The Right Coast

October 07, 2004
Academic work is harder than ever before
By Dan Rodriguez

One of the singular privileges of serving as an academic leader at an active, vibrant university is the opportunity to contribute to the success of colleagues in their academic ventures. These ventures are, essentially and fundamentally, teaching, advising and mentoring students, research, and the dissemination of the fruits of this research in public venues and in print. It is my observation, and surely not an original one, that academic work has become considerably harder over the past decade, as the calibre of faculty in law and other fields improves, as the expectations of research and publication grow (especially in law, but in other fields as well), and as the accumulation of knowledge in more or less mature fields demands more skillful, informed, and careful engagement with "the literature" and candid asssesment of whether and to what extent the scholar is making an original contribution to his or her field.

'Tis harder and harder to meet these high standards. From this simple observation comes what I think will continue to be a very problematic period in faculty life. For example, plagiarism reflects (but with no real justification) the powerful competitive pressures to be productive, smart, and original. Moreover, the detachment of academics from the active, hard work of serious academic life reflects as well the increasingly tough road professors must travel to meet the institution's and peers' expectations of excellence.

Consequences? First, universities will, properly in my view, fashion substantial standards for post-tenure review, review designed to constructively reconnect disenchanted faculty members with the skills and tactics necessary to do sustained, excellent academic work in the post-tenure period; second, deans and provosts will need to refocus their attention on more "established" colleagues who, while eschewing for various personal and professional reasons the marketplace for mobile faculty talent, would benefit from assistance -- and maybe even tough love -- to reengage in pursuit of mid-career success; third, sabbatical, research leaves, summers, and other similar periods can be used creatively to rescue faculty stalled by the fearsome reality that academic work is hard, and harder as one ages, faces personal turmoil, settles into a regular lifestyle, etc; fourth, and finally, more faculty will abandon ship, and perhaps later in their academic careers, not to the "non-academic world" necessarily, but to other, non-ladder rank positions in the academic firmament, places which (hopefully) will be valued on different terms and for different reasons than the positions properly conserved in order to further knowledge through sustained, productive work.

What the future will not bring, I believe, is any relief from the brute fact that academic work is becoming ever harder. If an overwhelmed lawyer is thinking of hopping over to a "cushy" faculty post, I'd urge him or her to reconsider and maybe think of teaching high school. But, then again, I understand that teaching high school ain't a picnic these days either . . .