Customer power rewards teaching

January 16, 1998

A PROFESSOR's ability to teach is becoming more important than his or her research output to many university hiring and promotion committees in the United States.

Politicians and parents have been demanding value for money from public universities. For universities generally under scrutiny from newly active governing boards, better teaching, and by full professors rather than PhD students, is at the top of reformers' wish lists.

Robert Diamond, head of Syracuse University's Center for Instructional Development, said: "There is a movement taking place, because everyone felt the system was out of whack." He said there is a pronounced shift towards teaching at the elite research universities.

In 1991, his centre surveyed faculty staff and administrators at 49 research universities. Seventy-three per cent of professors, out of some 50,000 people questioned, reported then that the emphasis at their institutions was on "scholarship" rather than teaching.

But in a follow-up study of 11 of the universities, that figure fell to 49 per cent. The swing towards teaching was most pronounced among academic deans, where the number saying their institutions should emphasise research dropped from 45 to 17 per cent.

Though people spoke of the importance of teaching, the reward system for salary rank and tenure traditionally rested on research, said Mr Diamond. In 1991, "the message was pretty loud and clear that even while people personally felt that teaching was important, they felt that others thought differently".

But at a majority of the universities, priorities had shifted, the follow-up survey found. The centre has drawn up a list of new criteria for "scholarly work", on which faculty can be assessed by departmental committees, rather than the usual list of published research or monographs.

Teaching was very much on the agenda at this year's meeting of the Modern Language Association in Toronto, where a report on the academic job market recommended courses in pedagogy for PhD students in the language arts to "prepare them for a range of teaching situations".

The Board of Regents for the state of Arizona, for example, recently adopted a plan to subject 2,800 tenured professors at three state universities to stringent reviews. Teaching would be given equal weight with research in considering candidates for promotion.

"Imagine, professors who teach," ran an approving editorial in the Arizona Republic newspaper. "Putting a premium on professors who teach well will give the students at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona more of what their parents' - or their own - money is supposed to be buying."

A University of Oregon task force three years ago set out to change the perception "that if you were exceptional or excellent in research, but not quite up to par in teaching, you might get promoted or tenured", said Lorraine Davis, the university's vice provost for academic affairs.

It made a new rule that research and teaching "ought to be at least equal". Teaching skills are evaluated by students and peer review and by examining faculty members' course curriculums, the way they deal with students and their philosophy of teaching, she said.

Tenure is still common in universities, but faculty face growing demands for "accountability". It is untenured graduate assistants and PhDs who do much of the lower-level teaching, and their complaints of being lowly-paid work horses have driven demands for unionisation.

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