THE BLOG

What Professors Do

03/10/2015 09:56 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015

A friend of mine recently became a professor. A widely produced playwright, he joined the theater department of a top university. When I have asked him about the transition to academe, he always has remarked upon the committee work that he has to do. It is not uncommon for new faculty members to be surprised by the extent of administrative responsibilities.

He knew that as a professor, he would be expected to continue his scholarship, in his case creative rather than scientific: turning out theatrical scripts. He is enthusiastic about the teaching, which includes full productions of classic and original plays, preparing students who would like to be professional actors.

But he had not appreciated that he and his colleagues also would have to perform service that constitutes "shared governance." He finds himself in meetings to create academic policies and make other judgment calls about the program.

The new professor is happy to have the job. He carries out his assignments without complaint. He is merely noting his prior ignorance about how much work occurs behind the scenes.

Most outsiders probably do not realize how democracy functions within an institution of higher education. In times past (and here and there within the world even today), a school would be called a "faculty" in recognition that it was a self-governing, self-perpetuating collection of scholar-teachers. The law school brochure would show its proper title as "The Faculty of Law." It remains true that those who belong to this assembly of intellectuals protect their prerogatives as much as they can; they are the experts on the content of what they do, even as students prefer to call themselves consumers and the techniques of corporate management increasingly intrude.

While a governing board oversees the school and professionals take care of everything from admissions and placement to counseling and concerns such as sexual assault, it is the faculty as a community who determine the standards for the curriculum, who will be hired as an instructor or awarded tenure, and even, to a considerable extent, who will be selected to lead them. They are charged with much more than research and teaching.

For my friend, that translates into additional activities. There is a long list of tasks that require that a scholar venture beyond his expertise. The decisions that must be made can be the subject of argument.

In campus settings, it becomes apparent that our ideals compel our engagement. If we want a role in the drama, we have to participate.