Specialization Comes to Campus

Are market forces about to fundamentally alter the traditional relationships of professors to their students, to their departments and universities, and even to their subject matter? This issue was recently raised at a round-table conference sponsored by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

For the faculty, everything today is “publish or perish.” Research is the key to tenure and promotions. The teaching of undergraduates might be the primary mission of academia, but it often gets short shrift in a faculty-dominated universe.

Yet to administrators, money is the motivation, and enrollment paves the way to higher state subsidies and increasing tuition revenues. To attract students, universities must offer at least the appearance of a quality undergraduate education.

One solution to this widening gulf between faculty and administration discussed at the conference was to embrace the tendency toward specialization. The catalyst for this discussion was a brief presentation by Penn State University senior lecturer Dirk Mateer, a self-described “large-class teaching specialist.”

The teaching of large introductory college classes is often delegated to graduate students, part-time adjuncts, or itinerant lecturers hoping to land a tenured position somewhere else. They usually share neither job security nor high pay with their tenured colleagues, and have little power or influence within departments. As Bill Allen, a political science professor from Michigan State, said at the conference, “teaching is the purgatory to which we assign graduate students while they reach for the heavens [of tenure].”

Mateer, however, belies this stereotype. He was lured to Penn State’s economics department from a tenured position at another college by the promise of a high salary and a long-term contract, and has risen to co-chair the economics department’s undergraduates studies program. He said that, by teaching introductory economics to over a thousand students per semester, he bridges the gap between the opposing priorities of tenured faculty and administration. His presence frees tenured researchers from the time-consuming act of high-volume teaching of introductory courses so they can advance knowledge and bring prestige to the school, and so they can also intensively mentor more advanced students. Administrators gain as well—they can pack the lecture halls with tuition-paying or subsidized students and thereby fill the coffers.

The recognition of the mutual benefits has brought greater acceptance from tenured faculty and more say in the department for teaching specialists, according to Mateer.

He said his job requires unique presentation skills and the ability to manage others—he enables the school to “scale up” and take advantage of employing low-cost graduate and undergraduate assistants to tutor and grade papers.

Using the incentives of high pay, long-term contracts, and freedom from the pressure to publish, the economics department at Penn State has attracted eight other teaching specialists. Mateer said there is another reason for the university to hire them, other than their low cost and high productivity—teaching specialists who do not meet expectations can be easily eliminated at the end of their contracts (or if staff reductions are needed generally), unlike their tenured counterparts.

Roger Meiners, a professor of economics and law at the University of Texas at Arlington, supported Mateer’s assertions. He said, that given the schools’ budget constraints, the teaching specialist seems like a very sensible way to address the problem of undergraduate teaching, particularly since the undergraduate education mission often gets lost amidst the other priorities of large state universities.

He said one problem with the contractual status of such specialists is that the contracts offer far less security than tenure. “Come the budget crunch, every instructor will get whacked…instead of the lazy old deadwood—they’re tenured.”

While the practical benefits of such specialization appear to be many and obvious, other participants raised objections and caveats, both pragmatic and emotional.

David Mulroy, a classicist from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said this scenario conflicts with the ideal of a professor he received when entering the profession—“a good lecturer who would reach out to young students and give a riveting lecture, but who was also a cutting-edge researcher.” He said that by managing the tension between the teaching and research functions, a teacher often became a “particularly admirable professional… It’s a little depressing to see that we have broken down, so that now we have a researcher here and a teacher there.”

Jack Sommer, a geography professor emeritus at UNC-Charlotte (and also a Pope Center board member), raised an important question about whether schools should take it one step further and eliminate lectures altogether. He asked whether, since graduate and undergraduate assistants take over some of the “most important interactions with students—the grading and tutoring functions—why not do away with the teacher altogether and give students lectures on DVD they could watch on their own time?”

Mulroy said this brought up a very fundamental question: what is the value of human contact in teaching? “There’s a lot of pressure to make teaching more impersonal,” he exxpalined. “A lot of innovation in teaching always comes down to putting things on DVDs or computers.”

Mateer responded that, if teaching large classes was simply a matter of standing behind a podium and lecturing, he would be all for using DVDs or online lectures. “It comes back to adding tangible value,” he posited. He recommended techniques like using short film clips in class to “get people to think about ideas in a broad sense together, then narrowing the topic down.” Another teaching tool he favors is the “think-pair-share-method,” in which students first tackle a question individually, then with another or small group, then the pairs share their answers with the whole class.

