Suniya Luthar, Ph.D.

Privileged But Pressured

Doing for the Greater Good: What's Needed from Professors

Modeling eminence in scholarship along with commitment to doing for others.

Posted Dec 12, 2017

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“What jobs will there be for me outside of academia?” Increasingly, one hears this question from promising young scholars, skittish about careers in higher education. Several factors are likely implicated, including, most obviously, difficulty in acquiring research grants that are often important for getting tenure and promotions. With an increasingly competitive job market, many Ph.D.s also fear that they will end up with jobs as adjunct teaching professors, paid minimally and without benefits.

But there is another set of issues that also likely deters young people from careers in academe, and that is what we reward and prioritize in judging merit during promotion and tenure decisions—and what we don't.

My reflections on these issues were prompted by a thoughtful (and in my view, timely) essay last year by my former professor at Yale, Bob Sternberg, on what counts for success in academe. Besides noting what we typically consider for promotions (including grants acquired, citation rates, etc.), he asked whether there were things that we don’t count, but perhaps should. And these include aspects of doing for the greater good: making a difference to one’s community, society, or humanity.

Bob’s words piqued my interest because they resonated with what I’d recently heard from several talented young Ph.D. who were all disillusioned with the values espoused in the academy and on the verge of quitting. Across the board, they felt that what is rewarded is the attainment of personal status and prestige, in what they felt was a largely ‘corporate model’ of academe. What is not rewarded is being a good citizen and doing for the greater good, and they shared some examples with me. 

Not considered in tenure or promotion decisions are the time and effort given in serving on committees; in fact, these take time away from their own scholarship and publishing so that this actually ends up hurting them.

Not rewarded are efforts to push students to wrestle with deep thinking and learning. In fact, this pedagogical approach can elicit negative ratings (and sometimes biting comments) by a few students, which can skew overall evaluations of teaching, not to mention damage the morale of zestful, dedicated teachers. 

The disillusionment of these young Ph.D.s, unfortunately, is starkly mirrored in what my research group and I have learned from high-achieving youth on the verge of college. As a cohort, too many of these youngsters believe that adults value the splendor of their accomplishments much more than their decency and integrity as human beings. And this “achievements-contingent” approval brings high risks for depression, anxiety, and serious substance abuse. 

Recognizing these factors, I recently offered some suggestions on what we, as senior faculty in academe, might consider toward shifting the status quo. These are summarized in an essay in Perspectives in Psychological Science, called “Doing for the Greater Good: What Price in Academe?”

I argue that we need more recognition of faculty’s commitment to intrinsic values focused on community and relationships and not just extrinsic values that connote personal status or fame.

I suggested that in promotion and tenure decisions, academics formally recognize “giving science away” as my own graduate school mentors, Edward Zigler and Edmund Gordon, exhorted and modeled themselves. These stellar scientists fostered a strong commitment to take what we learn from our research and apply it to improve the lives of the children, families, and communities with whom we work.

As another example, I suggested that we formally recognize generosity in peer reviews, commending reviewers and editors who craft constructive, detailed peer reviews of others’ work (as opposed to a cursory few sentences saying “this is just no good”). 

Similarly, I suggested that we recognize faculty who go the extra mile in teaching and mentorship, not just by fostering deep thinking among their students, but also by bringing compassion and kindness to their role as advisors. I suggested too that we prioritize maintenance of integrity, with senior faculty deliberately supporting those who courageously expose egregious wrong-doings by some in power, often at great cost to themselves.

Of course, I am in no way suggesting that excellence in these new dimensions, based on intrinsic values, should compensate in any way for mediocrity in research or teaching. My suggestion is simply that we consider a new pillar as it were, in addition to those that we normally do.

Also, I am not suggesting that in faculty evaluations, the absence of contributions to the greater good imply any demerits for anyone. I am simply recommending that when individuals consistently contribute to others’ welfare across months and years, this certainly warrants explicit recognition with tangible rewards.

To summarize, I believe that if we are to retain the best and brightest in academe, it will be important to increasingly show, through our own actions as seniors in the academy, that we do in fact prioritize mutually supportive, collegial relationships and contributions to the welfare of others. We must begin to formally recognize faculty for contributions to their communities, society, and humanity—even as we strive for the very highest levels of excellence in research, publications, and scholarship. One of the major goals of universities is to develop the human capital of society. Keeping this in mind along with most millennials’ desire for work that is worthwhile and has meaning, we must take seriously the task of shaping the culture of higher education in the U.S. There is simply too much at stake for the next generation. 

References

Luthar, S. S.  (2017).  Doing for the greater good: What price, in academe?  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 1153-1158.  DOI10.1177/1745691617727863.

Sternberg, R. J. (2016). “Am I famous yet?” Judging scholarly merit in psychological science: An introduction. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 877-881.  DOI: 10.1177/1745691616661777 

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