As students head back to campus this fall, parents should be outraged that far too many of them will be receiving a sub-par educational experience. Due to both self-selection and ideological bias in the hiring process, the vast majority of faculty members at America’s major universities are overwhelmingly liberal. This often leads to a chilling effect in the classroom, where conservative-minded students are intimidated into silence. And, as David Horowitz is fond of noting, you can’t get a good education if you’re only getting half the story. But ideological bias is not the only problem in academia. America’s universities are also in crisis because of a lack of rigor in undergraduate education.
The goal of every junior faculty member can be summed up in one word: tenure. At major universities, tenure is achieved based on the following criteria (in order of importance): (1) research publications in high-quality academic journals, (2) ability to win research grants, (3) teaching quality, and (4) service and outreach. I have no objection with these criteria, nor do I have any disagreement with their order of importance. At major universities, research should come first. The value of a student’s degree comes, in large part, from the quality of the body of research that has been produced by its faculty.
Contrary to popular belief, teaching quality does indeed matter in tenure decisions. High quality researchers at major universities have been denied tenure for their perceived inability to teach well. But the question remains: How does a university determine teaching quality. Today, the answer is: student evaluations.
While a student evaluation might be a well-intentioned instrument to measure teaching quality, it creates adverse incentives for rigor and grade inflation. Put succinctly, all of the incentives are in place for junior faculty members to avoid teaching rigorous undergraduate courses.
If professors are hard on their students, raise the academic bar, assign more readings, give tougher exams, cover more material, and give lower grades, three things will happen. First, these assistant professors will earn the respect of the 1% of students who liked Morgan Freeman in “Lean on Me.” Second, 99% of the class will give them low evaluations, indicating to the tenure committee that they are “low quality” professors. And third, these professors will have their office hours jammed with students whining about grades and demanding extra credit and regrades.
So, what would you do? On the one hand, you can be tough on students, resulting in students complaining to (and about) you 24/7 and reducing your chances for tenure. Or, you can lighten the load, give students exams that make them regurgitate lectures, tell stories about how cool it was when you were a student, and hand out ‘A’s to 50% of the class. Professors who do this get sky-high student evaluations and are beloved by everyone. Given these incentives, you can start to see why our students are learning less, and grade inflation is out of control.
Consider this: According to Dr. L. Pearce Williams, a 1949 graduate of Cornell University, between June 29, 1944 and June 29, 1945, students had one day off — Christmas Day. There was no summer break. The average student got four hours of sleep per night and took nearly 21 credits per semester.
When Dr. Williams became a professor of history at Cornell, he employed this teaching philosophy:
"I have never taught a section, where in the first week of the term in the fall, 80-85% of the class did not flunk the first paper. I graded every one of them. I put aside all of my research and my own work just to grade these papers until the kids took me seriously.”
All of this occurred before the days of student evaluations, when student “happiness” reigns supreme. Today, most undergraduate students plan their schedules so they do not have to wake up before noon, can take Mondays or Fridays off, can minimize course readings, and still pick up an ‘A’ or ‘B’ while showing up to class in their boxers.
The message to junior faculty members is clear: You have to risk professional suicide if you want your students to learn something. Some departments are trying to change the perverse incentives of student evaluations by incorporating “other factors” into the evaluation of teaching quality, but mostly it’s just talk. An assistant professor’s student evaluation score matters more than anything else in the tenure committee’s determination of teaching ability.
There are several reforms that might be considered to improve academic rigor. Student evaluations could be abolished, and in its place, a peer evaluation of teaching quality could be measured — for example, by senior faculty members randomly dropping in on junior faculty lectures. Or, student evaluations could be fundamentally changed from their emphasis on such questions as, “What is your overall evaluation of this course?” to “How difficult was this course?” and “How many hours did you have to put into studying for exams to get the grade you wanted?” With this reform, professors who get high “difficulty” ratings would be deemed of higher quality.
For now, the only junior faculty members who will be hard on their students are those who are willing to tradeoff the reduced probability of tenure for the benefits of teaching students how to work hard and face failure. And there just aren’t enough of us out there.