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The Busted American University March 19, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

The Economist (March 11 issue) has an editorial on the state of the modern US university. Their basic premise is that the “producers” (faculty) has too much power as compared to the “consumer” (students):

The other weakness, producer power, gets less attention, but it was at the heart of the war at Harvard. Put simply, many American universities treat their undergraduates shabbily. Harvard’s core curriculum has gone unreformed for ages. Star professors fob their students off with graduate students who dole out inflated grades in order to keep them happy.

Mr. Summer’s solution to this was to try to reinforce the power of the president — the only person who can weigh the interests of the faculty against the interests of the students. An even better way would be to abolish tenure, which guarantees academics jobs for life.

Ever since Summer’s was present and then got sacked at Harvard this discussion has been raging around the press. And right-wing pundits have been having a field day with the whole university-liberal thing. For the most part, it has been fun. The editorial points out that US universities are currently the best in the world — but worries they are like Detroit in the 1950’s. On top now, but about to be flattened by everyone else.

In general, I think they are onto something. However, I think that the US High School system is in much worse shape than its universities — and that is where we should be concentrating most of our efforts. I teach an honors class right now — so many of my students have already had some fairly advanced physics courses in High School. Good. When I taught the non-honors class there were many students that hadn’t ever had a physics course (or, at least, never admitted to having had it before). Bad. I’m sure it is the same in other subjects. I know my mother, who was an English professor, would always complain about how her students could form complete sentences let alone string together an argument. Without touching our universities they will get a lot better if the students coming in have a better foundation (UPDATE: Fixed a grammar mistake. Mom would be, uh, proud).

Now, the universities. There are two types of universities — teaching and research. I have very little knowledge of the teaching universities and how they address the problems that the Economist is talking about. So I’m going to ignore them (feel free to add information in the comments if you want!). Research universities compete by who has the most famous scientists; who gets the most grant money. Unchecked you can see exactly how this would work. The universities will hire the best researchers without regard to others. A professor, looking at the incentive system setup by the university, would have to ask “Is my time better spent in the lab or in the classroom” with obvious results.

However, there are other incentive systems in place that help balance this:

  • In physics, at least, many of us have a choice: we can get a job at a University or at a National Lab. When we choose a university it is partly because we like teaching and the environment in general.
  • Here at UW, for example, we are a state funded institution. My salary is paid by the tax collected from Washington residents and businesses (in fact, my salary is public; I don’t know where it is on the web, but you can go look it up somewhere. That was, like, an invitation, wasn’t it??). The legislature, much more responsive to the people of Washington than they are to the professors at the UW, have a different agenda — one better aligned to the students than the grant focused one. This means newspapers (even) take an interest in our performance. Nothing like a bad front-page story to motivate change.

How about tenure? Well, I have it, I like it, and I don’t want to loose it. 🙂 There are a few ways I could, of course: I could do something illegal, I could sleep with a student, or I could stop teaching my courses. Tenure isn’t absolute (I have no idea if it ever was) — but it is powerful. The main reason it was put in place was so that you could do research that your peers though was crazy, and not loose your job. Or so that you could suggest something crazy and not loose your job. It was never made to protect a bad teaching or a no-show teacher from teaching. If it is structured at some universities to protect against those things perhaps that is an aspect that could be reexamined.

BTW. I have no clue how you measure classroom performance. Frankly, being in science, I think active learning — where the students are solving problems — is much more effective than passive learning — sitting in a lecture listening to me. There is a revolution ongoing in the world of teaching as lectures become more and more active rather than passive.



1. Rob - March 19, 2006

“I know my mother, who was an English professor, would always complain about how her students could form complete sentences let along string together an argument.”


2. gordonwatts - March 20, 2006

Ack! Right. Her own son! 😉

3. Mike Procario - March 20, 2006

“How about tenure? Well, I have it, I like it, and I don’t want to loose it.”

Got to keep your tenure tight.

4. Rob - March 20, 2006


“I know my mother, who was an English professor, would always complain about how her students ***could**** form complete sentences let alone string together an argument. “

5. gordonwatts - March 20, 2006

I give up! I’m part of the problem!

6. Ann Watts - March 28, 2006

Well, what’s an omitted negative between friends? But what’s more to the point is that not all lecturing makes a student passive. In general, I agree with Gordon and many others, that students’ active paricipation makes a lively and profound contribution to their education in whatever subject is at hand. Lecturing gets a bad press these days simply because in that set-up. everything depends on the abilities of the lecturer, who has to be an actor, an expert, at turns a comedian or a rhapsodist or a logician, and so forth. In short, the lecture is an art form. Excellence in any art is,of course, rare, but given a genius lecturer, no student in the room will be passive. I was lucky enough to hear such a lecturer, both as a student and as a colleague–but not lucky enough to be one. (retired English teacher!)

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