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By RJ Snell, November 2, 2009 in Outside the Classroom

In An Education for our Time, Josiah Bunting suggests that the fictional Adams College ought to hire mentors especially based on "how the candidates have lived their own lives . . . " (210).

Even more, perhaps, than their publishing record.

I wonder, should good character become an issue in hiring?—and not just the feeble "collegiality," but goodness.

Can a university in a liberal regime understand what this means, let alone enact it? But if such a university cannot understand or enact this, the moral nature of its "citizens," can the university attain its telos?

And if the university cannot attain its telos, ought it be a university?

Is it time, in other words, to admit that many universities are technical colleges? And that technical colleges are wonderful things, but decidedly not universities?

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18 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Nov 2, 2009 at 6:03 am

In some sense, a person's philosophical and political views play a role in the hiring process. We often can tell a person's philosophy from what he or she is working on, their pedagogical approach in the classroom, or from recommendations from other people. Religious institutions (when they are committed to their mission statement) require a certain character in a person's theological beliefs and practices.

I feel somewhat compelled to defend collegiality. Although it is often subject to abuse, I do think civility and professionalism (which we really mean by collegiality) should be expected of faculty.

Patrick M. Ford on Nov 2, 2009 at 6:09 am

The last question is one that has been on my mind a good deal, RJ, though in the slightly different context of university reform. We here in the University Stewardship Program of ISI are trying to actively promote what ISI has more quietly—but effectively—promoted for decades, namely, the traditional liberal arts curriculum. One major challenge that we have not really begun to address is how to approach different sorts of institutions in different ways.

Complicating this reflection is the problem you point out: most universities are a strange brew of liberal, practical, and downright ecletic. "Want to learn about Celtic Studies/Classics/Consumer Science/Dairy Science/Dance/Design Studies/English/Folklore/Genetics/Geography? Generic U. is the place for you!"

How, then, does one approach institutional reform at an institution that has no discernible identity, no end goal beyond the regularly professed one of turning out "leaders," etc.? (How many leaders do you think the Folklore studies program produces?)

RJ Snell on Nov 2, 2009 at 7:51 am

Gentlemen, thanks for the comments.

Wouldn't want to downplay collegiality--at all--just considering that actual goodness isn't equivalent.

John von Heyking on Nov 2, 2009 at 12:32 pm

I wonder when goodness (i.e., moral virtue) was ever a governing component in a hiring process. Departments certainly look for collegiality, and this can overlap with moral virtue when what counts with collegiality has something to do with moral virtue, especially when, at times, moral virtue might require one to jettison collegiality.

Even so, before the modern university fell to all the pathologies Mr. Ford mentions, collegiality was frequently something one sought in a "gentleman." But a "gentleman" is not the same as a scholar, and moral virtue is not the same as intellectual virtue.

Lee Trepanier on Nov 3, 2009 at 3:12 am

In response to Patrick's question, my sense is that for public institutions, the way to cultivate traditional liberal arts program is done through faculty and organizations, e.g., Honors Program; for private institutions, the appeal could be more direct to administrators, such as the president or provost. Even if you have an administrator sympathetic to traditional liberal arts education, he or she is constrained by external factors in the promotion of such a program, since they are more accountable by enrollment and assessment. Private institutions have more flexible in these areas.

RJ Snell on Nov 3, 2009 at 5:50 am

John, correctly in my judgment, states that a "'gentleman' is not a scholar." Indeed, which is why, if I'm reading him correctly, Gen. Bunting seeks mentors who are "gentlemen."

In Bunting's kallipolis--Adams College--a distinction is made between mentors and professors. Professors are accomplished scholars, and the College hires very few of them. Mentors are accomplished at acting, at living, and have the requisite more virtues of good living.

My early question admitted that in the contemporary university it might very well be the case that a in a liberal regime the university couldn't/woudn't hire such mentors, and as John reminds me, the university hires scholars.

Thus my initial question: scholars are more like specialists than "gentlemen," and the university hires scholars. So is the university really just a place for technical training (now in the humanities, now in the arts, now in the sciences, now in business) and so we really ought to call the university a technical college.

