Of the many problems besetting higher education today, perhaps the most intractable is the incentives problem. On hundreds of campuses across the United States, thousands of college professors are being dragged away from their root educational mission. They serve as stewards of knowledge and trainers of citizens to come, but a binding demand makes them act otherwise. And the perverse thing about it is that the pressure comes from within.
Imagine yourself a newly-hired English professor at a university with a research dimension, however minor. You went into the field because you loved to read and a few books hit you hard enough to set a career path. As undergraduate days wound down, you aimed to share the inspiration, to expound and debate and teach the meaning of Dickens and Faulkner, and graduate school was the next step.
But graduate training shifted the focus. Instead of studying with an eye toward undergraduates in class, you came to recognize another audience: professors at conferences, on hiring committees, and in editorial offices. They, not freshmen, would decide your future, offer you a job, publish your work, and grant you tenure. Turning a wayward 19-year-old into a determined thinker might make you feel worthy, but it wouldn’t show up on a resume or establish professional contacts. You needed to network and circulate, apply for grants and submit papers to journals, attend symposia. Every minute in office hours with students, you quickly realized, took away from securing a letter of recommendation from a name scholar or writing the final page of a conference talk.
Who could resist? You might sense the spuriousness of the whole thing, and you might regret slacking off in the classroom, but act on principle and you would jeopardize career and livelihood. Besides, you were ambitious, and with every academic announcement in your mailbox and table of contents you scanned, a new world seemed to open up, a PROFESSION offering repute and prestige. How much more glamorous it would be to meet an academic star at a summer institute than to slog with freshmen through rough drafts. So you went with the flow, and once you landed a tenure-track post and it came time to plan your teaching, you jockeyed with colleagues and administrators to move up the course ladder. Graduate seminars looked best. Once a week for a few hours, you could talk with a few motivated trainees about advanced scholarly matters close to your research. No tiresome instruction of undergraduates in broad literary history, and no correction of commas and diction in basic composition assignments.
That’s how the research/teaching domains appear to professors, and we can’t reasonably insist that they renounce it. It’s a perverse set-up, yes, pushing professors ever farther away from the students who need them the most, but a paycheck is at stake. Young professors can’t worry about scrambling students when job security calls for something else, even though they see the undergraduate effect. For new students, the crucial first year gets turned over to graduate students rushed to finish their dissertations and adjunct instructors who collect three or four courses per term at micro-pay and have no standing to demand the best from the kids. Lots of them drop out. Others head to sophomore year still unprepared for college-level reading and writing. When are professors and administrators going to reject the system?
Never, on their own. Professors at the top like the low contact hours with students, and administrators like the remuneration scheme (no benefits for adjuncts). If people wish to improve general education in the United States, then, if they want an undergraduate degree to represent more knowledge and better skills, change will have to originate outside the system. Insiders have a stake in preserving it, outsiders a stake in exploding it. But those different outside groups—alums, politicians, reform and watchdog organizations—need to enter the system, and they need to do so in a way that acknowledges the reality of perverse incentives. In other words, they need to provide counter-incentives that reach directly into the workspace of individuals.
What might they look like?
At the institutional level, reform organizations might work with provosts and deans at selected universities on “teacher-track” initiatives. These programs would establish faculty lines without research requirements but with strong teaching demands and criteria (contact hours with students, outcomes assessment, etc.). Most importantly, these posts would carry promises of security and remuneration equal to those of research positions.
This would require, of course, a fundamental change in the culture of just about every university in the country with a graduate school component. The definitions of value and prestige would shift, and so would the image and reality of the campus itself. It is unlikely that reformers would find many administrators willing to participate in the process.
A quicker and easier way would aim to change individuals, not institutions. In their simplest form, the counter-incentives would come in dollars. We have done this at Emory University. With money from the president’s office and from donors such as the Veritas Fund, we have awarded summer teaching grants to faculty members at all levels to develop freshman courses and teach them the following year. Awards amount to $3,000, and we issued ten of them in 2008. They included courses on:
– The Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates of the 1780s
– American poetry and civic life
– The German immigrant experience
– The Mexican-American border from colonial times to the present
Because faculty members design the courses and spend summer weeks collecting materials and drafting presentations, we expect that their investment in the class will endure from beginning to end. Students escape that all-too-common fate of entering a class with a teacher who was handed the job by bureaucratic rule and who mutters silently during each session, “I’ve got other things to do.”
The initiative has a healthy effect on professors, too. Yes, they save time and enjoy privileges when they escape the freshman population, but they also lose touch with basic educational needs and questions. An eager graduate student doesn’t force a humanities professor to face deep cultural questions such as, “What good are poets in a society?”and “Why should our leaders care about the Founding?” A sulking 18-year-old who just wants to get to the business school does force them. Cloistered in the upper-reaches, professors sink into a mannered idiom, and they firm up the fantasy that their seclusion marks a form of progress, not abdication. Younger students are a wake-up call.
This is a fuzzy and delayed benefit for professors, however, and it’s not enough to change their practice. Reformers and donors need to realize this. They must create counter-incentives, and those counter-incentives must be concrete and immediate. An individual faculty member must be able to say, “This helps me, now.” At times, the higher education establishment appears to critics an immovable blob. It resists criticism, it resists change. Individual professors, though, may be more flexible than critics and reformers realize, and they may welcome a little relief from or counter-pressure to the reigning professional demands. Give them a reason to change, and they will.