Rewards for Professors

One Michigan professor is very, very mad about the way universities reward academics. Another eccentric egghead? Well maybe. But this time, some people are paying attention. According to an article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Last October, Madhukar Vable said farewell to two teaching prizes that he had won a decade earlier. He packed the plaques in envelopes and shipped them back to the university and state offices that had awarded them.

His packages included long letters about the condition of higher education. Too many colleges, Mr. Vable wrote, chase prestige and research grants at the expense of undergraduate instruction—and his own institution had penalized him because he had not done the same. “A dedicated teacher is becoming THE SUCKER in the system,” he wrote. “I will continue to do my best in teaching and scholarship, but I am no longer willing to perpetuate the hypocrisy that excellent teaching … is still valued at Tech.”

Vable, a professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, thinks that undergraduate mentoring and instruction should be more valued at his institution. Vable’s concerns caught the attention of his students, who apparently started a Facebook group.

Vable isn’t exactly the first person to suggest that American academics should be rewarded different. Still, he’s probably not the best poster child for the need to reform how universities reward professors. According to the Glenn article

The professor argues that he should be credited for his dedication to undergraduate instruction. He teaches 120 undergraduates during a typical semester and says his average course-evaluation scores range between 4.4 and 4.8, compared with a campus average of 4.0. Since 2002 he has written two editions of a materials-engineering textbook for Oxford University Press. And he does publish peer-reviewed research, albeit slowly—one or two papers per year.

The trouble is that while Vable wins awards for teaching, his department’s promotion guidelines reward faculty for scholarship and supervising graduate students. Teaching undergraduate classes is much less valued.

Vable received tenure in 1990 but his salary is still lower than heavy researchers in his department. Still, it’s hard to get terribly concerned about his essentially numeric protest (he appears to want his university to reward more points for undergraduate instruction and less points for research). There is, however, nothing to stop professors from being both effective undergraduate instructors and productive scholars.

He’s an academic. He should be a scholar. Ideally an academic rewards system would incentivize someone to be both a good teacher and a high-quality researcher. If Vable wants just to teach kids basic engineering that’s fine, but it’s not scholarship. There is plenty of demand for high school math teachers.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer