Leader: Autonomy can be an illusion

US academics may face less red tape than those in the UK, but they must also appease students, whose opinions can halt careers

September 3, 2009

Americans may be used to hearing "Yes, we can", but academics on this side of the Atlantic are more likely to hear, "No, you bloody can't." The thought of being totally responsible for one's own module content, assessment and marking schemes is, as Paul A. Taylor says in the UK half of our cover story, "a degree of professional autonomy that Brits can only dream about". As his counterpart across the pond, David J. Gunkel, points out, for US academics "any intrusion from the outside is perceived to be a threat to, and infringement of, academic freedom".

But this autonomy can be illusory. The US may be the land of the free but it is also the land of the fee. And with that another major force comes into play. "Students are very powerful over here," says one transplanted professor. Whereas in the UK, the National Student Survey may matter to an institution, it has no great effect on individual academics. Across the ocean, however, student evaluations can affect both promotion and tenure.

In the US, only about half of newly hired academics have full-time tenure-track posts. The rest are part-time adjuncts often teaching the same courses with little job security. And the student-consumer voice is so strong that even when this inequity does receive media attention, it is usually to highlight the detrimental effect such working conditions must be having on the quality of the education being delivered. When student opinion counts for so much, there is a natural tendency to grade generously while chasing a tenured post, a conservatism that endures when tenured. This kind of student power over academics is, of course, nothing new - Bologna in its earliest incarnation was a university led by its students, who would hire professors to give them instruction - and as tuition fees rise in this country a similar effect is likely to be seen.

And tenure has its problems. Dangling a carrot in front of young academics makes them work hard, but once tenure is achieved there is no incentive to perform; in fact it is a great protector of the useless and the lazy. It is notoriously difficult to dismiss unproductive scholars, and the abolition of a mandatory retirement age means they can hang around as long as they like, a situation that is currently causing huge problems for US universities in these straitened times.

Perhaps a little Quentin Skinner-like selflessness would not go amiss among the greying US professoriate. The Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge was last year, at 67, invited by the vice-chancellor to stay on but he declined, saying that he was "too expensive" and the faculty would be better served by employing two younger members of staff at the same cost.

In the end, however, it is not tenure or a lack of autonomy that provides the starkest contrast between the two nations. UK academics do not have to enter the classroom fearing for their own safety. The same cannot be said for their US counterparts, however. Mass shootings on campuses have led some states to propose Bills that would make it legal for students to carry concealed weapons in class, bizarrely, in a bid to protect themselves from other similarly armed students. Here, we may occasionally shoot ourselves in the foot with our ill-judged legislation, but we can comfort ourselves with the fact that at least we do not make it easy to shoot one another.


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