We are in the quietest time of year for American universities, and there is relatively little to report. The pages of The Chronicle and Inside Higher Education, in an effort to have something to offer their readers, are turning to predictions about what is to come (mostly unreliable), and advice to academics about how to spend the summer – what to read, how to read, how to write, how to publish, how to delay creeping insanity, etc. Such advice is no doubt useful to some extent for all of us.
I would like to suggest a somewhat different thought that we might attend to, from time to time at least, while doing all that reading and writing and sanity maintenance. It is worthwhile to consider, it seems to me, how we understand the work we do and the reasons we do it. I once worked at a university where a newly arrived president issued a fresh slogan, or he thought it was fresh, viz. that we were an institution where “students come first.” This prompted the more astute among the faculty to wonder where they belonged in the pecking order – second? third? lower still? Such questions are pointless, of course, but only because the slogan is misguided to begin with.
If we leave aside such people as alumni, outside donors, board members, and legislators, the four most significant groups of people with respect to the functioning and success of a university are its students, faculty, support staff, and administrators, fully recognizing of course that one can find fools in each of those groups. I have spent a significant number of years as a member of three of them, support staff being the exception, and I can say with some confidence that a university needs them all. It cannot function without them, so in one sense, there is something odd about saying that one group “comes first.”
Even granting that each group plays a critical role without which no institution can succeed or even exist, there still seems to be some sense in an acknowledgement of the relative importance of one or two in relation to the others. The question I ask myself in this regard is “which group of people provides the reasons for students to attend a university?” The answer of course is the faculty. Students benefit considerably from both the services provided by the support staff and the leadership and guidance of administrators, but it is with the faculty that they spend their time. It is members of the faculty whom they tend to acknowledge later in their lives as having influenced them the most, and whom they tend to honor with gifts to the university.
Faculty, then, have this reason, among others, to consider themselves to be central to the mission of a university. They should not get too cocky about that, though, because the fact remains that without the students, most academic staff would be doing something else for a living. This fact is a clue to a feature of universities that too often goes unnoticed or unstated. Faculty are not the most important people in a university, and students do not “come first.” Rather, the central operational trait of a university is the academic relationship between students and faculty. It is not one or the other, but the intellectual and pedagogical relation between them, that defines a university as the institution that it is.
The summer’s thought I propose then, is to consider this feature of our institutions, and imagine how we might make that relationship more central in our own professional activities and more conducive to our students’ intellectual development.