Managing the course, with all of the elements of assistants, tests, grades, assignments, and delivery of the subject material, is a necessary part of the job that can’t “be farmed out,” Mateer insisted.

One “stumbling block” to the concept of using teaching specialists like Mateer, noted by Stephanie Crofton, the associate dean of the Earl N. Phillips School of Business at High Point University, is that “more and more the universities are being pushed to get specialized accreditation. I know for the School of Business, the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business—an accrediting agency), which sets the gold standard, x number of courses, x percentage of student contact hours, must be taught by your researchers.”

She said that many smaller schools aim for the AACSB accreditation by having top faculty teach larger classes to raise the percentage of students taught by researchers. She added that many schools have an attitude of “what good is the research if they’re not sharing it with students?”

Allen said he was in favor of getting researchers back into the classroom: “To assume that the term researcher is a synonym for ‘bad teacher’ is a big mistake.”

Mateer defended the division of labor at Penn State, saying that many of his colleagues are “doing a lot of frontier research,” and that there is considerable evidence that freeing them from extensive teaching duties has resulted in “research that’s going to move the discipline in some direction.”

Despite the apparent benefits of such deliberate specialization, it might be a long time before it is common practice, according to Robert Martin, a professor emeritus in economics from Centre College in Kentucky. He said the market for senior teaching specialists like Mateer has not developed enough to encourage young PhD.s to eschew research to focus on teaching. That lack of a market, he added, places teaching specialists in precarious positions, in which they are likely to accept lower salaries and shorter contracts. And as non-tenured professors, they are likely to remain without much standing or say within the department when it comes to dividing up resources. This lack of influence is one reason why undergraduate education is often shorted in favor of research and graduate studies.

“The problem is “really finding a way to create that market for the senior master teachers,” Martin continued. “It doesn’t solve the resource allocation problem to have non-tenured master teachers.”

Martin explained an underlying reason why no such market has developed. “One of the primary reasons why we have a market for scholars is because we have outside third-party individuals who will verify their quality—that is the journals, the books, the critical reviews, above and beyond whatever the university might say,” he suggested. “So you get a pretty good idea of the quality of the research. We have no corresponding information at all about teachers. There’s no outside third-party that will tell you anything at all about the quality of an individual’s teaching.”

Sommer brought up another consideration—the potential for teaching specialists, freed from the need to produce new knowledge, to let their understanding of the subject matter grow stagnant from years of repeatedly teaching the same topics. “Being a teaching specialist does not remove the responsibility for thinking on the frontiers of knowledge,” he cautioned.

Is it possible that the traditional ideal of the professor, as both a scholar on the cutting edge of knowledge and a teacher and mentor to the young, as described by Mulroy, on the way out? Or is there some inherently noble quality in the ideal that is worth preserving despite the benefits of specialization? Should academic researchers be required to justify the intellectual value of their research? Should teaching specialists receive parity with, (or even primacy over) their research-focused colleagues in rewards, recognition and influence? After all, in many cases they are paying the bills for their research-oriented colleagues. If the teaching specialist emerges as a new force in higher education, will intellectual stagnancy result? And is tenure, as the supposed safeguard of academic freedom, an inferior instrument to more efficient long-term, renewable contracts?

All of these issues are being faced in real-life academia. Some schools are dropping the research requirement for professors, in order to focus on the primary mission of teaching. The use of contingent faculty is rapidly increasing. And the inefficiencies of tenure are coming under the scrutiny of higher education administrators and officials.

Bill Thierfelder, the president of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, suggested that the entire current concept of higher education might require examination, in light of economic realities. “Everything we’re talking about today comes down to money…How do you deliver and educate and be able to afford to do it?…We’ve created infrastructures that are almost impossible to support…In some places they work well, because the resources are there, but I think for the vast majority [of colleges], they’re not.”

The division of labor has been a large part of the enormous improvement in living standards worldwide. Perhaps it can do the same for undergraduate education. Yet, rarely does such change occur without some loss, in this case, a scholarly ideal which, at its best, is greater than the sum of its parts. In light of economic realities, however, that ideal might now be an unnecessary luxury beyond the means of all but a few.