in high paying employment, but instead they are often
left with mounting debt and underemployment. How is it that millennials, the most highly
educated generation, are also the most economically insecure? I fear we may have sold this generation a “bill
of goods” regarding why they must have a university education. We must reduce or eliminate the cost, put the
public back in public education, while also providing alternative avenues, apart
from a college degree, that can provide the opportunity for a socially
respected and economically secure livelihood.
If we want our students to have a truly
intellectually rewarding transformational educational experience
, we should encourage students to
follow their passions and interests (which are often in the humanities, social
sciences, or education), wherever they may lead, rather than promoting majors
on the basis of labor market employer demands, or even economic returns. What
should matter, ideally, is the social use value, rather than themarket exchange value, of a
degree or area of study. The two should never be confused. I don’t think any of
us would want a university to be mistaken for a trade school. Rather, I assume we
want, first and foremost, to cultivate
critical thinkers and informed citizens, not cheerful robots or obedient sheep. The future of our democracy, now more than
ever, will depend on it.
If we want to prevent the university from
becoming just another corporatized bureaucracy
, we should not allow ourselves to be
driven exclusively by a single-minded focus on externally imposed metrics which
generate, inevitably, a “wag the dog” approach to institutional priorities. While the pursuit of some measurable
outcomes associated with student success might make perfect sense, this cannot
be the sum and substance of our efforts. Sociologists, it should now go without
saying, have most insightfully identified the pathological bureaucratic
tendency known as “goal displacement”. It
refers to the danger in all bureaucratic organizations, where instrumental
means become ultimate ends, and we eventually lose sight of, or forget, the essential
purpose of the academic enterprise.
If we want the university to be
socially responsible and, in UNFs case, to follow our publicly proclaimed and
espoused value of “responsibility to the natural environment”,
UNF should be on record opposing university
endowment investment practices that support and reinforce the actions of fossil
fuel corporations, that contribute directly and aggressively to the destruction
of the planet. Divestment should be
supported unconditionally -- regardless of whether it exacts a financial
cost on the value of the endowment. Climate
change action should be addressed as a human rights issue, not as a cost-benefit
If we the faculty truly respect the
institution of tenure,
we should not be reluctant to aggressively exercise the right that it
presumably defends – the right to academic freedom and freedom of speech. We
should not be engaging in self-censorship on controversial and political issues
of the day, in or out of the classroom, even if this may raise inconvenient or
uncomfortable truths. Intellectual agitation has long been
regarded as the sine qua non of the university.
If we the faculty do not want our
students to take a purely instrumental approach to education and learning,
we might want to stop telling them
to “study because there is an exam”, “read this chapter because there will be a
quiz”, “do X,Y and Z if you want to receive an ‘A’ in the class”. These common
and seemingly innocuous phrases simply reinforce the very instrumental disposition
we bemoan. So much of our efforts at the
social control of our students is based on these extrinsic rewards and
penalties, therefore potentially crowding out intrinsic forms of motivation,
based on the pure value of learning and intellectual edification. I don’t for a moment underestimate the
difficulty in breaking out of these hard-wired patterns that have been built
into almost every stage of the educational process -- I am guilty of using them
myself -- but the very language we often use, communicates and cultivates an approach
to learning that most of us would ideally not subscribe to.
If we as a faculty care about
actively support the struggle of, and improvement of conditions for, so-called
adjunct or contingent faculty – now part of the growing precariat despite
holding doctorate degrees -- who are paid poverty level compensation under
conditions of economic insecurity and uncertainty. I count myself among the many who have been silent
on this issue for far too long. We should all join their struggle for a living salary.
If we the faculty care about faculty
should all be willing to join and financially support the one organizational
entity that negotiates on our behalf, for the conditions and terms of our employment
through collective bargaining – the United Faculty of Florida. Inevitably, freeriders will be used as
ammunition in the hands of union-busting legislators, now looking to decertify
public sector unions on the basis of low membership rates.
If we the faculty are concerned with the
economic stress and strain faced by our students
, we can stop assigning and requiring,
where feasible, grossly overpriced textbooks, that enrich the publishers while
ripping off our students. This is one financial condition we actually have some
control over. On this score, I am happy
to report that an increasing number of UNF faculty are seeking out
alternative and free sources for course material, and that UNF has launched the
Open Educational Resource Initiative to assist and support faculty in these
efforts. It is having a positive impact.
Since I just
used the words “happy” and “positive” I should bring this to a close, legitimately
claiming that I am finishing on an upbeat note!
In conclusion, if we the academic
community are concerned with any of these issues,
I hope we can individually and
collectively reflect upon and take actions to bring the promise of the
university, and its espoused values, in greater alignment with its actual
is not unique. There are many social institutions that suffer from this gap
between aspiration and operation, but this is the one we inhabit, and thus where
there might be some potential to translate our actions into the public
for your attention and indulgence.