And by “it”, I don’t mean the good stuff. Harvard dean Theda Skocpol has announced a new initiative to improve undergraduate teaching at Harvard. I’ll believe it when I see it–which means it will never happen. Here’s why.
The short version is that every year (give or take), some prestigious university announces that they are going to improve teaching. And then it never happens. At this point, it’s not cynical to assume the worst, it’s cynical to announce a ‘new teaching initiative.’ In response to this announcement, Aspazia and Steve Gimbel both describe how teaching isn’t rewarded even at institutions that focus on undergraduates. Gimbel describes the clash between professional success and teaching (and the whole post is worth a read, so you get all of the gory details; italics mine):
…university professors have three jobs: research, teaching, and training graduate students, the next generation of scholars. In training upcoming technicians in their field, they stress that which made them successful…hint, it isn’t teaching. Newly minted Ph.D.’s are sent out into academic world with explicit instructions to pay as little attention to teaching as they can get away with in order to be able to focus on their research, their “real work.” If they are lucky enough to get jobs, they have to labor for the next seven years with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head; if they are denied tenure, they lose their job. Imagine that you’ve just put in five to ten grueling years working your tail off in grad school, have miraculously achieved your dream of finding a job at a college or university, and have a family to feed. Tenure decisions are largely based upon publication, scholarly research, and networking with the powerful in your scholarly community so you can get good “external evaluations.” When your department chair warns you about spending too much time trying to help your students, what do you think these folks are going to do?
The entire reward structure in colleges and universities is centered around research. How many publications? Were they in elite journals? How much grant money did you bring in? How many times was your work cited by other scholars? Important ones? This is what makes your reputation. This is what lets you keep your job and earns you raises. This is what you are “supposed to be doing.” It’s funny that even our own students don’t realize this.
I’ll get to the last sentence later. The problem is even more magnified in the sciences because federal grants are a cash cow for universities. Why? Overhead. ‘Professional’ concerns notwithstanding, nothing can stand before the Almighty Overhead Dollar. So what’s overhead?
Overhead, also referred to as indirect costs, are a surcharge on the direct or actual costs* of the grant. More people on a grant and more research costs mean more ‘indirects’ for the institution. Typically, these indirects run 50-75% of direct costs. Personnel are a particularly good way to run up indirect costs**, since you can not only charge on the salary but on an additional 16% which pays for Social Security and FICA (and some places add on more than 16%–these costs are often referred to as fringe).
A certain amount of indirects is needed: all institutions have administrative and infrastructure costs (e.g., personnel, IT, utilities, and so on). But 50%-75% is exorbitant (and, incidentally, reduces the total number of awards federal agencies can give. Federal granting agencies subsidize higher education to the tune of billions of dollars every year***). At smaller colleges, a large federal grant can underwrite much of a department, and at larger universities, science departments are often ‘profit generating centers.’****
You’ll notice that teaching doesn’t enter the discussion. Compared to the economic incentives and the professional incentives that Aspazia and Gimbel describe, teaching just doesn’t signify. As Gimbel put it, “It’s funny that even our own students don’t realize this.” The only way teaching will improve is when there is an economic incentive to improve. Since most college and universities turn away some applicants, and the ‘elite’ institutions turn away the majority or even most applicants, there is no serious incentive for universities to improve teaching, at least from the
consumer student end.
I usually don’t like to end posts like this without offering solutions, but I can’t really think of one (and I’ve been thinking about this issue for years). Cutting overhead will only make the pressure to obtain grants even greater (although it would have the advantage of increasing the number of grants available*****). One thing is for certain: without an economic incentive to improve teaching, it won’t happen.
*Different agencies and grant programs define what budget items qualify for indirect costs.
**Since graduate students do a lot of teaching (particularly in laboratory courses), having the federal government pick up the cost of a teaching assistant, instead of the university, is another subsidy.
***Even if you paid full tuition at a private university, your education was, in fact, subsidized. Suck on it, libertarians.
****In the biomedical sciences, a ‘small’ lab will bring in $250,000-$500,000 in direct costs. Larger labs bring in much more.
*****Last I checked, federal grant agencies were supporting research, not general institutional costs.