There are many things I’d like to see change in the future of higher education in America. However, the topic that is nearest and dearest to my heart is that of research-teaching balance. There’s no question that American research universities have been emphasizing research more and more in their hiring and tenure decisions in recent decades. In some places, professors can even get tenure with a less-than-satisfactory teaching record, as long as their publication and grant records are stellar. However, the pendulum, which has swung so far toward research, may finally be starting to swing back toward a more balanced view of research and undergraduate teaching. This is a shift that I would like to see continue.
Many universities have had non-tenure track teaching faculty for a long time. However, these positions have traditionally been badly-paid part-time jobs, or full-time positions with no opportunity for advancement. Some schools, including Virginia Tech, are now putting into place teaching faculty tracks, which have levels equivalent to the assistant, associate, and full professors of the tenure track. These faculty are generally required to keep up-to-date on the latest research that relates to their classes as well as educational research. They are also encouraged, though not required, to contribute to educational research. Their advancement is tied only to their teaching.
This system has many advantages. The tenure-track faculty are freed from teaching the introductory levels and instead can focus on their research and the upper level classes that are more related to their interests. Meanwhile, the lower level undergraduates get professors that are more excited to teach them and more current on the latest educational research which, at that level, is probably more relevant than discipline-specific research. Finally, the tenure-track faculty have access to a new resource in their teaching-track colleagues. If they have teaching-related questions, they can direct them to the experts, which would improve the quality of education at the upper levels as well.
For too long, many universities have prioritized research above all else. Now that that’s begun to change, I hope to see schools place value on all parts of their mission: research, service, and teaching.