By Richard Vedder
Tomorrow, an important higher education mini-conference is taking place at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, keynoted by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, in which I am playing a role as organizer (with sidekick Bryan O'Keefe and friend Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni). One of the many great speakers is Harry Lewis, former Dean of the College at Harvard, whose book Excellence Without a Soul is one of the great higher education reads of modern times.
Beyond teaching facts, ideas, and, hopefully, universal values, residential colleges, if they are doing their job well, help students become good citizens, and serve in an extra-parental role of advising them regarding the problems that accompany the transition from childhood to adulthood. Students need honest, mature, and wise advice on matters of vocational and graduate school selection, with issues relating to family and friends, even sometimes with dealing with romances and sexual feelings, and more broadly, with issues relating to right and wrong. As Lewis points out, many faculty members are so absorbed in their professional research specialties that they are disinclined and maybe even unequipped to advise youth on the broader business of the adult life to come. But many faculty members with years of working with youth and good life experiences of their own can serve as role models and advisers to students. Yet as Lewis emphasizes, the "system" does not promote that. Untenured assistant professors are not rewarded for talking to students. A paper given at an obscure professional meeting is worth more than 1,000 hours of advising kids about their future. That is wrong, it is a shame, and Harry Lewis has done a great job of exposing the problem as it has evolved at Harvard.
At a policy level, we need to change the system of rewards and incentives. The biggest problem, as I see it, is that research is measurable and recognition is national or even international in scope, while good advising (and to a lesser extent, good teaching) is much harder to measure and define, and recognition is merely local in nature. Therefore, national labor markets get information on research quickly and reasonably accurately, but much less on teaching. That may be one reason why the teaching/advising role in comparatively neglected, but not the only one. Nonetheless, we need to seek to evaluate professors more imaginatively and comprehensively than we do now. Why not ask graduating seniors, for example, to tell us "what professors have made the most positive difference in your life, either through their teaching, advising or other contact?" Why not reward teachers who are highly regarded more? Why does not rateyourprofessor.com or other Web-based site develop a national instrument that might provide national recognition for superstar professors in terms of helping students? It is not a perfect solution to the problem, but it may be a start.