President's Message: Rethinking the Academic Mission

Larry GrossThe dawn of our present era - decade, century, millennium - seems particularly ripe for radical rethinking. The past few decades have witnessed unprecedented shifts in the global landscape, as the new technologies of the digital age have fast-tracked worldwide economic shifts and the concurrent societal upheavals. The start of this century was rocked by the attacks of 9/11, setting off a new state of perpetual war to fill the vacuum only recently created by the end of the Cold War that poisoned the second half of the 20th century. The world is only slowly coming to accept the realities of climate change and its threat to the survival of civilization, but that acceptance is not yet being translated into action of the sort needed to avert probable catastrophic consequences. The implosion of speculative bubbles inflated by newly unregulated banking led to a worldwide economic crisis on a scale not seen since the 1930s. In other words, we find ourselves in truly turbulent times that truly deserve the sort of hyperbolic labels given to calendar milestones.

In this crazy world, the affairs of universities and their inhabitants might not amount to a hill of beans, but they are still important to us and - I would argue - to the societies that support us, send us their children to educate, and hire our students. Universities are among the most respected and protected institutions around, even in such difficult economic times, and we owe it to ourselves and our students to carefully reflect on our mission and our successes and failures.

In this and the next few columns I will address a number of challenges and opportunities facing the academic enterprise, and communication studies in particular. I will be drawing upon an article I contributed to the recent volume, Making the University Matter, edited by Barbie Zelizer (Routledge, 2011), as well as recent discussions and debates that have been percolating across the academic landscape.

As a lifer who has served more than 40 years in the field of communication studies but also, as most academics these days, with an appreciation for the value of inter- and cross-disciplinary scholarship, I focus here on the strengths and weaknesses of my own discipline. The time is right for re-evaluation of the focus and mission of communication studies programs. I propose several distinct but related directions for rethinking the role of the discipline and of communications scholarship:

  1. the rediscovery of relevance, or the return of the repressed in communication studies;
  2. the expansion of our definitions and criteria for scholarship to encompass more public engagement;
  3. the broadening of our vision of career paths for our doctoral students; facing up to the conditions of academic labor in communication studies.

To accomplish any of these goals would require articulating new missions and goals for our discipline, rethinking the values, practices and curricula of our academic programs, and persuading university leaders and administrators of the importance of a more engaged scholarship. In these columns, I will lay out some of the grounds for the arguments and sketch some steps to take, as well as immediate barriers to overcome.

I am sure that many, perhaps most ICA members are aware of the debates swirling around these questions, and others, taking different forms in different countries and institutional systems. Let me start at the end, as it were, by briefly elaborating on the last point in the list above. If there is any group of folks whose interests are a matter of real concern to academics, it is the fate of our apprentices, the doctoral students we work with closely, many of whom become our colleagues and friends. As I sometimes say to our doctoral students - you are the students we pay to study with us. But, how are our doctoral students doing these days when they graduate and leave the nest?

To cite a recent example that has achieved some visibility in the United States, the current president of the American Historical Association, eminent Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, along with AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman, just published "A very modest proposal for graduate programs in history" ( The point of their modest proposal was not, as Jonathan Swift fans might imagine, that senior faculty butcher and cook their graduate students, but merely that they face facts and acknowledge that "For all their energy and learning, their range and experience, many of these students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities."

This conclusion is not limited to historians. A similar analysis of careers in English literature in the U.S. concludes: "The facts that jump out at me are that fewer than half of all Ph.D.ís find tenure-track jobs. This is simply an issue of supply and demand. If English departments across the country consistently produce more than twice the number of Ph.D.'s as there are tenure-track jobs, we should hardly be surprised at the 49.4-percent placement rate. That leaves more than 26 percent of Ph.D.'s in non-tenure-track teaching positions, a goal to which no one getting an English Ph.D. aspires" (

The picture is not much different in Canada, and this has recently been noted by official bodies:

For young doctoral students in Canada, acquiring professional skills is increasingly essential. The supply of postgraduates outstrips the demand for full-time academics, and many students find themselves eyeing alternative careers in industry, government, or the not-for-profit sector. New training programs have sprung up in the past few years, with more on the way, designed to give them professional skills, such as communication, leadership, and intellectual-property management, for careers in industry, government, or academe.

"We see that the majority of our university graduates don't have an academic career, so we are sending the message to think about the future career of your trainees," says Isabelle Blain, vice president of research grants and scholarships at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.... The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, another Canadian government agency, expects to unveil its own professional-skills program next March. (

How do the varied fields and domains gathered under the communication umbrella fair in this context? We are still benefitting from robust undergraduate enrollments, but as Craig Calhoun warned in his ICA plenary talk that I cited last month, "The supply of students who want vaguely conceptualized communication careers may not be infinite" ( The challenge of matching supply to demand in academic career preparation has been acute in many fields for some time now, and the field of communication studies would be well advised - on both practical and ethical grounds - to address it sooner rather than later.

I will return to this and the other questions I listed above, but for now I want to once again alert ICA members to a valuable set of articles that has just been published in the International Journal of Communication. Jonathan Sterne has edited a special Feature section on "The Politics of Academic Labor in Communication Studies." I strongly urge everyone with an interest in the institutions we all live in, or aspire to live in, to take a close look at these important contributions.

In 1908 the Cambridge classicist C. M. Cornford published a pamphlet, the Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician, that captured much of the frustration facing those endeavoring to change the practices of academic institutions. Cornford spelled out two principles particularly valuable for the avoidance of change:

The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future -- expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy. A little reflection will make it evident that the Wedge argument implies the admission that the persons who use it cannot prove that the action is not just. If they could, that would be the sole and sufficient reason for not doing it, and this argument would be superfluous. The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

The challenges facing us today as academics and as members of society are too important for us to fall back on such familiar arguments for inertia and inaction.