I have been working in higher education since 1978 – at Amherst College, Montana State University, and the University of Rhode Island. The current climate for higher education is the most challenging I have experienced or observed, especially for public colleges and universities. With public higher education caught between declining state support and escalating demands to restrain tuition increases, the financial climate is increasingly difficult. Expectations for access, accountability, and innovation are expanding for many private as well as public institutions. The sustained budget impasse in Washington is taking a toll, constraining research funding at a time when the nation, and the entire world, needs America’s research universities to do more, not less.
These factors, and many more, contribute to a growing set of issues around adaptation, flexibility, and governance. Governance questions associated with the role of shared governance on the campus, and the role of governing boards and government off the campus, have become especially pointed and problematic. In short, problems are multiplying, resources are diminishing, expectations are increasing, and stress is high.
So, why are so many people still interested in academic careers, especially on the faculty, and why do people with desirable options outside of academe choose to stay?
I like to read Yankee Magazine. Lynn indulges me by maintaining our subscription. Several months ago, Yankee ran a story on a person who trains border collies. One of the memorable quotes about border collies was that, for them, “The work is its own reward.” I believe that is true for many people – staff, faculty, and administrators – who devote their careers to higher education. Simply stated: the work we do is very rewarding. Higher education makes a profound and extremely positive difference in the lives of people, in the societies in which they live, in understanding the universe, and in sustaining the hope that we can build a brighter, sustainable future. The work we do is good work, in two common senses of the word: it is, in my judgment, far more frequently than not, of high quality, and it is virtuous.
That’s good, because the work is not easy and the preparation required to carry it out can be lengthy and arduous, especially for faculty. For many of our staff, the work can be physically or emotionally demanding, and the compensation relatively low. Consequently, although it is true that “the work is its own reward”, that should not be the only reward. Many full-time faculty at the University of Rhode Island are significantly less well compensated than their peers, and this problem needs to be urgently addressed. The University also needs to improve the working conditions for part-time faculty and decrease its reliance on such appointments, in part by increasing the number of full-time and tenure-track appointments. We need to increase the number and compensation of our staff in critical areas as well. None of these steps will be easy and, given the constraints on tuition increases, will require increased support from the state of Rhode Island. But it will certainly be rewarding if we succeed.
It is May and Commencement is approaching. Commencement provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate the good work of the students, of the faculty, and of the entire university community. It is a time of achievement, a time of promise, and a time of hope. The celebrations of the students and their families remind all of us that the work we do has tremendous rewards.