June 1, 1999
Volume 51, No. 32
Donald Kennedy, Harvard University Press
reviewed by Bill Chace
Anyone searching for a first-rate guide into the world of higher education in this country will want to read this book and study its intelligent, well-reasoned and admirably lucid examination of the central issues now defining the American university.
Written by the former president of Stanford University, Academic Duty is without peer as a comprehensive treatment of both the virtues of the modern academy and the ills that plague it. Its only rival, Henry Rosovky's The University: An Owner's Manual (1991), is focused on Harvard to the exclusion of all other major American universities and suffers, as a result, from provincialism. Kennedy's book, on the other hand, uses Stanford only as the local means to scrutinize, in 10 well-constructed chapters, the basic conflicts and tensions that animate what is done on his campus, on this campus and what others like us elsewhere on other campuses do.
The book moves easily through the landscape-teaching, mentoring, publishing, gaining external funding, engaging in extramural activities, serving the university itself-that is the terrain we all know so well. But rarely has that landscape been seen so clearly, or with such attentiveness to its finer detail, its hidden ironies and its complexities. Kennedy knows that it is not enough simply to extol the many virtues of the American university. He therefore draws our attention to the kinds of attacks our critics make: "Tuitions are too high; racial tension is leading to segregation; faculty aren't paying attention to undergraduates; universities and colleges are loosely managed, soft on sexual harassment and unable to deal with what appears to be an epidemic of research misconduct; athletic scandals and campus drinking are out of hand; political correctness is an epidemic. And that's just the short list."
To each of these familiar criticisms he makes rejoinders that are fair, knowing that each reproach has gained its currency by being at least half plausible. His answers draw from his own experience in both defending a great university and knowing that such a place will forever appear alien to even the most intelligent outsiders. "Universities," he says, "are societies without rules. They nevertheless perform rather well, but much of what goes on behind the walls is deeply mysterious to the outside. The missing information amounts to a lesion in accountability, which I think has much to do with the rising chorus of national discontent with higher education. The best remedy is sympathetic understanding."
That understanding pervades this book. But the book is also infused with the conviction that professors must, all of them, come to terms with the fact that their calling compels them to respect two central realities: the freedom to pursue truth, wherever it leads, and the responsibility to render service to standing constituencies-students, departments, committees, one's peers and the public. Academic Duty is therefore both the title of the book and the implied injunction present everywhere in it. Kennedy again and again returns to the subject of the responsibilities of the professoriate and the academic administrations representing it.
His answers are clear: students must be better served, for the future
of the university "must entail putting students and their needs first";
universities must learn how to serve generations of students other than
the typical post-adolescent; every campus must embrace the reality of demographic
change in the world and in this country and must establish a stronger international
profile; interdisciplinary scholarship must be welcomed precisely to the
degree that it is rigorous, because in the long run such activity has been
the historical generator of much of what gives scholarly life its animation;
and universities must not fail to "exercise intellectual leadership
in the areas that a thoughtful public believes to be important." Kennedy
asks for a stronger attachment between the academy and that thoughtful public.
His book serves as one sturdy link in that attachment.