The Future of Higher Education

A number of people (including T. Daniel Crawford) have pointed me at an article by William Stuntz in The New Republic called What Summers’s fall says about the future of higher education.

Stuntz makes some interesting points, although this statement:

Teaching loads of senior professors have declined; probably teaching quality has declined with it.

seems at odds with the experience of many undergraduates…

I will give him this: there is definitely a tension between the dual missions of major research universities. The most interesting institutions are the ones that are trying to reconcile those tensions (i.e. by putting undergrads directly into research settings from an early stage, and by recognizing and rewarding good teaching by faculty). Stuntz’s article tells me that Harvard isn’t reconciling those tensions particularly well compared to some of the second-tier institutions.

The top tier places have never offered the best experience for the “formal” side of higher education (classroom experience, access to faculty, etc.) What the big bucks spent at the top tier will buy parents and students is a highly educated and well-connected peer group. This aspect of the “value calculus” of higher education in America is often overlooked (and Stuntz is overlooking it, I think).

Most of Stuntz’s article centers on the forces that brought down Larry Summers presidency of Harvard. He seems to be blaming over-specialized faculty who have forgotten that the core mission of the academy is to educate, train and enlighten the next generation. And I’ll agree that academic faculties can be extremely resistant to change. Stuntz is painting with an awfully broad brush, however. There are institutions that are trying to resolve the research-teaching tension in ways that benefit both the students and the faculty. And there are certainly academics who are deeply concerned about the direction of science and mathematics education in the US and about our eventual decline as a scientific and engineering superpower.

Anyway, the article is certainly worth a read.

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3 Responses to The Future of Higher Education

  1. Matt Asplund says:

    I don’t exactly disagree with you, but I had you as a TA in Stat Mech from the worst professor in the history of education. He was incapable of teaching, and the only reason that I learned anything was because you stepped up to the bat and taught us. When we complained to the department about subjecting students to his incompetence, we were told “Well, what should we have him teach then. We certainly cannot have them teach undergraduates.” The problem is that we expect professors to have a dual role, teaching and doing research, but we won’t acknowledge this duality. If we were honest we would hire and promote professors based on some defined combination of teaching and research, and try to keep an apropriate balance in a department. Instead we promote good researchers, in spite of their lack of interest and skill in teaching, and then hire a few teaching professionals to cover freshman chemistry and non-major organic. Now sometimes we get luck and get a professor who happens to be a good teachers, but I have never seen a professor turned over for advancement for being a bad teacher, IF they have external research funding.

    I strongly believe that people who are research active can make the best teachers, but only if they have a correct incentive structure. I sometimes wonder if we should just officially hire teaching professors and research professors and not try to fight it. But maybe I am just a bitter old man.

    By the way, love the site.

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  2. Dan Gezelter says:

    Matt, thanks for the kind words!

    I would expect that your institution and Notre Dame have very similar expectations for teaching and research and the integration of the two. Teaching is a substantial topic of discussion at tenure time here. It would still not be possible to tenure someone without publications or without any interest in pursuing external funding, and someone with a large and high-quality publication list and a track record of funding is going to have an easier time. However, I would suspect that both ND and BYU would have a hard time tenuring someone who simply could not teach, no matter how good their research record had been.
    That’s why I’m calling these places (one level down from top tier) more “interesting”. They are the laboratories for a more integrated form of the two sides of the academic mission.

    P.S. There were worse teachers for the subject matter than the one you experienced. Just ask anyone who was in my year …

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  3. Has there been emperical research done on the position that active research leads to “better” learning of students (at the undergraduate level)?

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