Again, I'm all for collegiality, but that's a poor substitute for moral goodness, but perhaps the university can not care about moral goodness, which is why the university is a technical college. And maybe we should call things by their proper names.

Anthony Gill on Nov 3, 2009 at 7:28 am

Okay, I'm quickly realizing that I am out of my league here as most of you folks are steeped in political theory, philosophy and theology, whereas I'm just an institutional political economist who loves liberty and gets flummoxed by big words. That said...

I think it would be largely difficult, if not impossible, to make "good character" a component of hiring, particularly in state schools. The biggest problem I see is the deep permeatin of moral relativism in academia, most notably at public institutions but also pervasive in many private (even religiously-oriented) schools. Trying to get 3 or 4 faculty, let alone 25 or so, to come up with a common definition of "good character" would be a task akin to convincing a polar bear to become a vegetarian. In my department, I think the best we could do would be "the candidate is committed strongly to recycling."

Collegiality is much easier to define as it basically means, "don't yell at me in the hall."

The other problem (related to the first) is that of legality in a litigious world. If it came out that a candidate was passed over because he had "poor character," one could only imagine the lawsuit that would result. (Of course, one could argue that a person of good character would accept a defeat with a stiff upper lip, but a person of bad character would immediately hire a lawyer hence proving the case that the candidate who sues is of poor moral character. But this just leads us to a paradoxical tautology.)

I know a couple of confessional universities do require a "faith statement" of their employees, but the degree to which this is taken seriously or viewed as an anachronistic pro forma tradition varies widely. Some of the smaller religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges (e.g., Calvin College) may be the last bastion of this practice. Baylor is probably the biggest university that I can think of that still takes its faith statement seriously and seeks to enforce it. I might argue that Notre Dame or other Catholic universities do so as well, but my experience that such a statement is only applied strictly to the clergy serving on faculty and not lay professors.

I will grant that a faith statement is not necessarily associated with good character, but this is the only realm that I can think of where "good character" is specifically defined and used as a hiring criteria.

I would be curious to know how y'all would define "good character"? What component parts would constitute "good character" with particular reference to a university environment.

RJ Snell on Nov 3, 2009 at 8:55 am

Just for the sake of "clarity," let's grant that collegiality is a character trait especially necessary in a technical college/university. It is a virtue of thin communities without a shared conception of the good.

A rather thicker community, such as Bunting's Adam's College, will have collegiality, one would suspect, but will think it not the most important thing. And that more important thing is not publication record but living well.

What is that living well? That good character? Well, that is a large question, but Bunting gives us a hint. In response to the question "What do you teach?" We would want mentors who respond, "I teach men and women." (205)

The virtues would be those of free men and women, and not just intellectual cunning so praised by the technical college. (Yes, I think I shall just call universities technical colleges until I'm convinced otherwise.)

Lee Trepanier on Nov 4, 2009 at 4:30 am

The idea of a virtuous character is one that we should strive for in our faculty, but I wondered how it would be implemented practically? How do we distinguish between those who have virtue from those who donít, especially in todayís legal world of non-discrimination?

Anthony Gill on Nov 4, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I would agree that universities have become technical colleges, particularly with a proliferation of majors and interdisciplinary programs. The latter is a bit ironic in that as we seek to have faculty well-rounded in multiple disciplines, the proliferation of various interdisciplinary programs have had a very narrowing effect in state universities. I am talking about interdisciplinary programs such as "globalization studies," "environmental studies" and the like. This has been pushing students away from the traditional disciplines and into programs that are often dictated by academic fads (yet the program never goes away).

That said, and echoing Lee, I do want to push this conversation into more specific suggestions. What does it mean to have a faculty with good character? How do I demonstrate good character? What are the dimensions of good character?

RJ Snell on Nov 5, 2009 at 5:24 am

With respect to all the questions of practicality--I grant them, which is, I suspect, why Bunting feels the need, like Plato, to create the best university in speech whilst admitting how unlikely this is.

But then let's grant as well that the universities aren't, well, universities, but rather research centers/technical schools.

And what counts as good character? Those virtues conducive to human flourishing in community.

