How Stanford Is Pushing Profs Back To The Classroom

Stanford University senior John May wonders what kind of education he is getting for $22,000 a year. The electrical engineering major comes in contact with professors mostly in big lectures, where he's just a face in the crowd. He actually talks with such Brahmins about once a term--and gets "the sense I'm secondary to their research. Research is what makes them tick."

This is one of the not-so-great results that big research income has produced at Stanford. Grants represent 28% of the school's research and instruction budget and make stars of the people who win them. Faculty can even "buy out" of teaching by using grants to pay part of their salaries. Temporary teachers pick up the slack.

PENDULUM SWING. But now, Stanford faces a conundrum. "The public believes that the primary mission of higher education is to transmit knowledge," says Thomas A. Wasow, dean of undergraduate students. Since private schools rely heavily on donations, a loss of public confidence could hurt their bottom lines--just as research funding levels off. So Stanford President Donald Kennedy is swinging the pendulum back. "We need to change the Stanford culture," he declares, "so that undergraduate teaching becomes more central."

That's a tall order. In recent years, hiring and tenure decisions have come to be based largely on a professor's ability to generate world-class research. The most important criteria in tenure decisions remain a professor's publications record and reference letters, mostly from other researchers. Kennedy says he reviewed 22 recent promotion folders and found only one where the effort made to evaluate teaching equaled that for research. "If you're a mediocre researcher but an excellent teacher, you're unlikely to get tenure," says Michele D. Marincovich, an assistant dean.

The pressure to win research money isn't likely to let up. "It's the only way to survive," declares John Bravman, a professor of materials science and engineering. "You can't have a research program without funding." In a typical 70-hour week, says Bravman, he teaches one or two courses, runs five research projects with $800,000 a year in funding, supervises nine PhD students, and writes more grant proposals. He spends one-third of his time on teaching activities.

Now, Kennedy wants the best of both worlds. He has unveiled a $7 million program to improve teaching. A $5 million donation from alumnus Peter Bing, a physician, will provide incentives such as $1,000 raises to20 outstanding teachers, and $5,000 awards to another 10. The school will also fund team teaching and interdisciplinary seminars. Most important, Kennedy proposes changing Stanford's promotion and tenure system to emphasize teaching. For instance, he wants to limit the number of scholarly publications considered in tenure decisions and to include textbooks, computer courseware, and other materials prepared by professors.

The old system is stubborn, judging by the outrage Kennedy's campaign is provoking. "I was insulted at what Donald Kennedy said," declares Richard Zare, a chemistry professor. "Research and teaching aren't in conflict." But try telling that to John May.

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