The search for a unified model of modern academic life

The four cultures of the faculty have traditionally been seen as the profession, the discipline, the institution and the country. In my first article on the four cultures I suggested that, while useful, they may no longer be sufficient with regard to reflecting academic life today.

The four cultures, I argued, are largely taxonomic, akin to John James Audubon’s taxonomy of birds, and I proposed that perhaps thinking of academic life as falling within Donald Stokes’ Pasteur’s Quadrant might be more appropriate.

How has academe changed since the first formation of the four cultures hypothesis? The three central changes pertain to the internet, tenure and ideology. These are changes that no one could have predicted, but they have fundamentally altered academic life.

Technological change

The internet has exploded the idea that place-based institutions are one culture. To be sure, some institutions still have students in physical classrooms, but even the nature of those interactions has shattered the institutional culture of the faculty.

A professor used to be the arbiter of knowledge. We have seen, however, the gradual acceptance of laptops in the classroom such that a professor might make a statement that was once taken as fact and can now be disputed by a simple search of a website immediately after a statement has been made.

Students now have a vastly different interpretation of what constitutes a classroom and, by inference, what constitutes the faculty. Online classes enable a student to take a course in Malaysia that a professor in Los Angeles created. The class may be in real time or asynchronous.

Even synchronous classes, where students participate at a specific time each week, make for a vastly different learning environment than one where a ‘sage on a stage’ gave lectures to students who dutifully took notes.

The pandemic, of course, fundamentally altered the academic classroom. The post-secondary world went virtual. Without online learning, students might have been forced to do some version of correspondence courses which would have been a learning failure and an economic nightmare.

And yet, Zoom classes exhausted student and teacher. Many students showed up for the Zoom class, for example, but blanked their screen because of many reasons, psychic exhaustion being primary.

Contingent faculty

Tenure was once the coin of the academic realm. Whether we spoke of academic life in Australia, the United Kingdom, California or New York, the norm was that those people who taught and did research were largely tenured faculty. The work they did, via discipline and country, may have differed, but underlying the system was that an individual had a contract for life once they had accomplished the requisite requirements.

By no means do I wish to valorise the system or paint the past as a golden age. Tenure arguably privileged men over women and racial and class majorities over minorities. By the 21st century we still have enormous discrepancies where more men than women, especially in the sciences, still prevail throughout the world.

Dalits in India are still vastly under-represented in tertiary education, as are African Americans in the United States and ethnic minorities in China. Nevertheless, the culture of the academy, from a taxonomic perspective, is different when the norm is that the faculty are tenured as opposed to contingent.

Tenure, particularly in the United States, came about to protect academic freedom. The structure had very little to do with job security as an end in itself. The assumption was not that an individual deserved a lifetime appointment as an organisational perk, but rather that the raison d’etre of academic life – academic freedom – was stronger if there was a structure to enforce the idea.

The tenure-track also carried with it implicit assumptions. Faculty carried out a great deal of uncompensated labour because of the tenure-track. Reviews of articles and proposals, participation in governance on campus and in professional associations, and assessments of colleagues at home and on other campuses were service-related activities that faculty did with very little, if any, monetary recompense.

Non-tenure track faculty have little incentive to participate in activities for which they are not rewarded. If one’s contract calls for an individual to teach five classes in a semester, then why would one do other activities that are time-consuming and not rewarded as part of one’s work profile? The result goes to the heart of cultural definitions of faculty that rely on assumptions that no longer exist.

Academe has a long and distinguished history throughout the world. India, China, Italy and Morocco are but a few countries with ancient institutions of higher learning.

A commitment to democracy

However, the current structure of higher education is largely a Western-based conception emanating from the United States and Europe. Undergirding the current manifestation of academic life is a commitment to democracy.

I am not concerned with the structure of a country’s government and more with the underlying belief that individuals should be free to study what they desire and to criticise their government whenever appropriate.

Findings that may cast the country or a group of privileged individuals in a negative light are allowed because the assumption is that the search for truth inevitably makes a people stronger. In the United States the Supreme Court has repeatedly supported this idea.

Democracy, however, is now under attack throughout the world. Right-wing movements that question, if not reject, democratic notions of the polity have either gained in political significance or gained power throughout Europe and the West. The United States, notwithstanding the current election, is still under threat from anti-democrats who question any election where they do not win.

The rise of the internet, the decline in tenure and the ascendency of neo-fascist ideologies bring into question the viability of using the four cultures to diagnose academic life in any meaningful way going forward. An alternative way to think of faculty life is neither geographic nor disciplinary, neither campus-based nor professional.

In an age of rampant capitalism, for example, rather than think of academe as a profession that is distinct from other professions, perhaps a better way to conceive of academic life is to consider those ideological strains that create similarities rather than differences.

A unified model

Rather than think of US-based academics as individuals whose interests die at the nation’s border, a better way may be to conceive of academic life in a more unified model such that a threat to academics in Hong Kong or Ukraine is a threat to academics everywhere.

During a time of intellectual ferment why call upon disciplinary affiliations when younger scholars are increasingly seeking out non-disciplinary affiliations?

And, most importantly, especially for those of us who have a concern for the preservation of democracy, ought we not to define ourselves in our intellectual and campus-based efforts to support democracy, rather than to overlook or disdain such efforts and affiliations? If we are to move toward Pasteur’s Quadrant of use-inspired research, then a different way to think about academic life arises.

My point here is not to put forward a fully fleshed out framework for academic life, or to argue that the four cultures framework is inherently wrong. Times change. In 1970 no one could have predicted that a professor could offer a class in Australia that students could take throughout the world, or that democracy would be in retreat throughout the world, even in the United States.

We need a more intellectually robust analysis for the 21st century. I have suggested that such a model ought to revolve around professional and intellectual affiliations that unite academics with one another and those beyond the academy.

William G Tierney is university professor emeritus and 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 second in a two-part look at the four cultures of academic life.