2. Social contract professionalism in crisis
2.1 The social contract model of professionalism
The basic conception of professionalism as a form of social contract is likely familiar. Briefly, under the model of the social contract, a profession is an organized labor group that claims to have technical expertise necessary to perform very specialized work that fulfills a public need. The profession claims, further, an exclusive right to make judgments about the work done by its members, based on this expertise. In exchange for social recognition of the legitimacy of these claims to the exclusive right to practice and to judge practice — sometimes referred to respectively as monopoly over service and peer review — the profession pledges to employ its collective expertise to serve the public good. On the social contract theory of monopolistic, peer-review professions, sustaining the claim of professional status depends on making a convincing case to the public that the profession serves the public’s vital interest, by marshaling the technical expertise of a specialized knowledge base, through the independent judgment of practitioners, in service to the public’s needs. In pursuit of that case, most professions promulgate codes or statements of ethics.
The social contract between professors and the public has been articulated in various documents published by the American Association of University Professors, principally among them the 1915 Declaration and the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The basic bargain of the professoriate’s social contract seems to be that professors are to pursue and disseminate knowledge for the sake of the public good, in exchange for the public’s acknowledgement of the expertise and the right of professors to do so – hence, the emphasis on academic freedom, peer review, and tenure in discussions of faculty work. In his contribution to the AACU report, Jerry G. Gaff explains that the justifying rationale for academic freedom and the authority of faculty is that “[t]hese principles are essential to scholarly integrity and to providing students a sound education…; that is, they are essential for the fulfillment of the professoriate’s responsibility to the larger society” (19f). In short, the professional rights claimed by academics are justified by an ethical responsibility they incur as part of a bargain that establishes their specialized role and status.
The AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Professional Ethics (revised 1987 and 2009) expresses professors’ obligations and rights with respect to disciplinary knowledge, their students, their colleagues, their institutions, and finally the society at large. The Statement on Professional Ethics is fairly ordinary, in comparison to other professions’ ethics statements, regarding the general language and tone used to state principles. For instance, the first principle begins:
1. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence.
One perfectly ordinary feature of this statement of principle is its banal, yet high-minded, rhetoric. On one hand, the “professors” sound superbly principled; on the other hand, given that most “professors” become “professors” by having already devoted their energies to their scholarly pursuits, this principle is hardly self-sacrificing. Interestingly, the address of this statement is not simple to pin down. It seems clearly enough to address “professors” regarding their ethical responsibilities to their disciplines and to the pursuit of truth. Yet it also announces to all who would care to read it the intent and the right of “professors” to declare the truth “as they see it.” That is, the statement seems to have a complex audience, and to address either, or both, professors and the public, regarding professors’ claims of responsibility. A lengthy excerpt follows of the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics, highlighting particular rights and responsibilities I will want to reflect on later.
2. As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit…
3. As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars… Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution.
4. As members of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars. Although professors observe the stated regulations of the institution, provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom, they maintain their right to criticize and seek revision. Professors give due regard to their paramount responsibilities within their institution in determining the amount and character of work done outside it. When considering the interruption or termination of their service, professors recognize the effect of their decision upon the program of the institution and give due notice of their intentions.
Any experienced academic professional will know that adhering to this set of responsibilities, which is to say exercising these rights, requires rigorous intellectual exertion. Demanding though they are, given the proper setting, preparation, and commitment to responsibility, they appear to be reasonable expectations for persons of ordinary moral feeling to meet. No one needs to be heroic or saintly, or of astounding individual genius, to succeed.