Obstacles to Professors in the Classroom

This was originally written in 2006.

The Market, not the State of Ohio, Incentives Professors in the Classroom

Ohio politicians state that professors at state universities spend too little time in the classroom. But, state action can hardly alter the incentives emanant from structural changes in the economy. Why do professors teach so little, and desire even less?

1. Good research pays much better than good teaching. We live in an information and service economy, which rewards the provision of high-quality, reliable, accurate information. The best of the professoriate has a skill set – in research – that ranks near the top the contemporary economic value chain. Accredited researchers – not just professors, but consultants, lawyers, doctors, and other similar knowledge-generating professionals – are highly prized, and university salaries and benefits packages reflect this. This ‘rock-star model’ of faculty recruitment ensures generous compensation packages to acquire and retain high-quality professors. Part of that is limiting their exposure to undergraduates who, by definition, underexploit their skill set. Places like OSU wish to compete among the top tier of schools and firms for talent. Teaching is simply not a part of the incentive mix.

And there is, of course, a good reason for this. Teaching is easier than research. Most teaching assistants are qualified to teach; very few to write for publication. Most Americans have spent time in school. Most have reasonable interpersonal communication skills and a field of expertise. Yet far fewer are qualified to write a book or serious article on their area of interest.

So the mechanics are simple supply and demand. Prestigious researchers and their product are in very high demand because of the knowledge-based structure of our economy. Part of the price of holding such figures in our universities is a minimal teaching load.

2. Closely related to the financial benefits, are those of stature. Like all communities, scholars seek the affirmation of their peers. A defining book or article, along with the speaking engagements and seminars that accompany it, bring prestige. Excellence in teaching achieves nowhere near this level of recognition. No one speaks before NATO, the World Bank, or on C-SPAN by training undergraduates.

Similarly, prestige affects the ability of universities to exige teaching from their best faculty. OSU, e.g., has a reputation for football and mediocre undergraduates in the middle of a dull farm state. To attract talent from more high profile cities and universities, one must offer congenial packages. Obviously this entails a high salary, but also a reduced load. Higher caliber schools will find it easier to push researchers into the classroom. Ohio does yet have schools to rival the Ivies, and so it must pay – a lot – to recruit and hold talent.

3. Nationally, American universities and their constituent departments too feel the effects of prestige and competition. The internet has fashioned a much more efficient market for research talent. It is much easier to ‘bounce’ in and out schools now, so the competition to retain or lure away high quality faculty – and minimal teaching is always an attraction – is high. Big names – the ‘rock stars’ – expect course releases, or they simply go elsewhere.

And retaining the ‘rock-stars’ has ramifications for the local and regional community. The university system is no sleepy backwater of those who cannot do, and hence teach. Instead, major universities, highly ranked departments, and highly regarded faculty have become emblems of a city or region’s stature, its quality of life, and the dynamism of its economy. There is no doubt, e.g., that Columbus benefits enormously – in both prestige and wealth-creation – from the high concentration of young, dynamic, information age labor clustered around its university. By contrast, cities like Cleveland or Toledo, mired in lower value manufacturing, lack the cachet, infrastructure, and business opportunities necessary to attract and retain higher-end information professionals.

4. Globalization has only accelerated and sharpened these incentives. American universities are the best in the world, because they so focus on research in a global economy that most values information. Knowledge-generation is our area of specialization, and it is at the highest end of the value-chain too. Hence, the international division of labor is increasingly rewarding professors and researchers with American training. This only accelerates the extant trend away from teaching. If high quality researchers were already rewarded far more than good teachers within our national system, professional exposure to the global economy has only accentuated that comparative advantage – and hence the movement of professors into research. In brief, many people can teach, but the serious research training of a major American research school is far more scarce and increasingly rewarded worldwide. All states now face this dilemma, and only huge, and hence unlikely, financial interventions could alter the current market playing field.

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