The Public Intellectual

Writing in the New York Times today, Michael Bérubé, professor at Penn State and once perhaps the preeminent academic blogger in the country (he has since turned to other activities), addresses the child rape scandal from the perspective of the faculty. In doing so, he faced a difficult task: as Paterno Family Professor of Literature, he is beholden in many ways to both Joe and Sue Paterno–and to an institution that he has been part of for a number of years now, and institution he has helped grow and improve, something made possible, in part, by the efforts of the Paternos and by former President Graham Spanier (who was fired with Paterno).

Of course, Bérubé didn’t have to write at all. He could have put his head down, said it was none of his business, really, and continued on with his teaching and research. He could have done what the majority of the American professoriate does when an issue hits close to home: he could have put his head in the sand.

Oddly enough, just yesterday I finished writing an essay called “‘Objectivity’ As a Barrier to Education: Teaching Intellectual Responsibility and the Role of the Citizen” and sent it off to the journal that had requested it. In the article, I quote several times from Bérubé’s book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, holding him (along with CUNY’s own Ira Shor) up as an exemplar of what a professor should be–and discussing why.

One of my points is that we professors have a responsibility to academic freedom, not simply a right–and that we have a responsibility to our students to exemplify the behavior of contributing citizens of a democracy. This is nothing new–John Dewey expressed the same thing more than a century ago–but it is something we seem to have forgotten, for the most part. We have let our own responsibilities slip away, allowing college and university administrations to step into our place.

Bérubé writes:

Penn State has been an emphatically “top-down” university; decisions, even about academic programs, are made by the central administration, and faculty members are “consulted” afterward. Now Penn State will very likely lose its exemption from open records laws, and rightly so. But the administration must begin treating faculty members, and their elected representatives on the Faculty Senate, as equal partners in the institution. Perhaps if a faculty ethics committee had been informed about Mr. Sandusky in 2002, one of us could have advised administrators to inquire more aggressively into the case instead of circling the football program’s wagons.

This won’t happen unless faculties demand it. And faculties, even when they do sometimes make a lot of noise, are not taken seriously. The administrations know that, when it comes right down to it, faculty members are going to do nothing that will jeopardize their positions. They have little respect for us.

When Chancellor Matthew Goldstein visited City Tech last month, he claimed that a new “Pathways” program was faculty driven. He had asked the provosts to name faculty members to a panel that would work on developing the program. We in the audience, faculty all, did not challenge him, did not say that naming pet professors to a panel does not make them equal partners in the activity. At best, as Bérubé says things are done at Penn State, it was a “consultation” after the fact of the decision. We grumbled, and our union postures about taking the system to court. But Pathways (which is probably a good idea–it’s the process that is the problem) will go ahead as planned.

Yes, if the faculty were seriously consulted, a great deal could be done and with fewer problems. And possible future disasters, like the current Penn State scandal, might be avoided. But that will only happen when the faculty start showing a willingness to take risks.

Something woefully rare, today.

Advertisements