-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:
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