February 19, 2019

What does it mean to be a university faculty?

Most of us who chose to pursue an academic career were drawn to the intellectual freedom it offers. We enjoy tremendous freedom in deciding our scholarship areas and career path. No one tells us what we should or shouldn’t teach in our classrooms. If you think about it, few other occupations in our society offer the privilege of total intellectual independence. It is a privilege I have appreciated all my life—I grew up in an academic family; my dad was a professor. I remember when I started my academic career as a junior faculty, I marveled at the fact that I was paid to do what I loved, in exactly the way I chose.

I came to a new level of appreciation for this privilege last year when I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum. The ceremony coincided with the 800-year founding celebration of the University of Salamanca in Spain—the place Christopher Columbus went to discuss the viability of his “voyage to India” with university geographers. The Magna Charta outlines the values tracing back to the creation of universities, such as academic freedom and the concomitant responsibility to society. Motivated by the societal context where discovery and new ideas—often inconvenient—must be nurtured and protected from the powerful, like the church and state, and sometimes, common, prevailing beliefs at the time. In other words, the privilege bestowed on the faculty emanates from foundational ideas of what a university stands for.

Magna Charta organization universities pledge to stay true to that spirit, as this tension is hardly a thing of the past. Many university leaders I met at the Magna Charta event are from countries around the world where the basic notion of academic and intellectual freedom is still challenged or even repressed.

As faculty, we are accountable to this past and present, but also to the future. How do we interpret these traditions in the modern era? Without universities, now as then, many ideas would not have a chance of surviving. Further, while universities originated to protect faculty from the powerful, the privilege of being an academic also carries the responsibility to create knowledge to advance toward a society that can be. How do we live up to that expectation?

Yes, we have to be the voice of reason, of measured intellect, in the context in which we live. As a university, we accommodate many different ideologies about what a better world looks like, and we need to maintain respectful dialogue. But most broadly, our responsibility is to be thinking about how to make the world a better place regardless of where we are today. In a sense, we need to stretch our minds, and those of our students, to think ahead of our time.

In the world of competing priorities and shrinking public resources, it is easy to lose sight of the higher calling for the university and the crucial role the faculty play in it. Faculty are pulled in many directions and their time is the scarcest resource on college campuses. So, a pragmatic question is how do we sustain an intellectually enriching environment in a world of scarce resources and heightened job demands.

As a starting point, we need to better understand faculty needs and challenges regarding work-life balance and professional fulfillment. We are taking a concrete step by partnering with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) on the in-depth analysis of wide ranging faculty concerns from research/teaching, tenure/promotion, to collaboration/mentoring and resource/support. This will help us to work together toward a comprehensive understanding of work environment—from the faculty perspective—to benchmark faculty experiences at peer academic institutions, and to foster meaningful and sustained improvements that drive university policies and operations.

Yet the faculty work-life survey is one tool for strengthening faculty well-being. Creating an enduring, vibrant academic environment will require continuous conversation, attention and resource-investment. I am committed to engaging the campus community in idea sharing and dialogue about how we can make long-term and sustained improvement for all faculty.

Although this blogpost focuses on the faculty, there is much to be discussed to create the supportive, motivating, enriching environment for every member of the Mason community. How do we create that environment together? I sincerely look forward to your thoughts.

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