By Richard Vedder
"It is unfortunate that the ability to teach students may not be as highly valued as the ability to procure research funds." Or so said an appeals court in Ohio in deciding not to grant tenure to a professor who had sued claiming age discrimination (the lawsuit was at my university, Ohio University, but I am drawing from Doug Lederman's excellent account in today's INSIDE HIGHER EDUCATION).
Even at medium quality research universities such as my own, more and more people are evaluated on how much money they can bring in. Money provides inputs into the production process, but what society is interested in is output --teaching and research performed. One problem is we focus on the inputs, not the outcomes. Universities do this to maximize their wealth and ability to command resources. But that, per se, is not the goal of universities, at least as viewed by the broader society that funds them.
The bigger problem, of course, is the relegation of teaching to a secondary role. At most universities there are good incentives to do research, great incentives to win research grants to fund the research, but weak incentives to do a good job of teaching --and zero incentives to do something equally important --sit and talk with students (advise them, if you prefer), helping them navigate the exciting but dangerous transition from childhood to adulthood, or from being merely literate to being truly learned and wise.
Research results are externally visible: papers published, grants won, patents earned. The world knows and other schools want to get those who are good at it. Teaching results are only locally visible: reputation for being good in the classroom, liked by the kids, etc. The payoff often comes years later --a student goes on to get an advanced degree stimulated by what they learned as an undergraduate; a grateful student turned alum gives his or her alma mater $90 million (that just happened to us at Ohio University). The results of teaching are no less important --arguably MORE important -- than those of research, but less visible, less measurable, and thus less rewarded.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that this perverse incentive system leads to a large amount of relatively trivial research that occurs mainly to foster promotion and tenure, not a true increase in the frontiers of our knowledge. I go to meetings in exotic watering holes or gambling dens (e.g., Las Vegas), for which attendance at sessions where scholarly papers are being given rarely exceeds 15, and sometimes is in the single digits. The university pays for the travel, the professor has fun seeing his old buddies and drinking a lot --and society gets nothing in return. Papers for academic journals are laboriously edited and resubmitted to reach a pristine state --and then read by 25 or 50 persons in some cases, more in the case of truly top journals in the field. To be sure, some important work is being done, discoveries are being made, lives are being made longer, the quality of life is being extended --but at enormous cost.
The generalization above, of course, does not apply to community college nor so much at liberal arts colleges or obscure lower tiered state universities. The ability of colleges to push more of the costs of research on students is becoming imperiled, and rightly so. Costs are getting out of hand, and the phenomenon of tenured professors making over $100,000 a year but teaching only three classes a year to a total of 60 students may become increasingly rare. And it should.