Popular misconceptions

While I have a great deal of respect for Founders College and its potential for improving education, their CEO, Tamara Fuller, made a comment recently that I found misleading and largely based on popular misconceptions of tenure at research universities. In an interview with Scott Powell, she said: "...The focus in the American college system is on tenure. To obtain tenure, professors must direct all their attention to research and publication, the two elements required to achieve tenure. Teaching, by contrast, is viewed as a 'necessary evil.'"

First off, I have never personally met any professor, among 100s, that see teaching as a 'necessary evil'. I have heard a few antecdotal stories about such professors, but the claim Fuller makes seems to imply that all professors in the traditional education system hold this view. This is extremely misleading and rather insulting to those of use who do care about teaching. Yes, to achieve tenure in most "research" schools, a professor must do research and publish their results. A typical expectation for tenure is that a professor spend 40% of their time teaching, 40% of their time doing research, and 20% of their time doing service (committees and such). Most universities are realistic with these expectations and don't expect a professor to devote 40 hours a week to research unless they hire them explicitly for doing research full time.

So what is the relationship between research and teaching? Yes professors must specialize significantly in order to conduct research. Generally, professors that have developed a reputation as a high quality researcher is extremely intelligent and knowledgable not only within their specialty, but within their field in general. These same professors demonstrate high productivity by consistently publishing quality work over a period of time. But having professors successful in doing research attracts intelligent students interested in learning from highly productive professors. Highly productive and knowledge professors are generally passionate about their research and often demonstrate that passion in the classroom. Students, in turn, learn about some of the latest research (although admittedly most of the reserach professors perform is not applicable to undergraduate students since they haven't developed enough real world experience to appreciate the research). What research requirements do is force professors to stay current with the state of knowledge in a field. This enables them to better teach classes by avoiding outdated theories, postulates, hypotheses, and false facts.

The mantra I hear from a number of sources is that it is a "publish or perish" profession. In other words, yes we do have to publish in order to keep our jobs, at least at a research school. That is true until tenure is reached. After tenure, research is necessary to achieve full professorship, but many professors opt to spend their time doing other things, such as consulting, writing textbooks, administrative work, etc. But publishing doesn't take all of our time. We do teach, often with a passion, in subjects that is of intense interest to ourselves.

While there are ligitmate reasons for offering tenure, it does have its problems. I am not denying that. Nor am I denying a number of other general statements Fuller makes about the education system in general. However, Fuller's comments with regard to professors' foucs on research are extremely misleading.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:10 PM

    You are quite correct. Fuller's statement about tenure is an extreme overgeneralization about admittedly real problems in higher education.

    Frankly, I think that you will find that a lot of the rhetoric coming out of Founders is this way: exaggerated hype. I think we will see that after their 10 students finish the year, they may be somewhat satisfied with their classes, but will they have experienced a "revolution" in education or a systematically integrated curriculum? I don't think so.

    I mean geez, even their announcements about enrollment were incredibly overexaggerated. At times Gary Hull spoke of having 90+ students enrolling this fall. Instead they got 10.

    The people I know who have experience in higher education think that Founders has been hyping things from day one. I guess we'll see now if they can deliver.