Is Teaching Undergraduates Central to the Mission…?

Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat—she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:

“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain


So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing—yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

First, what did I actually mean? Well, the phrases that bookend the passage she quotes are different kinds of claim. The second—“Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for” was an empirical claim. I realize that various restrictive practices mean that even if there were no undergraduates there would be room for Law schools, Medical schools and Veterinary schools. And maybe States would join the Federal government in making grants available for research in the sciences, social sciences, and even in the humanities, in which case very small research organizations might exist to compete for those funds. My own school, the College of Letters and Science, teaches a considerable majority of the undergraduate credits on campus, and the business model is based on that assumption. Possibly we’d have a very small Graduate College of Letters and Sciences. But it would be small, with only the very elite researchers, and some research staff to assist. Nothing on the scale of a Michigan, a Berkeley or a Madison. Undergraduate teaching underpins the large public research university.

The first sentence of the passage—undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution—was, however, normative, not, as Megan interpreted it (perfectly reasonably in the context, which is why I’ve taken the opportunity to clarify), empirical. “Mission” is ambiguous between “what the mission statement says” (mission statements are, by and large, uninteresting—this is the ‘polite fiction’—and in the fuss over our Governor’s proposed revisions I think too few of the Governor’s critics paused to ask how well our practices actually align with our published mission), “what the institution is actually trying to do” (as she says, unclear, though speaking as someone who has a good deal of interaction with administrators at my institution, I have total confidence that their commitment to the undergraduate mission—and the rest of our mission—is deep, not at all cynical; and, fortunately, they are highly competent. Maybe we’re just lucky at Madison), and “what justifies the institution”. This last is what I meant. I didn’t argue for it, and I am not going to do so here, really (I think she and I agree, but she can correct me if not; we might even agree on why, but I’ll leave that till another time).

Now, to the main point. If educating undergraduates (well) is so central to the justification of the state flagship, do hiring, retention, and promotion practices reflect that? She is right that they don’t, and she is right that they should. By saying that I do not mean that teaching should always be more important than research or service. Just that teaching should sometimes be more important than research or service, and, usually, evidence of very high quality teaching should be good enough to get tenure for somebody whose research is right at the threshold that the institution usually holds research to and perhaps, even, below it. Students often ask me why we can’t recalibrate the importance of teaching in tenure decisions. Here’s the answer I give: several considerations which, when taken together, make me doubt that we can make big changes to the tenure process. Then I’ll suggest how better to align what we do with what our mission should be.

1) It is much, much, easier to judge the quality of someone’s research than the quality of someone’s teaching. Research is a publicly visible activity—you can count the papers and the number of pages, and rank the journals by prestige. Other recognized experts can be easily identified, and then asked to review all the research someone has produced, and evaluate it. Outsiders to that research, themselves experts in the evaluation of research quality in their own fields, have good reason to trust the judgment of experts in that field, and have experience evaluating the evaluation of research. As Megan says, teaching evaluations are extremely limited in their value. Most students are not expert observers of teaching (some are, actually, but it takes real work to figure out which ones: I always try to have a few whom I know to be experts, for my own purposes, but I don’t have a systematic process for finding them, and don’t know what a systematic process would look like). And professors are not even experts in teaching (some are, but it takes real work to figure out which they are); let alone in the evaluation of teaching or the evaluation of evaluations of teaching. We have only recently developed the technologies (video-recording) that make it possible to review, after the fact, the quality of someone’s teaching in the classroom; and even that does not capture everything; a lot of teaching goes on in the margins—comments on papers, conversations (including private, hence by their nature unobservable, conversations) with students, checking in to make sure someone is ok, building relationships, choosing the right people to present together, inviting a student who’s hanging outside your office to wait inside your office while you talk to a graduate student, so that she will hear and learn from the conversation, etc…

2) Suppose we had good ways of evaluating teaching quality. It would be extremely difficult for a single institution to do as McArdle suggests, and give teaching a lot of weight in tenure and promotion decisions. Why? Everybody knows that it is difficult to assess the quality of teaching. Furthermore, tenure decisions are holistic, and made by committees of people whose judgements cannot be precisely dictated. So, first, even if an institution declares it will give more weight to teaching, it is going to be hard for a tenure track professor to believe that. And, because they cannot be assured tenure, even if they would rather focus more on teaching, they have to remain competitive for jobs at other institutions—which have either not made the same declaration, or, even if they have made that declaration, it would be even harder for an outsider than for an insider to believe it.