Anthony Gill on Nov 5, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Okay, this is what drives me crazy about philosophy and political theory.

"Those virtues conducive to human flourishing in community" is pretty vague. Indeed, one could say that teaching people technical skills is a virtue conducive to flourishing in community." I have colleagues that would say someone who supports the radical egalitarian redistribution of wealth would count as a virtue conducive to flourishing in community."

The initial post asked whether we should look for certain qualities in a faculty hire. How does one determine if one has virtues conducive to flourishing in society?

I think faith statements at religious institutions are a practical way of getting at this issue. It explicitly asks faculty to uphold several tenets of a particular faith including regular worship, a witness to Jesus, etc.

And if we give up as to coming up with specifics "whilst admitting how unlikely this is," then we might as well just not discuss the matter as all since it becomes a matter of intellectual self-indulgence rather than a matter of practicality. And again, I took the initial post to be a question of practicality.

RJ Snell on Nov 5, 2009 at 4:14 pm

But you see, my point isn't really one of practicality, or at least practicality is a secondary concern. My initial post is highly abstract, namely, ought we even consider the contemporary university a university since it is mostly concerned with technique.

Many of the responses point this out, worrying about, as you might suspect, the practicalities of hiring faculty based on character--the legality, discrimination, pluralism and so on.

What this indicates, as I suggested in an earlier response, is that the university wants scholars rather than, as one respondent put it, "gentlemen." And the desire for scholars rather than gentlemen is why Adams College is a fictional kallipolis. But this fiction serves to critique the actuality, viz, in a liberal regime such as ours the universities are only technical schools.

So when I suggest that the virtues are those necessary for human flourishing in community, I do this with great glee, for we do not share conceptions of community, which is why we settle for collegiality or, as Anthony says in his last response, technical skills or redistribution. MacIntyre is correct: their isn't just one standard of human flourishing and the communities, practices and virtues thereof. We do not and cannot agree to such things, and thus we don't have universities any longer. And, as MacIntyre knows, this means a turn to other forms, a different Benedict.

As to self-indulgence: the underlying question is about the status of universities and whether they can serve their primary social function, and if not whether Adams College, Buntings school "in speech" is perhaps a necessity.

The demand for practicality--for action--is a bias, I would claim, and very often leads to very quick and very mistaken action, for without a notion of where we are going, what's the point of acting? Our "universities" are all about acting, and do any of us trust them?

Why is it indulgent to think through how we form young citizens before rushing off to form young technocrats at war with our traditions and values and hostile to the "very graciousness of being" ? When the machine is cranking out drones with stings, throwing dirt in the machine's gears seems pretty practical.

Anthony Gill on Nov 7, 2009 at 8:34 am

Hmmmm...

I see better now what point you are trying to make, and as noted above I grant your conclusion that universities today may be no more than technical colleges. Actually, I think the situation may be worse in that at a technical college you still get trained in a set of useful skills such as computer repair. Today's universities may be little more than self-aggrandizing institutions for an intellectual aristocracy with courses being offered that are so narrowly defined so as to match faculty specialty that they are neither enlightening in the global or practical in the technical.

But there is where I think a demand for practicality can make a difference. We can throw dirt in the machine's gears and take glee at that, but I consider the point of ISI to be incentivizing* and training scholars who can enter the machine and change gears. Hence my focus on your earlier question of "good character in hiring." As a full prof at a major state university, I am firmly entrenched in the machine (this sounds so Pink Floydian) yet I hope I not so entrenched as to be called Prof. Borg. And I'm involved in hiring decisions. So I'm less concerned with throwing dirt** and more concerned with finding practical ideas of how to find some proper mechanics and how to shift the gears! Indeed, I have volunteered recently for university service in the area of crafting the future teaching goals of my institution -- in essence I'm being invited in to the central engine to get my hands dirty.

