A College Returns to Teaching

The famed economist Thomas Sowell has observed that the chief problem with our education system is that it is dominated by the interests of the producers rather than the interests of the consumers. Keep that in mind as you read about the near-death and resuscitation of one university.

Lindenwood University, located near St. Louis, almost died in the late 1980s. Student enrollments had been falling and the endowment was nearly gone. It survived only because a new president was brought in and dramatically refocused the school so it would do a much better job of what colleges are supposed to do: teach the students. His “new” model made the faculty concentrate on teaching rather than research. Tenure was abolished. He also trimmed the curriculum and administration, allowing Lindenwood to keep tuition low.

Edward Morris, Dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship, tells the story in his book The Lindenwood Model. In doing so, he makes it clear that most universities and even many smaller colleges are today infected with the research virus, which is detrimental to good undergraduate teaching.

Morris knows that professors are hired and promoted mainly on the basis of their published research work, not on their ability to teach undergraduates. The mania for research means that professors are expected to do little teaching, and what teaching they do won’t be carefully evaluated.

Most professors, however, prefer spending their time on research, and that’s easier to measure than teaching competence. Furthermore, faculty research can help enhance a school’s reputation and perhaps raise its U.S. News ranking—the Holy Grail of most college presidents.

The president of Lindenwood at the time, Dennis Spellmann, saw that the school was dying under the standard university model. Students were not getting much educational value for their tuition dollars. He decided that the only course that would work was one that put their interests first. A key step in his revitalization plan was a requirement that professors teach five courses (fifteen class hours a week) per semester.

But doesn’t doing research make professors better teachers? Spellmann didn’t buy that idea and Morris spends quite a few pages in refuting it. The research that professors do rarely has much connection with the content of an undergraduate course; worse yet, they sometimes displace the content that ought to be in their courses with whatever their current research interests happens to be. So instead of learning the broad principles of an academic discipline, students often spend at least some of their class time immersed in minutiae that interest their professors.

Morris realizes that he’s taking on a sacred cow here, but blurts out the truth that much academic research is “trivial, conducted with questionable methodology, and written in jargon that makes it nearly incomprehensible.” His own finance dissertation was on a tiny point regarding the “efficient market hypothesis.” He managed to prove something no one had ever doubted and since then his research has merely gathered dust on a library shelf.

(For an amusing look at some faculty research that would fall into Dave Barry’s “I’m NOT making this up!” category, check out the IgNobel Prizes.)

Once the “teaching model” took effect at Lindenwood, enrollments did a U-turn and began steadily increasing. The flow of red ink stopped and the university was soon operating in the black, accumulating capital for improvements and expansion. It helps a great deal that the university spends little on athletics. Lindenwood is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an association that allows schools to compete in many sports, but without going crazy in pursuit of athletic glory. (There are no athletic scholarships, for instance.) Nearly half of the school’s students play on one or more of its 38 teams.

Tuition at Lindenwood for the 2007-08 academic year was $12,400. Compared with the average for private colleges and universities (over $21,000), it’s clear that the lean, educationally-focused approach Spellmann brought to the school makes it an excellent value.

Here is an illuminating comparison. The University of Missouri at St. Louis and Lindenwood are comparable in size (around 4,000 students), but UMSL goes in for research, sports, various “community service” activities, and carries a much greater number of administrators. Tuition is about the same at the two institutions. Morris concludes:

Lindenwood is able to offer its students a private undergraduate education that is competitively priced with that of UMSL – even though the State of Missouri provides UMSL with a per student subsidy of approximately $6,000 per year and Lindenwood with none. The $6,000 differential may also be viewed, of course, as the amount Missouri taxpayers pay in order for UMSL to pursue its non-instructional ventures.

In the coming years, there will be other private colleges and universities facing the dire financial troubles that drove Lindenwood to undertake the momentous changes that not only saved it, but proved to be very popular with students. Reading Ed Morris’s book could enable their presidents to make the right decisions.

It would be even better if the presidents of non-floundering schools would also follow the Lindenwood model, simply because doing so would be an excellent competitive move. Students and parents will increasingly be searching for affordable colleges that don’t merely award credits and degrees, but actually educate. Colleges and universities that take Morris’s “antidote for what ails undergraduate education” (the subtitle of the book) will become more and more attractive to those who demand more from college than just a fancy diploma.