It is time to trouble the idea of four academic cultures

A foundational belief for those who work from a cultural perspective on higher education is that the faculty exist in four simultaneous cultures. The idea, first proposed by sociologist Burton R Clark in 1980, almost seems self-evident.

Although such analyses have been helpful, I wish to trouble the idea and put forward a different way of thinking about scholarly work in an academic environment that is vastly different from a half century ago.

The first faculty culture is that of a profession. The common sense argument is that academic life is a profession just as is plumbing or accounting. Professional cultures, first pointed out by Thorstein Veblen and Max Weber in the early 20th century, suggest that one trade or profession differs from other trades and professions.

The academic profession is framed by the idea that what an academic does primarily rests in two domains – teaching and research. Academic beliefs are largely defined by a devotion to the search for truth in one’s teaching and research, otherwise known as academic freedom. As with any belief, how that gets articulated changes over time and context.

Discipline as an academic culture

A second academic culture is that of the discipline. Chemistry professors are different from philosophers and engineers. True, teaching and research is the sine qua non for all of the faculty, but how one teaches, and approaches research, will vary regardless of where one works. A poet’s world view and work habits are likely to differ from those of a business professor.

Just as a traditional anthropologist is likely to comment on the dress and interaction rituals that a particular group calls upon, so too will those who investigate academic cultures.

Culture is clearest when unstated norms are violated. Those norms, even at the same institution, have a tendency to vary by department. Norms also change as times change and new people inhabit a culture.

A department of largely all-white men, for example, is likely to have very different performative norms than a department that has changed over time so that more women and people of colour occupy junior and senior positions. Similarly, recent concerns about transgender issues have come more from those in the humanities than the hard sciences.

A third academic culture is site-based on a campus. Although the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Southern California (USC) are both large research universities in Los Angeles, they are different based on their socio-historical cultures. USC, a private university founded in the 1880s, has had a very different trajectory from the public UCLA, founded in 1919. The students they served and the institutions’ definition of their environment also differed.

A professor in a discipline where a semester is 15 weeks and all faculty attend faculty meetings will meet a very different culture when they move to a university where faculty governance is mute and a term is a quarter. An institution that relies largely on fixed-term faculty is likely to have a very different academic culture from traditional institutions where tenured faculty have a history of deference and involvement in governance.

The fourth academic culture is global. In addition to the United States, I have spent time doing research and-or teaching for a term or longer in Costa Rica, Panama, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and India. What faculty expect of one another and the institution varies significantly based on the country they are in.

The framework of faculty engagement also differs based on the nation-state. Women are likely to wear a hijab on campus in Malaysia, but not in Costa Rica. Indian men and women experience a very different environment from their counterparts in the United States. Hong Kong’s definition of free speech since the Chinese takeover is much more circumscribed than that in Australia. Campuses in the United States are dealing with issues of cancel culture and diversity in ways that are non-existent in Malaysia and Panama.

The limitations of taxonomies

The point with all of these observations is certainly not that one culture is better than another. Cultural analysis is inherently introspective and, on the face of it, egalitarian. This form of cultural relativism is largely taxonomic – simply detailing the differences across cultures.

However helpful the delineations of different cultures have been for those of us who study and work in academe, I also wonder if such analyses weaken the idea of academic life across disciplines, campuses and countries. In an age when the internet has upended how one teaches and does research, ought we not also to consider what ties academics together and unites us, rather than merely delineate our differences?

At a time when authoritarian governments are on the rise across the globe, ought we not to consider a unified faculty response to attacks on academic autonomy and civil control of government? Should academe continue to be thought of as an ivory tower removed from society or do the times we live in warrant a different configuration?

Taxonomies are certainly useful, but their utility in overcoming inequity and reconceiving how to think about particular problems is limited. In Donald Stokes’s thoughtful Pasteur’s Quadrant (1997), he writes of research in four quadrants.

Theoretical physicists, for example, lie in one quadrant and those who conduct applied research are in a second. John James Audubon, who classified birds, is in the third quadrant, as are these four cultures of the faculty. As with Stokes, I entirely agree that the creation of taxonomies and the resulting systemisation of knowledge and culture has a useful, albeit limited, function.

Stokes’s fourth quadrant is the one that has come to be known as Pasteur’s Quadrant. He writes that Louis Pasteur’s work in microbiology “was a commitment to understand the microbiological processes he discovered and a commitment to control the effects of these processes on humans”.

Stokes defined this work as “use-inspired basic research”. What might academe look like if we were to think of academic life today rather than a half century ago? Such research will inject a dynamism into what to expect of faculty, irrespective of location, discipline or campus.

At a time when what counts as knowledge is under attack and facts are little more than social constructs, those who conduct research on academic life might search more for what unites academics rather than what separates us. The metaphor of the ivory tower removed from society might change towards one of greater engagement with society.

William G Tierney is university professor emeritus, founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, United States, and author of Higher Education for Democracy: The role of the university in civil society (SUNY, 2021). This is the first in a two-part series. Next week’s article will examine how we might look at academic culture now.