So, again I stand on the heaps of philosophical tomes and raise my voice to call for practical solutions. I can wax philosophical all day about the bulldozer of national health care coming my way, and I can worry about "quick and mistaken action," but there comes a point where I have to figure out how to dismantle that bulldozer lest I be laid flat to rest. And as for a "notion of where we are going," that is a very pragmatic answer. How do I -- as somebody sitting on a hiring committee or involved in decision-making processes regarding teaching at a major university -- know what is the right direction to go? This is a very pragmatic question that does demand pragmatic answers. Let's pull out the map (or the engineering blueprints of the modern university) and draw up an action plan. That's what I'm here for. Assist me in rebuilding trust in our universities. A university with more dirt in the gears won't really inspire more trust among the general populace.

(Apologies for the various mixed metaphors.)

As noted above, I'm not the philosophical type so I seem to be a fish out of water here. I share the ISI's goals of encouraging a free society through a well-rounded education, but I will admit to being the more rudimentary economic technocrat. I tend to prefer Gary Becker to Edmund Burke.

This is not meant to refer to any ad hominem reference as in "political mud slinging," but rather is a reference to your analogy regarding responses to the problems of a contemporary university.

UPDATE: Well, as of this evening (11/7/09), we are one step closer to not having to worry about that bulldozer known as nationalized health care. That frees up more time to throw dirt in the gears of the machine.

Anthony Gill on Nov 7, 2009 at 9:45 pm

I don't think I ever answered one of the last questions posed:

"Why is it indulgent to think through how we form young citizens before rushing off to form young technocrats at war with our traditions and values and hostile to the "very graciousness of being" ?"

It is not indulgent "to think through how we form young citizens before rushing off" per se. However, it is indulgent simply to think through how we form young citizens before rushing off and then not do anything about it if we think there is a terrible problem eating away at our traditional institutions. And doing something requires making tough decisions rooted in specifics recommendations.

So, let me ask again, what do you recommend?

I should also note that we've been thinking about how we form young citizens for centuries now. The thoughts generated seem to me to be devolving into irrelevant arguments wherein we quote our favorite philosopher much like we play a trump card in a game of bridge. Unfortunately, if we continuously see that exercise merely as an intellectual parlor game we never do get to the point of trying to put our ideas into action where they are needed most. We simply retreat to the parlor that happens to have our most favorite bridge partners. Meanwhile, those that share antithetical views to our own are happily filling academia with people who may very well be undermining the foundations of a free society.

Lee Trepanier on Nov 9, 2009 at 2:44 am

What it seems to me what we are discussing about is the conditions to make education (preferably liberal education) flourish, which is no easy task. I donít think there is any disagreement about the problems confronting the modern university, but how do we transform the university to a place where education can take place?

RJ Snell on Nov 9, 2009 at 5:16 am

We've thought through how to form young citizens for centuries now, and yet our institutions of learning are in crisis (I'll assert that here, could defend if needed). Why? Options: (a) good ideology combined with poor policy, or (b)bad policy rooted in bad ideology?

I'll go with b. Bad policy rooted in bad ideology. I don't think our problem is an shortage of policy options given a coherent, agreed-upon conception of the liberal arts in a free society. (My own administration at my college has many practical ideas, lots of policy options, and that's just one, smallish liberal arts college) Ideas have consequences, we're in a regime of some really bad ideas, and so bad consequences.

The notion that "just do it" is a trump card which defeats useless theory might be true if the institutions were healthy and the ideas good. They aren't, and solutions will take some time, and will need to include a full-orbed vision of the good life in community.

So I simply won't accept the notion that we need to get busy. Get busy to do what? Implement technocracy? Gear students for their CPA exams? Meet No Child Left Behind standards? Push students towards social justice? Make them ladies and gentlemen? Citizens of the cosmos? Which is it?

In our regime the answer seems to be technocracy and the CPA exams. No thanks.

But I'll give one practical solution: Classes reading good books, slowly, in a virtue-forming community.

And what is that?

Bunting suggested that we hire teachers based on their moral standing.

Which takes us back to the beginning.

Lee Trepanier on Nov 12, 2009 at 2:59 am

I don't think anyone is advocating to "get busy" for the sake of being busy (although I'm sure there are administrators who do subscribe to this viewpoint); rather, I think what we are trying to clarify is how to implement liberal education at our institutions. Perhaps the first step would be hiring teachers based on their moral standings, but what do we mean moral standing? Isn't is possible to have excellent teachers who are immoral?

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.