There continues to be much discussion about the differentiation of university missions, particularly in Ontario. Higher Education Strategy Associates recently held a two-day conference on the issue. The conference was titled “Stepford Universities,” based on the premise that universities are in danger of “becoming clones of one another, robotically following the same script – rather like the placid ladies of Stepford,” writes HESA principal Alex Usher. That script he refers to, generally speaking, is a rush by universities to become more research intensive, leading to “homogenization and isomorphism.” I’m not sure Mr. Usher states it specifically, but the corollary to this research focus is that universities are seen to be devaluing teaching.
This, of course, is not news to anyone involved in higher education in Canada – and the public is also starting to take notice. Just this morning, the Globe and Mail ran a long editorial that claims teaching at universities is getting “short shrift.” To be fair, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is aware of the issue and has stated that “university presidents have made excellence in undergraduate education a priority and are taking action to strengthen the learning experience and outcomes.”
But, getting back to the topic of differentiation, I think it’s unfortunate that the discussion tends to focus on this dichotomy between research and teaching. That, in turn, has led some to promote teaching-oriented institutions as an antidote to research-intensive ones, which I’m not sure is a good idea. It would likely be more fruitful to speak of university “specialization,” where universities would promote research and teaching equally, but would develop mandates to specialize in certain areas. This is similar to what the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recommended in its 2010 report, The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector.
The Globe and Mail, parenthetically, recently published a very good piece by Professor Stephen Saideman of McGill University opining that “Universities aren’t about teaching vs. research, they’re about teaching and research.” For the time being, however, teaching vs. research will likely remain the dialectic.
Often missing in this discussion, it seems to me, is the faculty perspective. Do faculty members favour this research focus? Mr. Usher thinks so. He writes: “Let’s not kid ourselves; nobody is happier about the increasing research-intensiveness of Canadian universities than academics themselves. When middling universities tell their staff they have to teach less in order to keep up with the big boys and girls of Canadian academia, who complains, exactly?”
In a later post, he writes that the professoriate, “given the choice, prefer their professional lives to revolve more around research than teaching. … Left to their own devices, this is what they’d prefer to be doing. Hence the trend towards institutional isomorphism.”
But is this true? One commentator, named “Rachelle,” responded: “I think many faculty would prefer a teaching-focused career or more balance between teaching and research. … The mad scramble to get research grants and to publish is unattractive to many people. As a recent PhD, I see many of my peers turning away from academia for these very reasons.”
I know many professors who are passionate about teaching. Yet, there is no question that research success is valued over teaching excellence in promotion decisions. Any young faculty member hoping to get tenure would be foolish to concentrate his or her efforts on teaching over research. That reality may also explain why there has been relatively little take-up by professors for teaching-only positions at universities where this option is offered. Who wants to place themselves in what may be perceived as a career dead end?
What’s your view? Is it simply a question of changing the incentives and rewards structures to place more value on teaching?