Can We Balance Research, Teaching, Tenure, and Money?

Higher Ed August / Uncategorized / August 17, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

August 17, 2018

Dear Provost, Dean or Chairperson,

As another academic year is about to begin, I am writing you this letter on behalf of your faculty members. They have some significant concerns but lack the confidence (or tenure protection) to bring them to you directly, so I’ve written this open letter to you on their behalf. We have a problem.

Your faculty members take their teaching responsibilities very seriously, and they want to be engaged and effective educators, but they don’t feel that your institution values this; and, with good reason. As Laura Bonetta insightfully shared in her Science Magazine piece, “the criteria for obtaining tenure at institutions that follow a U.S.-type system typically form a three-legged stool: research, teaching, and service. In most research-intensive institutions the research leg of the stool is considerably more substantial than the other two legs.”  However, Bonetta goes on to observe, “Although tenure decisions at primarily research institutions are based mostly on publications and grants, more and more universities want faculty members who are also good teachers.”¹ See the conundrum, the paradox? Maybe John Ziker and Jorge Cham put it a bit more bluntly in this illustration²:

You’re asking too much of your faculty, and something is going to give. Please don’t let it be their teaching.

It should also be noted that your primary revenue stream is tuition. Yes, your endowment might be huge, but we all know that your Board of Trustees protects those funds with an iron hand.  And grant monies – along with the indirect cost funds they bring to the institution – are the icing on the cake and the cherry on top, but it’s tuition money that’s buying the actual cake in the first place.  That’s tuition money, paid by undergraduates, who are putting themselves into debt to pay you for an education.  For the 2017-2018 school year, tuition at a four-year private college cost an average of $34,740. Public universities charged in-state students $9,970 and out-of-state students $25,620. Moving forward for those same students, as sophomores and beyond, the yearly price is expected to increase by an average of 2.4% at private colleges and 3.2% at public colleges.³  It’s fair to say that you, as an institution, upon accepting that tuition payment, become ethically and morally obligated to provide your undergraduates with the best possible education for every student, in every class, every day.  By de-emphasizing the value of teaching for your tenure-track faculty, you are sending a systemic message to your frontline educators that they should focus the majority of their efforts on things other than teaching.  Yet, simultaneously, you are accepting tuition funds from eager undergraduates, paid on the promise of a world-class education… tsk tsk… Not good.

Now, I want to be fair.  I understand the pressures you’re under as an administrator.  You have many competing priorities to manage and many higher-ups to please.  For better or worse (well, it’s for worse, actually), exceptional teaching usually does not bring a university prestige; research success does.  And, yes, presidents and boards tend to take tuition revenue for granted making grant funds and indirect costs an institutional priority. I get all of that.  But, you’ve got good and committed professor/educators that want to reach every student in every class every day and a moral obligation to provide your students with that kind of education.  However, there are only 24 hours in each day, and your faculty is not given enough time to teach to their fullest potential.  This has them stuck in a no-win situation, and you and the faculty need to figure a way out.

Not all hope is lost.  We have some wonderful role models in higher education who expertly balance scholarly brilliance and exceptional teaching.  Take, for example, Eric Mazur – pioneer of Flipped Learning and peer instruction – whose success in research and teaching spheres earned him dual faculty appointments in physics and education.4  Or, Dr. Richard Schwartzstein – master teacher at Harvard Medical School – who has developed a novel form of case-based peer instruction to give medical students a fully immersive and comprehensive fluency with patient diagnosis.5 What I’m trying to say is that scholars can be exceptional educators if they know how to teach well and know how to balance exceptional teaching with their other faculty commitments. So, how do we get there?

Here are a few things that you can do, as an administrator, to promote the importance of quality teaching among your faculty, while also minimally sacrificing their perceived importance of scholarly pursuits:

  • Provide your faculty – all of your faculty – with comprehensive professional development.  This should include pre-workshop assessment of your faculty’s specific needs, robust on-site training, and post-training follow up for refreshers of best-practices and to help your instructors as they hit their own inevitable bumps in the road.  Here is an example of such services:
  • Have zero tolerance for ineffective and/or disengaged educators.  If that instructor is pre-tenure, have the courage to put tenure on the line for exceptional teaching.  Make it clear that success in the classroom is a requirement for tenure. If that ineffective faculty member has tenure, hold merit raises, promotion and/or ongoing tenure review over their head.  Model institutional expectations by providing institutional carrots and sticks for promoting quality teaching.
  • Have standardized adjunct professor on-boarding for your entire institution so that all adjuncts have the same professional development, same orientation, same coaching and are aware of the same expectations for effective classroom instruction. (After all, if your institution is typical, adjuncts make up many of your frontline instructors).
  • Standardize your sections.  Make sure that students in all sections are receiving the same high-quality instruction.  Flipped Learning facilitates this better than most pedagogies since all students across all sections can be watching the same videos at home, and be doing the same activities in class.  As long as your in-class facilitators are trained equally and held to identical expectations and standards, you should be in great shape.
  • Create a tenure-track teaching professor faculty line.  Such a position would hold faculty members responsible for contributing to the scholarship of education, while also being master class teachers.  The University of British Columbia has created just such a line; check it out.6

You can have your cake and eat it, too. You can have world-class scholars who are master teachers. But it will take an institutional change of culture and expectations. It will take you, as an administrator, prioritizing your students’ classroom experience.  Are you ready? I genuinely hope so, not only for your faculty but for your institution. Your prospective students are getting savvier each year. They want a world-class education, and they’re ready to pay top dollar. If your school is not ready to deliver, they might just start shopping elsewhere… It’s time to change and what better time than now, on the cusp of a new year?

With best regards and friendship,

Thomas Mennella, PhD
Associate Professor of Biology
International Faculty Member, FLGI









Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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