Academics are frequently criticized for isolating themselves in the ivory towers of colleges and universities, often immersing themselves in research to the exclusion of the surrounding community or other overriding public obligations.
A proposal currently under consideration by the Faculty Senate Executive Committee would require faculty members to participate in community-relevant research as a condition for tenure. At Wednesday's FSEC meeting, Robert G. Shibley, chair of the Faculty Senate Committee on Public Service and Urban Affairs, discussed the importance of linking academic pursuits to public service. Shibley revived a 1995 Faculty Senate Resolution that suggested community service be a key consideration for tenure and promotion.
The intellectual community clearly should not operate in a vacuum. Utilizing tenure decisions as an incentive for faculty to conduct community-oriented research is one means of encouraging professors to consider social responsibilities when undertaking research projects. As President Greiner emphasized in yesterday's convocation speech, academia must be at the forefront of educating and enlightening society - a weighty responsibility that obligates academicians to be active participants in the community.
Jane Addams' 19th century research on the socioeconomic situation of an underprivileged immigrant neighborhood is a perfect example of the successful convergence of social and academic endeavors. Her scholarly report not only contributed to contemporary intellectual debate, but ultimately prompted much-needed social reform.
UB is often criticized for neglecting its communal responsibilities and operating without regard for the region. Its professors have produced and are currently involved in a wide array of notable studies and research which bring distinction to the university and advances knowledge in a broad range of disciplines - all of which must be recognized and rewarded. The university should afford special prestige, however, to research projects that advance community goals or apply abstract findings to concrete real-world problems. Such a stance would recognize that academics concurrently have strong social obligations.
Mandating public service as a prerequisite for tenure, however, is the wrong way to foster such service. Junior faculty members are already burdened with existing tenure requirements, and should focus on mastering their discipline and becoming effective teachers. Instituting a top-down requirement of public service would only engender contempt on the part of many faculty members. In addition, inherent in the concept of public service is the idea that it is undertaken voluntarily and with a genuine desire to further the community.
Furthermore, areas of study such as classics, philosophy or English do not readily lend themselves to service to the community, unlike medicine or business, which are more easily applied to addressing community concerns. Forcing a vague concept of "public service" on such disciplines is counterproductive, and detracts from existing study in those areas.
While the university should clearly promote public service, it should do so through incentives and inducements rather than across-the-board mandates. In this manner, public service could be one of many considerations in the tenure review process. Faculty members should be recognized and rewarded not only for their academic contributions, but for their contributions to the larger community.