I’ve been a university professor since 1991. Being a university professor is a very weird job, because your performance is frequently measured in ways that don’t necessarily quantify whether you’re doing your job well. This job essentially had three responsibilities: (1) teach effective classes in your discipline, (2) do world-class research that contributes new knowledge and insights to your discipline, and (3) help run the institution at which you are employed and help run the professional components of your scholarly discipline. When I was being considered for promotions and every year when the size of my merit raise is being determined, my performances in these three areas (teaching, research, service) was supposedly what determined my success.
At most universities, only research output is valued. Dartmouth is different and quite possibly unique: I’ve written before about what it takes to get tenure at Dartmouth, where research and teaching are weighted equally in that evaluation, and your research is held to the standards of the best research universities, and your teaching is held to the standards of the best undergraduate teaching colleges. However, the way my teaching effectiveness is evaluated is one of the primary causes of grade inflation. In this post, I will explore how we might change the incentives of faculty to reduce the causes and consequences of grade inflation and thereby provide better educations to our students.
The rationale presented here summarizes the conclusions made by the committee I was on that considered the causes, consequences and solutions to grade inflation. You can see a description of our proposal at dartblog.com (click here for the pdf of our full proposal).
At most major universities in the United States, the advice that junior faculty get from their senior colleagues about the optimal division of effort between research and teaching usually boils down to something like the following: Research is paramount! Put enough effort into your teaching so that (1) students aren’t complaining to the Department Chair and (2) students say they don’t hate the course on the course evaluations, and you’ll be fine.
The truth is that this often directly reflects the weightings given these activities during evaluations for promotion and tenure. What keeps research institutions running are research dollars coming into the institution, and what keeps research dollars flowing in is the research productivity of the faculty. Thus, research productivity becomes paramount, and the incentive structure is constructed to make it so. Consequently, this causes most faculty (and administrators) to see research and teaching as a zero-sum game.
Many of Dartmouth’s disgruntled alumni feel that President Wright’s emphasis on increasing the research and scholarly profile of the faculty to be antithetical to Dartmouth’s mission. That mission in their minds seems to be defined as undergraduate teaching to the exclusion of all other activities.