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Tenure track turns blind eye to teaching

TOO MANY professors view teaching as an unwanted distraction. Instead, professors would rather spend their time with pet graduate students and esoteric research. Part of the problem is the faculty's ivory tower disdain for undergraduates, but an even greater source of the resource bias is the University's tenure policy. Put simply, professors have no incentive to teach.

The granting of tenure is a multi-faceted, highly involved process. It begins with the Provost Office's "Promotion and Tenure Policy." The Provost's Office demands that tenure candidates be judged on teaching, research and service to the University. Teaching is defined as classroom performance as well as advising and other interaction with students. The Provost policy notes that the definitions of the terms, "will vary from school to school, as will the weights assigned to each in the tenure decision." The College gives very little weight to teaching.

Evidence of the research bias is documented in the College's "Procedures for Renewal and Promotion." The Dean of the College requires nine categories of submissions in the tenure review process. Only one is dedicated to teaching. Instead, the Dean is interested in every possible analysis of the "merit of the candidate's published work and the promise of future research," and only slightly concerned with his ability to teach.

Equally disturbing is how the Dean of the College and the Provost determine whether someone can teach. First and foremost, student opinion is considered barely relevant or trustworthy. The Provost policy says that, "Students are important judges of a teacher ... but the candidate's faculty peers are normally the better judge." The policy goes on to note that "Popular teaching and good teaching are not necessarily the same thing." So much for those evaluations students fill out each semester.

So what is the Dean of the College interested in when it comes to judging teaching? Mainly they want, "a list of courses taught, number of students in each course, grade distribution, and average grade for each course." In other words, whether the students learned anything is less important than whether their grades fell on a perfect bell curve.

The anecdotal evidence is more damning. One tenure track professor told me, "I have no departmental incentive to teach or advise. I could get a dozen stellar course evaluations and it wouldn't equal one article in a scholarly review." A former University official who was involved in tenure decisions put it more bluntly, "The University places almost no weight on teaching ability. If you can't research, you can forget tenure, but if you can't teach, no one cares."

This is not to say that there aren't professors at the University who are genuinely interested in teaching undergraduates. But for those who are averse to the idea, or perhaps just neutral on the subject, the University's tenure policy gives a strong disincentive against teaching. It is only natural that, when the University places less weight on teaching as a tenure qualification, candidates will spend more time on those areas that the University favors. As one professor said, "The reality of the situation is that, while I like advising and working with undergraduates, my time would probably be better spent on research and writing."

Most faculty members would admit that the culture of higher education has changed over the past several decades. Where the academy once was about individual attention and instruction, today "publish or perish" is the rallying cry. There is an interesting dichotomy at work here: While the University judges itself on the quality of its research and writing, most students judge the quality of their education on what they learn in the classroom. It is an irreconcilable difference of opinion on the purpose of higher education, which, at the University, is resolved at the undergraduates' expense.

There has been much talk of late about the intellectual community. Such a community must include faculty members for it to thrive at the University. While kegs and fraternities have been scapegoated as the main roadblock to the intellectual community, the dirty little secret around Grounds is that lack of faculty engagement is posing greater problems. If the University wants the intellectual community to flourish, it will have to drag the faculty -- kicking and screaming if need be -- back to office hours and the classroom. Changing the tenure policy to give greater weight to teaching would be a start.

(Sam Waxman's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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