It Depends

There are many times in our professional or personal lives when the answer to a variety of questions/queries is “it depends”.  This isn’t really surprising or uncommon. Frequently the answer/response falls somewhere along a continuum rather in a binary category.

One in particular comes to mind. It was apparent to those of us in the space that the facilitator wanted a definitive answer or at least an answer that was headed in one direction.  Among the audience, the answer we offered was “it depends”.  Although we were in agreement about the general direction of the conversation and goal of the workshop, there were too many unknowns or not-clearly-knowns that the response continued to be “it depends”.

In a graduate class I teach entitled “Preparing the Future Professoriate”, we take topics such as the description of an institution of higher education (e.g., college or university), definition of a faculty member, the role of faculty, mission of the university, funding for higher education, future direction of higher education, international higher education and much more. Obviously these topics are rather broad and there is no single definitive answer. “It depends”.

The fable of the elephant and blind “men” comes to mind here. How each of these individuals would describe the elephant “depends” upon the part of the elephant they touched.  The university is frequently described in this same manner. Those from a specific discipline or administrative home will offer their view based upon that discipline or administrative unit. The roles and responsibilities of a faculty member “depends” upon the academic discipline as well as institution type (e.g., “extramural funding is required”, “a book is the primary scholarly product”, “a 3-3 teaching load is standard”).  In other words, “it depends”.

Even topics of academic freedom and scholarly integrity, the hallmarks of higher education in my view, don’t always allow us to conclude with a definitive answer of yes or no.  Yes, we in higher education have academic freedom but questions are raised (e.g., is academic freedom an absolute, is academic freedom defined in various contexts and are their limits or conditions of academic freedom).  Around the world and even in the U.S., academic freedom is being challenged.  (Note: this is a topic for another blog post).

The complexity in which we live and work in higher education requires additional perspectives.  Many of the “grand challenges” and “wicked problems” require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary efforts. As we work in these settings, there is no definitive answer from a single disciplinary perspective but rather an evolving academic journey informed by the multiple perspectives in the conversation.  The initial answer is “it depends” and requires interdisciplinary thinking.

As change continues in higher education and the 21st century university evolves, we must not only anticipate and expect but embrace “it depends”.

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