Harvard lifts teaching rewards and status

October 13, 2006

University takes lead as US bids to improve learning experience and recognise lecturers. Jon Marcus reports.

Harvard University has set up a task force to find ways of rewarding staff for high-quality teaching.

The move follows hard on the heels of a long-anticipated government report commissioned by Margaret Spellings, the Education Secretary, that questions the future and competitiveness of state and private higher education in the US. It concludes, among other things, that "the quality of student learning... is inadequate and, in some cases, declining".

The establishment of the task force coincides with the return to Harvard of Derek Bok, a former president, a longtime advocate of better teaching and the author of the book Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More . Professor Bok is serving as interim president while Harvard seeks a replacement for Lawrence Summers, who stood down in June.

Theda Skocpol, chair of the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development, said the move was not a reaction to any particular problem at Harvard, which, like other large research universities, has been criticised for its emphasis on research over undergraduate teaching. She said she hoped the effort there would spread to other schools.

"Is there something wrong? I guess there is, but it's not specific to Harvard," said Dr Skocpol, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The task force, which is made up of senior faculty, will focus on finding ways to reward faculty financially for good teaching, just as they are rewarded for research, through hiring, salary rises, tenure and promotion.

"A lot of them will say they get a lot of satisfaction from teaching, but they don't see it relate to the rewards," Dr Skocpol said. "I don't anticipate this task force sitting down and saying, 'OK, in science classes you do it this way.' The process is not going to tell people what to do in the classroom. It's about how we reward and make visible not only good teaching but efforts to improve teaching."

That should also avoid the staff resistance to efforts to improve classroom teaching that has been found at other institutions such as Stanford University, where initiatives have largely fizzled out.

Last month, Ms Spellings said it was time for the federal Government to stop giving more and more money to universities without knowing what students were getting in return. The Harvard task force plans to submit its final report by February.

LAW COULD CLOSE BOOK ON TOP JOB

One victim of the US clampdown on online gambling may be a book opened on the identity of the next president of Harvard University.

Bodog.com, based in Costa Rica, was accepting wagers of between $5 (£2.70) and $50 on who would get the job. Several hundred bets have been placed so far, according to the company, but the legislation passed by the Senate this month and awaiting presidential signature could mean that US banks and credit card companies would be unable to process payments.

Current betting favours Nannerl Keohane, the former president of Duke University. Dr Keohane, a member of the Harvard Corporation and the university's search committee, has odds of 3-2 to get the job, even though she said that she was not a candidate.

Second is Alan Stone, a professor at Harvard Law School, at 2-1. At 3-1 are Elena Kagan, dean of the law school; Alan Dershowitz, another law professor; and Drew Gilpin Faust, the dean of Radcliffe University.

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