Cotugno on Cahn, 'Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies'

Steven M. Cahn. Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 128 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-978801-50-9

Reviewed by Marianne Cotugno (Miami University of Ohio)
Published on H-FedHist (April, 2021)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version:

Even before COVID-19, higher education was experiencing a public crisis. Debates about the value of a liberal arts education, concerns about increased student debt, and questions about higher education as a public good have only increased in the past year. Steven M. Cahn’s Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies adds to an already vibrant body of scholarship that examines contemporary higher education, particularly debates about how universities function and the role of the liberal arts. Cahn announces his slim volume’s purpose: “My chief concern is how professors, and secondarily administrators, too often act in ways that do not serve the best interests of their schools or students” (p. ix). The author, an internationally recognized professor emeritus of philosophy, whose own work as a scholar and teacher is celebrated in A Teacher’s Life: Essays for Steven M. Cahn (2009) draws on his experiences as both a faculty member and administrator to address many aspects of the university, from how we prepare graduate students to teach to how we shape departmental culture to how we choose administrators. Cahn also engages with some of the most contentious conversations of the day both inside and outside the academy: liberal arts education, curricular structures, and the future of tenure.

To support his arguments, Cahn relies more on personal experience and less on the work of other scholars. Cahn writes, “Examples of both exemplary and deplorable action will appear in the subsequent discussion, which draws freely on personal experiences, as well as my previous writings, reworked to provide a unified presentation” (p. xii). Written in a highly accessible manner, this book might interest those curious about the reflections of someone with a great deal of experience in higher education in a variety of roles, including professor, chair, dean, provost, and acting provost, as well as time working for the Exxon Education Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

One particular area of concern for Cahn is the lack of value placed on high-quality teaching in higher education. Drawing on decades of professional experience, Cahn offers some useful advice, such as providing more opportunities for graduate students to improve their teaching (p. 6), crafting position openings that “emphasize the importance of excellence in teaching” (p. 33), weighing excellence in teaching equally with excellence in research when awarding merit increases, and providing opportunities for course release time to develop new pedagogies (p. 38).

Unfortunately, Cahn’s book suffers from a limited, and perhaps overly pessimistic, view of faculty. Despite a lengthy career in multiple roles in higher education, Cahn’s narrow viewpoint is evident in “How Professors View Academia,” his first chapter. Cahn begins by noting how professors value research and scholarly pursuit above all else. Cahn writes, “Even faculty members who have few academic accomplishments regard themselves as experts whose pursuit of knowledge, whether by writing, reading, or thinning, is the essence of academia” (p. 2). Perhaps this has been Cahn’s experience as someone who has spent most of his academic career at doctoral institutions, although I suspect many of Cahn’s colleagues might object to the characterization, too. Cahn frequently describes faculty as being self-absorbed and self-serving, as when he describes how faculty engage in “trading requirements” (p. 58) as part of agreeing to add particular curricular requirements. Discussing department meetings, Cahn writes, “Actually, remarkably few professors are able to transfer their scholarly skills to discussions of practical issues. Just present the group with a real-life problem, and the meeting is apt to turn into a melange of reminiscences, irrelevancies, and impracticalities. Rarely can consensus be reached, and even then likely fails to do justice to the complexities of the problem” (p. 75). Although department meetings of the kind Cahn describes undoubtedly occur, they are more the exception than the norm. Otherwise, universities would fail to function. Cahn paints faculty with too broad a brush, but offers a portrait that serves those who wish to do away with tenure and question the value of higher education as a whole. It is not just unfortunate, but dangerous.

Another blind spot in the book concerns questions of access and equity in higher education. In “The Case for Liberal Education,” Cahn writes that “every member of a democracy should be able to read, write, and speak effectively so as to be able to participate fully in the free exchange of ideas that is vital to an open society” (p. 54), but fails to acknowledge the many challenges facing underrepresented students in achieving those goals through education. Later he notes, “If anyone complains that our democracy provides too much education for too many, they reveal their misunderstanding of a democratic society, for how can the electorate be too educated, know too much, or be too astute?” (p. 54), but neglects to identify who might offer such an objection. Certainly, concerns about the high cost of higher education as seen through skyrocketing student debt are fair, but Cahn does not mention this. Instead, the chapter concludes by pointing the finger at professors as responsible for making “problematic” the “instituting of appropriate requirements” (p. 54) when (in Cahn’s view) the fundamentals of a liberal education are so uncontroversial.

The title seems to promise an insider’s view of academia, and indeed, it does, but it is a limited view and one that does not reflect the experiences of many faculty, administrators, and students. More importantly, the book reifies some of the worst myths about higher education institutions and does a disservice to those actively engaged in the public conversation about the role of higher education in a democratic society.

Citation: Marianne Cotugno. Review of Cahn, Steven M., Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.