Humanizing the University

Graham Spanier
January 01, 2000

Early in my presidency at Penn State one of our deans called me, concerned that one of the college's best young faculty members, a rising star, was about to leave for another institution. "Please call and convince this person to stay," the dean asked. I invited the faculty member to meet with me. I can be persuasive, and I certainly tried to be.

bearded professor talking to seated students in classroom
James Collins

A commitment to students plus an exceptional level of scholarship is the key to academic excellence.

I learned that this recently tenured associate professor had an offer from a top-ten department, whereas our department at Penn State was currently ranked in the second ten. The salary was going to be the same, so that wasn't an issue. We had given a huge amount of support during the faculty member's tenure here, favorable teaching assignments, release time to get a research program going. No complaints. I then proceeded to hear an analysis of the comings and goings of people in the field, an analysis of likely future ranking shifts due to retirements and hires, and other variables that reflected an undebatable, yet cold-blooded logic about academic hierarchies. The analysis gave me the chills. By the end of our conversation, I was almost glad this person was leaving. Why? Because I found, in listening, no attachment to Penn State after eight years, no feeling of gratitude for all that departmental colleagues had done, no expression of emotional attachments to Penn State students, in short no compelling reason to stay.

Nationwide, there is a conversation occurring about how to get faculty to be more actively involved with their universities. Many faculty members are really independent operators who are only marginally tied into the life of the university. Their allegiance is not to the institution for which they work, but to their discipline nationally and internationally, an orientation that tends to be reinforced by the academic reward structure. Hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions are based in the department, or college, and the department's strongest frame of reference is its academic discipline viewed globally. Our nation's research universities have spawned two faculties: those who do and those who don't—those who believe it is their responsibility to engage fully with each cohort of students and those who do not see this as their primary responsibility.

Must this be viewed as an "either/or" struggle? I believe an allegiance to one's university, pride in our shared mission and stature, commitment to our students, and loyalty to our colleagues can be entirely compatible with standards of academic excellence, prominence as a scholar, and national recognition as a department. I wish to challenge our faculty in particular to get more involved in the lives of our students.

I prefer not to fault individuals, since this situation exists at all leading universities. It is a situation of our own collective making. And despite all protestations to the contrary, we continue to orient the reward structure so that interaction outside the classroom with undergraduates counts for very little. To be honest, every experienced department head can point to casualties—cases of junior faculty members ultimately denied tenure because they became so immersed with student advising and programming that they neglected their scholarship. So let's admit up front that we indeed expect an exceptional level of scholarship from our faculty. Balance is the key. Balance.

Graham Spanier, Ph.D., is the president of Penn State. He holds four academic appointments—as professor of human development and family studies, sociology, demography, and family and community medicine. This essay is an excerpt from his 1999 State of the University Address.

Last Updated January 01, 2000