Faculty formula put to the test

Business leaders and lawmakers are leaning on universities statewide to produce more graduates in high demand fields. Those taking up the challenge often receive substantial extra funding. For Washington State University, the question is how best to achieve the goal.

At the root of this challenge lies the fact that there aren’t enough homegrown grads in the high-demand fields to sufficiently fuel the state’s economy. Many students enter the university declaring related majors, but are inadequately prepared to succeed or are insufficiently motivated to pursue their original goal. By the end of their freshman or sophomore year, many students throw in the towel and switch majors.
For example, about 60 percent of engineering students switch majors by the end of their freshman or sophomore year ­- “and often grades are not the issue,” said Candis Claiborn, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture.

Although this is a national trend and WSU is on a par with its peers (plus or minus 3-5 percent), Claiborn makes no excuses, “We’re losing far too many.” So, departments at CEA are testing different approaches to change the trend.

As leaders look for causes and solutions, some argue that top-level tenure-track research faculty need to teach more lower-division courses. Others contend the tenure system is faulty, not designed to reward teaching, and needs fixing. And others see the answer in recruiting more top-rated nontenure faculty whose passion is teaching. Ultimately, the solution might include all of these strategies.

“Some of our best researchers also are our best teachers,” said Claiborn, “but that is not to say that great researchers are always great teachers, or that great teachers are necessarily great researchers. Some researchers may not be good in teaching large, gateway courses, but they might be good at teaching seniors or graduate students in specific topics and smaller classroom settings.

Here are a few of the strategies, suggestions and conflicts surrounding this issue.

More tenured researchers
Some faculty and administrators suggest that the key to advancing more undergraduates in high-demand majors is having top-ranked researchers teach more entry-level and “gateway” courses. Researchers who are good teachers, they say, exude a contagious enthusiasm for their field and provide first-hand insights into research, which motivates students to continue.

A gateway course is a lower-level course that is required to advance in a given major. Example: Statics (CE 211) for civil engineering majors, or Statistics 212 for allied health majors.

One of the biggest problems in putting top research faculty into these classes is numbers – numbers of students and numbers of dollars.
Mary Wack, interim director of the Office for Undergraduate Education and the dean of the Honors College, noted that in 2004-2005 there were 71,000 enrollments in the most common 100-200 level general education courses (each fall, spring and summer class was counted independently). 

With 300 full professors, WSU might be able to spread them throughout the key gateway classes, said Wack, “but that looks away from all the other obligations senior faculty have,” including graduate teaching, mentoring, research and administrative duties. “We have a very strong shared governance model and a lot of full professors are helping with administration and are not available for teaching.”

Gateway classes can be very demanding. In addition to lecturing two or three times a week, these classes can include coordinating 5-15 teaching assistants, lab instructors and lab coordinators, as well as managing logistics.
Then there is the factor that drives many faculty hiring decisions – budget.

Once again, Wack knows the numbers: “It’s far more expensive to hire a tenure-track researcher than it is to hire a lecturer.” For example, a beginning tenure-track assistant professor in the sciences might make, hypothetically, a salary of $60,000, plus 20-30 percent for benefits. Add to that $500,000 to $1 million in startup lab equipment, plus necessary research space. A lecturer, on the other hand, might have a $40,000-$50,000 salary and teach five to six courses a year.

“What you’re trying to do is manage your resources and invest them wisely,” said Denny Davis, chair of WSU’s President’s Teaching Academy. “If you’ve hired people for excellence in research, that is where they are going to bring the greatest return on investment. But they also have a responsibility to teach.”

Conversely, he noted, “because they also are good at teaching doesn’t mean you want to use them in classroom all the time.”

Small-class strategy
Other research universities, struggling with the same issues, have adopted a structure in which the senior researchers “typically connect with the lower-division students,” in a small-class format, Wack said, pointing to Stanford University, University of California Los Angeles and University of Washington. What they have found is “it’s the dialogue that matters.”

In addition to targeting strategic gateway classes, Wack said, “we should have some small class experiences in the freshman year. That is a perfect venue for tenure-line faculty and senior researchers to engage incoming students in the intellectual excitement of their field, to turn students on to what the big questions are, to help them think about … what’s of interest to them in that field.”

Scholarship of teaching
A second strategy for improving graduation output and classroom success targets the long-standing issue of tenure.

