Today in Professional Ethics we're discussing an article about ethical failures in accounting. The author criticizes "academic accountants" for failing either to develop a theory of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or to take an active role in critiquing the accounting practices exemplified by the scandals involving Enron, Worldcom, and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. The research they do, according to this author, is mainly methodological, and mainly read only by other academic researchers. In other words, the research does not serve the public interest.
The question follows: whose interest does it serve? I can only conclude that it serves the interest of the academics themselves.
Publishing, in academic fields with which I'm most familiar, primarily serves the purposes of advancing a claim to deserve tenure or promotion. It is always carefully--not to say obsessively--recorded in a c.v. and in tenure/promotion "files" (which tend to be muliple enormous three-ring binders containing every piece of anything that academic has touched). At major research universities, the benefits of tenure and promotion are often significant financially and in terms of prestige and job security. At most levels of higher education, the financial and prestige rewards are more modest, but job security is highly prized.
This has the result that the article suggested was endemic to academic accounting research. In class, I used academic philosophy as an example. In this field, there is a tacit but near-universally recognized division between publication that "counts" and that doesn't count. The publication that counts includes publication in peer reviewed professional journals, monographs published by academic presses, and, to a lesser extent, book chapters published by invitation of the editor of an anthology.
In my view, academic publications in philosophy are, for the most part, dead letters--better yet, still born. At the moment of publication, the thoughts and ideas expire. Unless you are a highly prestigious academic, if the publication is read at all, the only response it is at all likely to elicit is to be cited somewhere. I have received no response whatsoever to the most significant article I've published (academically speaking).
Yet it is vital for candidates for tenure or promotion to generate these publications, in order to advance their careers. The situation for tenure candidates is the most dire, since career survival is at stake for many: publish or perish.
Thus it comes as no surprise that I have heard so many newly-tenured faculty say, "now I can research things I'm interested in!"
This is the price of job security. For six years of probation, and likely for several years prior to that, academics in many fields sacrifice their freedom of expression, thought, inquiry, and behavior. By the time they have tenure, how many of them have atrophied capacities for free inquiry or free expression? How many of them have been emotionally, socially, or physically crippled by the bloody-minded pursuit of security?
I am in my 16th year since completing my Phd. I am, for that and a variety of other reasons, a very poor candidate for a tenure-track position anywhere, and getting poorer by the day. The only job security I have had is a three-year appointment, from which I can be laid off with 45 days' notice.
I will never say, "now I can research things I'm interested in." I have no incentive to research anything but what I'm interested in, because the only reward for my research is the research itself. I have never had to hold my tongue, never had to attend a dinner at the campus president's house. As I've stated before in this space, I probably do not have academic freedom, but neither do those on the tenure-track; however, I have the advantage of academic license.
I am more free. I am also in a more precarious situation. So I wonder, now, whether precariousness is the price of freedom, just as freedom is the price of security.