Ethos Matters

Researchers find that institutional identity trumps policy when it comes to whether professors think their institutions value teaching.
February 1, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO – The best policies on promoting teaching may not change the way faculty members view institutional priorities, according to research presented here at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The findings point to the challenge of supporting teaching, especially at research universities, according to the researchers.

"I was naïve enough to think that institutions’ policies and money would influence" the way faculty view their institutions, said Brad Cox, assistant professor of higher education at Florida State University. But it turns out that they don’t, he added.

The findings are part of a large, ongoing study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University (where Cox did his graduate work) to explore how first-year students learn and the effect of various faculty attitudes on behaviors of both students and professors.

As part of their project, the researchers surveyed faculty members at 34 four-year colleges and universities on the extent to which they considered that their institutions placed an emphasis on teaching. Then the researchers did a survey of those institutions to see which institutions had various policies, such as stating that teaching matters in hiring and tenure decisions, providing course relief for teaching or curricular projects, providing funds for travel for professional development related to teaching, and so forth.

When the researchers created a graph with faculty perceptions on one axis and the scores on policies on the other, the results surprised them. While all of the research universities scored well above average on having the “right” policies to promote teaching, their faculty did not perceive teaching to be valued by their institutions.

Among the bachelor’s institutions in the study, some did quite poorly in terms of having the policies that are seen as promoting a teaching emphasis. But their faculty members gave all of them high grades in terms of emphasizing the importance of teaching.

Several in the audience said that the results were somewhat deflating to those who argue that institutions need to adopt various policies to promote teaching. Some speculated that the low scores for research universities might be a reflection of longstanding institutional cultures – cultures that the policies may have been adopted only recently to combat.

Still others said that the incongruous relationship between policies and institutional identity may simply point to variance (not measured in this study) of how rigorously policies are enforced.

Patrick Terenzini, distinguished professor of education at Penn State and one of the authors of the study, said that the findings showed the importance of stressing evolving institutional identities in hiring, and of enforcing policies – and not just assuming that adopting a few policies can create real change. The others who presented the study, also from Penn State, were Robert D. Reason, associate professor of higher education, and Kadian L. McIntosh, a doctoral student.


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