Learning About Education the Hard Way

To people on the outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that faculty would like to do rather than an overriding priority.

A few words on Wisconsin.

Photographer: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Harry Brighouse has an article on the proposed changes to the University of Wisconsin's mission. My purpose is not to quarrel with his take, but to examine a particular line that caught my eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

I was thinking about this on the ride to work, and wondering why this premise seems so contestable to those of us outside the academy, even though it is righteously sworn to by everyone inside it.

One possibility is that this is just the kind of nasty potshot that people outside an institution like to take at those manning the ramparts. And I think that there is some truth to that, because most professions look worse from the outside than they do from the inside, though a few (firefighting, nursing) probably look better. I certainly found it easier to be critical of journalists before I became one and found that the profession is trickier, and more complicated, than it seems when you are not the one trying to get the story.

Another possibility is that "Undergraduates are central to our mission" is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn't, like "America is a great melting pot." And I think there is some evidence of that. Consider, for example, the way faculty are hired and retained.

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he'd been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn't good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn't publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain. Most of the professors I know who are trying to get tenure seem to spend a lot of time worrying about getting enough publications in the right journals, and comparatively little time worrying about whether their teaching skills are good enough to get them that golden ticket.

Compared to other institutions, university departments barely attempt to evaluate a professor's skill at educating undergraduates -- they do not, for example, spend much time supervising classrooms or trying to figure out how much the undergraduates have learned. Yes, they often look at student evaluations, but those are arguably better for measuring whether the teacher is good-looking or an easy grader than they are at measuring whether the students are, y'know, being educated.

So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority. Individual professors may consider this central to their own mission, but the faculty as a body don't seem to focus on it much. They spend a lot of time doing it, of course, just as infantry officers spend a lot of time running around in the woods on training exercises. But the infantry officers would rarely say that the running around in the woods is their core mission.

And a lot of faculty seem to spend a lot of time wishing, hoping or actively scheming to reduce their course loads so that they can spend less time educating undergraduates. Or, as Jacques Berlinerblau put it, "While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates."

Now, there are a couple of caveats to this. The first is that I'm describing a top research university, and most post-secondary education does not take place at top research universities. Fair enough, but I'd offer a couple more caveats to that: Brighouse is, in fact, describing a flagship state university, not a community college. And those schools are the apex of the career hierarchy within the academic disciplines; you get more career opportunities from doing groundbreaking research in a tiny field than you do from giving thousands of undergraduates a lifelong love of Shakespeare.

The other caveat is that even if the faculty don't view educating undergraduates as actually core to their mission, the university as a whole might. As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I'm not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing -- yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it. That's certainly where a lot of expenses seem to be growing in recent years, from football teams to top-notch fitness centers.

Now, this impression may be false. But you can understand why, when they look at faculty and administrators who seem to be more interested in almost every other aspect of their jobs, outsiders might get that impression. And that impression matters.

As we all know, the cost of college is much higher than it used to be. And the value of the credential is somewhat less than it used to be. Wait -- I know that the earnings premium on a college diploma is higher than ever. But that's partly because unskilled labor has done so badly. 

Anyway, that's not quite what I mean. Rather, I'm thinking of what a college diploma meant when my parents came out of school -- which is to say, basically a guarantee that you could get a good job. Diplomas were comparatively rare back then, so having one sent a meaningful signal that you were smart and talented. It almost didn't matter what you majored in; you could still find a job with pretty good pay and prospects for advancement.

Even in my day, this was still somewhat true, though less so; my first few jobs out of college involved typing tests. But these days, it is no guarantee at all. College diplomas are no longer so rare, and moderately demanding management positions are no longer so plentiful. The premium is bigger than ever, but the undifferentiated "college diploma" is no longer a ticket to job security. My prediction: People outside the university are already focusing less on graduation day and more on what you did during your years in school. That will continue, and intensify.

Many of the people who will be doing that focusing are parents or employers, or policy makers who went to large research schools. Their beliefs about academia's priorities -- true or not -- are going to shape their willingness to invest more in its students. Right now, a lot of them believe that universities, particularly university faculty, have a much stronger institutional focus on esoteric research, or various ideological commitments, than they do on cramming facts and critical-thinking skills into the brains of America's youth. And as I noted last week, academia is not exactly working overtime to prove otherwise.

If undergraduate education really is central to the mission of places like Penn and Wisconsin, then they should act like it when hiring and retaining faculty, which means placing the focus on teaching first, research second. It also means spending a lot more effort evaluating how well that teaching is going. If it's not central ... well, then, carry on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.