Some faculty and administrators argue that the university’s tenure system has a major weakness when it comes to teaching. Faculty who concentrate their efforts in classroom teaching generally cannot receive tenure. Instead, they need to also be “researchers.”

Some faculty members cry foul and contend that a university, of all places, needs to put a higher value on teaching and to reward those efforts. And, to a degree, administrators agree.

A possible solution to the problem is being developed through the President’s Teaching Academy –  comprised of 12 faculty from all WSU campuses. Over the past year, the PTA has been creating definitions and tools that would allow WSU to better evaluate scholarship of teaching and learning. If the concept of scholarship in teaching is accepted, it could lead to faculty positions focusing on teaching and educational research, and scholarship recognition.

Citing reports by the Boyer Commission and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Boyer, 1990), Davis argues that scholarship extends beyond what is traditionally called “research.” Boyer’s definition of scholarship includes aspects of teaching that explore how people learn, how we make knowledge easier to learn, and how we know what people have learned.

“Teaching is not a secondary function, it’s as important as the other scholarly functions we have,” said Davis. “What WSU has not done is offer an inclusive but rigorous definition of what scholarship is.”

Davis, who also serves as professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, and co-director of the Engineering Education Research Center, has worked avidly at College of Engineering and Architecture to test and promote scholarship within the engineering education arena.

“My approach is to identify within teaching functions that which constitutes scholarly work and then to give the person credit for it as scholarship,” he said.

One challenge is accurately evaluating scholarship in teaching, which everyone admits can be elusive and subjective.

“You’re looking at measuring a complex performance that includes curriculum design, classroom teachin
g, educational research, building learning communities, and providing personal advice,” Davis said. “Ideally, measurement of scholarship in teaching would look at documented improvements in student performance and impacts on the profession. Clear performance criteria for what constitutes scholarship of teaching and learning are required, and sound assessments must align with these definitions.

“Unless we have assessment methods and experts who can measure and discern the depth of student understanding, it’s tough to distinguish between something that is just popular vs. something that is effective. And it’s the people who are skilled in scholarship of teaching and learning who would be the best at developing assessment tools and measurement methods.”

Teaching scholarship, he noted, could be the key to consistently measuring, evaluating, refining, and improving teaching and learning at WSU.

“We’re at a relatively early stage in this process,” Davis said, “but we have developed a simple rubric for scoring scholarship in teaching and learning.” And the PTA is working closely with the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology to develop and make available a tool for assessing scholarship of teaching and to obtaining feedback on it.

Scholarship requirement
Although it’s not entirely accurate, Davis said, the current tenure system has a “reputation of not allowing people to earn tenure and promotion by focusing on teaching. So, people tend not to perform in that area with the same energy they would if they could get tenure by this area of performance. Until there is a clear statement that people can receive equal recognition and rewards through the scholarship of teaching and learning, then such a focus will be perceived as too risky.”
Most agree, however, that tenure cannot happen without appropriate scholarship and research. “WSU is a research university,” emphasizes Tom Brigham, professor of psychology and an executive assistant to the president. “When someone comes here, they are making the choice to teach at a research university.”

If they want to focus on teaching and want tenure, but they do not want the demands of research and a scholarly career, they should look at a regional or liberal arts college, Brigham said.

Nontenured faculty
A third option in dealing with this issue is hiring top-rated nontenure-track faculty to teach more gateway classes. Nontenure-track titles commonly include clinical assistant, associate professor, lecturer and instructor.

Their presence can provide schedule flexibility to researchers, and they can bring new insights from industry.

Over the past decade, the number of nontenure faculty has increased steadily. In 1995, the number of tenure vs. nontenure track faculty was 924 (77%) to 282 (23%); in fall 2006 the numbers were 922 (68%) to 440 (32%), according to Institutional Research figures.

The advantage these faculty offer, beyond economics, Wack noted, is that “their assignment is strictly teaching and they are usually highly motivated. They usually bring a great passion for teaching and improving student performance. Some of them have educational training, so they understand teaching.” 

In the end, most agree that there is no perfect mix of faculty ranks – it varies among colleges and departments. It is a dynamic balancing act influenced by changes in the economy, budgets, the Legislature, institutional philosophies, tuition, business, students, and more. Consequently, teaching demographics will continue to react based on changes in those forces.

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