The Debate About Undergraduate Education

On Friday, at the 2011 Commencement ceremony, I handed out the Pinanski Prizes for Excellence in Teaching to three faculty honorees this year. As I read excerpts of their citations, I was inspired to think about an obvious fact we too often lose sight of: good education can not exist without good teachers.

The Pinanski Prizes at Wellesley are a significant honor to the few who are chosen.  I think they are also an important symbol to everyone in our community.  They signal the College’s understanding that good teachers and inspired teaching is, and has been throughout our 136-year history, the single most important factor in making Wellesley the great institution that it is.

Certainly, Commencement is a day to celebrate our graduating seniors. And they absolutely deserve that.  But an important undertone to the day is about the faculty, and the role they play in the lives of students.  The faculty’s effect on the Class of 2011 became quite evident as I watched our graduating seniors rise to give a standing ovation of appreciation to the faculty they had come to know in the previous four years.

The power of teaching should not be a revelation to anyone. We all know that good teachers and good teaching are the bedrock upon which our educational system rests, the sine qua non of a good undergraduate education.  But this seems often to be forgotten.  As I watch the current debate about and politicization of higher education spinning around me, I see little evidence that this basic truth is recognized in arguments about higher education.  The public’s frustration with our economy and our politicians’ defensive reaction to that frustration has led, among other things, to an attempt to discredit the effectiveness of higher education in our country.  Our higher education system has served the country and the public very well over the past century, and, in large part, it explains the U.S. preeminence in the world.  The impetus of the current attacks on higher education seem to derive from those looking for instances of failure and then generalizing that failure even to the large segment of higher education who is doing it right.  To those who truly understand the purpose and function of undergraduate education, it really comes down to good teaching, which is something that is not subject to meaningful cost-benefit analysis.  My fear is that the political climate will lead to actions that will diminish—rather than improve—the effectiveness of our colleges and universities.  I fear many want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or whichever analogy you prefer.

I think we—and other institutions, as well as lawmakers and the general public—don’t celebrate our faculty enough, nor do we sufficiently appreciate the job they do.  I am proud that last Friday, at least for a few moments on the Academic Quad, we recognized the important work of three of our esteemed colleagues, and the faculty at large.

Everything That Counts Cannot Necessarily be Counted

I indicated in my April 4 post that I was worried.  I keep finding more reasons to worry about higher education in this country.  Recently the University of Texas System Board of Regents has focused on measuring faculty productivity.  They want to measure faculty productivity in a way that is similar to a numerical cost-benefit analysis.  This focus on measurement follows a growing belief in our country that colleges should be thought of as businesses whose customers are students.  As an offshoot, the regents of Texas A&M University have created a faculty rating system that measures how much money each faculty member brings in through teaching and then subtracts the salary and benefits costs of that faculty member.  Each faculty member can then be classified as “red” or  “black” depending on whether they are an individual profit center or a net financial loss.  Some have argued that they should add faculty grants received to the “profit” side, but to my mind this makes it even worse by artificially separating two essential components of scholarly activity—components that are entangled, and should be. The attitude that generated this naïve cost-benefit analysis is not Texas-specific.  It is a growing national attitude, and that is what worries me.

Faculty productivity cannot be measured by the number of students that pass through the classroom.  Higher education is so much more than that.  Students learn and continue to learn when motivated by good faculty; students don’t just learn in the classroom.  Good faculty create motivated learners and lifelong learners, exactly what we need for a productive society.  We do not need “Shovel-ready Students.” The business model assumes that everything that counts can be counted.  This is not true, as the title of this blog—a quote usually attributed to Albert Einstein—asserts.  The problem is not the insistence on measuring, but the assumption that if it can’t be measured it isn’t worth anything.  Of course, we need to assess how good a job our faculty are doing and how well we are educating our students, but simplistic cost-benefit analysis is not the way to do this.  If carried to an extreme, it would lead to a degradation of our educational system.  Higher education in this country—by any measure—has been enormously successful.  It is not an accident that other countries have and continue to admire and emulate our model.  This is not to say that we cannot improve the process.

I know our faculty at Wellesley are “productive” because I see their immediate effect on our students and their continuing effect on our alumnae.  It is a powerful effect that can never be approximated by counting noses in a classroom.  The cost of our faculty is easily determined and measured; the benefits they bring to Wellesley and society are not so easily quantified.