Friday, January 29, 2016

All university managers should have to teach

When I was a graduate student at Princeton it was known that the President, William Bowen, regularly taught an undergraduate class. I recall reading that he thought that this was important so he did not lose touch with what the institution was all about.
Much later in 2011 Bowen also said

"Teaching and doing research are very good preparation for this kind of job because you have to analyze issues and understand them, and you have to be able to communicate," he said. "Teaching is a great way to hone whatever skills one has in that area. A lot of being president is about teaching."

Also, while watching The Ivory Tower I noticed that Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan College, seemed to be teaching undergraduates. Indeed, his web page says,

He continues to teach undergraduate courses, and through Coursera has offered MOOCs, the most recent being “How to Change the World.”

Does anyone know of other examples?

I think Bowen and Roth should not be anomalies and curiosities but the norm.

In fact, I think all university managers (Deans, Vice Presidents, ....) should have to do a small amount of undergraduate teaching each year. I would suggest a minimum of one half to one third of a course for second or third year students. This would be a relatively small time investment that would bring significant benefits and make them much better managers.

Why is this a desirable policy?

Managers will be more likely to formulate realistic and helpful policies.

A reminder of a core mission of the university: teaching.
Admin, fund raising, rankings, metrics, .... are just a means to an end... and sometimes an obstacle to the real mission. Furthermore, sports teams, hospitals, industry research centres, school outreach, are a distraction, whatever their merits...

It may weed out senior managers who really don't like teaching and/or students.

It will give administrators credibility when they try to persuade faculty and students of new policies and procedures, particularly ones that may be disruptive or unpopular.

What might they learn?

Teaching is hard work.
Anyone can stand up in front of a class and drone on, but actually engaging students and getting them to learn something is not easy or simple.

Students are diverse.
Even at a university such as UQ where the students are pretty uniform from the point of view of academic background (top 10-20% of high school graduates) and socio-economic background (middle class), there is a striking diversity of values, work ethic, ambitions, and ability.

Students are human beings not abstract entities.
Students are not numbers, customers, or clients. They have feelings, aspirations, frustrations, ... One learns and understands these by personal interaction not by online surveys.

Student evaluations of teaching and courses are blunt instruments with many flaws.

New technology and teaching innovations have some value but are over-hyped.

Aside. I feel I can "put my money where mouth" here. For the past 13 years I was a Research Professor and not obligated to do any teaching. However, every year on a voluntary basis I taught 0.5-1.5 courses. My perspective on students and teaching is probably quite different to if I had not done any of this teaching.

What do you think about this proposal?


  1. I am a department head of a reasonably large engineering department (35 faculty, 250+ PhD students & postdocs), and I don't do any classroom teaching. Without directly addressing Ross' important proposal I will raise a related issue: does advising PhD students "count" as teaching, or is it fundamentally different? This is a question that comes in in various guises as people think about allocation of resources in at least some academic settings.

    1. David, Thanks for the question.

      First, I don't have any problem with the fact that you personally don't currently do any classroom teaching. You have done that for many years in the recent past. My proposal is directed towards Deans, VPs, Provosts,... who have not taught for ten or twenty years. Furthermore, it is particularly worrying that some have virtually no real experience teaching undergrads.

      I think advising Ph.D students is fundamentally different, with regard to the issues I am concerned with. Effective advising is teaching and should factor into workload allocations. However, some advisors actually never teach their Ph.D students anything. They just get grants to pay their salaries and sign paperwork. If you teach an undergrad class it is actually difficult to avoid engaging with students. Furthermore, there is some rough (and imperfect) accountability due to the student evaluations. But, the bigger issue I am trying to get at is the concern of Hunter Rawlings that

      "The teaching of undergraduate students on campus has become a quaint, tiny fraction of [research] universities’ purpose and function."

  2. Ross, I fully agree: all managers should teach. Makes sure they keep a feeling with the people on the workfloor.

    And I think undergrad teaching is better. Even if only because one would be in touch with a larger quantity of the main population at a university.
    As such it is different than the one-on-one advising of PhD students.
    I think that's important too though to keep a connection with the research population (second goal of universities).
    It would be good to have at least one grad student, but maybe better a postdoc as dept. head. But above Dept. head that will be hard.

    just my two cents.

  3. While this is a great idea in principle, I find it hard to imagine it working in practice. What about a much lower bar to being with? Having managers with some non-neglible amount of experience teaching undergraduates in the past. And/or having had a successful research career. My impression is that this is would not be fulfilled in some cases at some universities.