3) Cultures change very slowly, unless they are under heavy pressure of some kind to change, and the culture of i) prioritizing research over teaching and ii) being sloppy in one’s judgments about the quality of one’s own teaching and that of others is very deeply ingrained by decades of practice.

All this leads me to doubt that tenure is a feasible pressure point for changing the quality of teaching. And even if it is feasible, it is not the most promising. I’ve already endorsed the suggestion of a track for master teachers. I actually think that, for the time being, the most promising pressure points are during graduate school, and post tenure. At the graduate school stage it is possible to require participation in systems that promote continuous improvement—the teaching assistants and lecturers are, after all, graduate employees. At the post-tenure stage, it is possible, for at least some professors, to create monetary and other incentives for participation. What kind of system am I envisaging? The clue is in McArdle’s comment that:

Compared to other institutions, university departments barely attempt to evaluate a professor’s skill at educating undergraduates—they do not, for example, spend much time supervising classrooms or trying to figure out how much the undergraduates have learned.

I’m not sure about the “compared to”—K-12 is the obvious comparison class.In k-12 we have lots of standardized tests, but not much assessment of learning in a specific period, and certainly not a lot of supervising of classrooms; and too much of the little observation that is done is done by principals who know little about teaching and for whom evaluating teachers is a miniscule and, de facto, unimportant, part of their job. But the best (if rare) practices in k-12 can be borrowed by higher education. Teaching is just like any other skill. You improve by first identifying others who are demonstrably skillful, observing them, mimicking them, getting feedback on your practice, modifying in the light of the feedback, and repeating the whole process over and over again. A system in which we record lectures and discussions, get teachers together to observe and discuss what they see, in the light of evidence about what the students learned (and, in college you can even, as I have done, select students to participate in these critical discussions) according to carefully developed protocols; and the addition of systematic coaching (sometimes by students—last Thursday the student whom I currently hire to observe me gave expressed dissatisfaction with the discussion I had just conducted in a discussion section and identified exactly what I need to do next week to avoid the problem) would, I think, improve the quality of instruction; and would be cheap relative to the cost of the whole enterprise.

I’d like to see these sorts of things happen because I think they’re the kinds of things that we should already be doing—because we should value undergraduate instruction more than we do. I don’t see the market exerting much pressure to get us to adopt such practices, though. I think the key reason is this. Parents, and students, are not buying education, but a credential. As long as that is what they are doing the brand is going to matter more than the actual instructional quality or how much they learn. As Bill Massy, Bob Zemsky and Greg Wegner put it in Remaking the American University:

Critics of higher education, and to some extent higher education itself, have misunderstood the core business of these institutions. Whereas most believe the task of universities and collegesis to supply quality educations at reasonable prices, their real business is to sell competitive advantage at necessarily high prices. [HB—this comment applies to the more selective parts of the sector]

As I explained here, as long as this remains the case, there won’t be much market pressure to elevate the importance of teaching. McArdle thinks that might be changing:

People outside the university are already focusing less on graduation day and more on what you did during your years in school. That will continue, and intensify.

Many of the people who will be doing that focusing are parents or employers, or policy makers who went to large research schools. Their beliefs about academia’s priorities—true or not—are going to shape their willingness to invest more in its students.

I am not so confident. When I talk to non-university audiences about admissions and choosing colleges my exhortations on parents to exert pressure on colleges to improve the quality of instruction their children will receive are met mostly with bemusement—because, I think, people don’t have much of a clue how to do that because it is so hard to figure out systematically what kids will or did learn within the institution. And anyway they are generally, and rationally, more concerned with the quality of their kid’s credential than the quality of their learning. Sure, there seems to be some political pressure to elevate the importance of teaching. But the kinds of proposals I see are so indirect that it is hard to imagine them actually having good effects, and easy to see them having bad effects (eg, rewarding schools for the starting salaries of their graduates would, for example, discourage colleges from improving their teacher education programs, because teachers start with low salaries, and are expensive to educate well and, in general, intensifies the incentives colleges have to seek students who are already well prepared and whom, therefore, they won’t need to educate). And it is not clear to me that many politicians actually have the attention span or time horizons to push through real, substantial, improvements, even if they had the relevant proposals.

Still, since it has come up, and knowing that a whole lot of readers are currently helping their high school seniors choose colleges: please, at open days, etc, ask the deans what kinds of system they have in place to identify the high quality teachers on their campus, and to ensure that other teachers are observing and learning from them, and they are learning from each other. Many deans, and a not a few faculty, recognize that undergraduate instruction is not as good as it should be, and would more than welcome some sort of market pressure to make improvements happen.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.