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My focus here—some might say my obsession—is considering the ways that the structures and operations of higher education institutions are fundamentally incompatible with the mission we believe to be most important for those institutions: educating students.

I’ve explored this on the micro level, primarily the ways that we staff and prioritize (really de-prioritize) first-year writing courses makes it very difficult to employ well-established best practices pedagogy.

I’ve explored this at the macro level—how the entire postsecondary system is essentially organized ass-backwards—if the goal is to provide access to opportunity and advancement, that is.

It is with this mind-set that I read Inside Higher Ed’s recent survey of provosts with great interest, particularly their opinions of the relative importance of teaching versus research in their institutions. According to the survey data, 86 percent of the chief academic officers of their institutions say that teaching is either “much more” (47 percent) or “more” (39 percent) important than research. As a former and still occasional research professional, I geek out on this stuff, trying to peer underneath the percentages and suss out additional insights.

For one, it’s not surprising that the people in charge of academics at their institutions would see teaching as a priority over research. It seems almost a prerequisite for the job.

Irene Mulvey of the American Association of University Professors said she was “frustrated” over this finding, and I share that frustration. If teaching is so important, where is the evidence in how the labor of teaching is structured and supported at the vast majority of institutions?

If teaching is indeed the most important function of the university, it’s worth asking what conditions would be most conducive to the best teaching. This list is somewhat off the top of the head, so don’t consider it exhaustive, but just to start.

  1. Student loads consistent with disciplinary recommendations for effective instruction.
  2. Reasonable expectation of ongoing employment year to year for continuity of planning, ongoing connection to students and institutional knowledge building.
  3. Academic freedom protections to cover regular classroom activities.
  4. Reasonable and sustainable wages that allow for teaching to be the prime focus of the instructor.
  5. Clear, thorough and fair policy metrics for the evaluation of teaching quality.
  6. Retention and promotion policies rooted in teaching performance.
  7. Appropriate access to time and resources to improve their knowledge and practices.
  8. Shared governance responsibilities forging a mutual commitment between individual and institution and institution and individual.

I do not doubt the sincerity of provosts when they say that teaching is their highest institutional priority, and I also am confident that a lot of great teaching goes on at these campuses, because I once did it, and I continue to witness it in my work with faculty and institutions on improving their writing instruction practices.

But I’ve been saying this for years, and I’ll say it again—all this good work is happening in spite of the structures and resources dedicated to teaching, not because of it. What percentage of the teaching faculty at institutions can say that they are working under the conditions that appropriately support the work they’re tasked to do?

They certainly describe exactly zero of the years I taught college as a non-tenure-track instructor.

The vast majority of the laborers who do the teaching in the U.S. system of colleges and universities are treated not as important resources worth developing for the good of students and the institution, but as fungible assets, utterly interchangeable as long as credit hours can be assigned and tuition collected.

I’m not even mad about this anymore. I’m more fascinated at how these disconnects are allowed to live on in perpetuity.

Sixty-five percent of provosts say their institutions are “very effective” at providing a quality undergraduate education. Based on my experience as a teacher and speaker and observer of higher education, that sounds a little low to me. Miracles really are happening.

But the cost of this to the people who have been doing the front-line work to deliver that quality education has been very very high, and is only getting higher.

Ask me how I know.

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