Conflicts of interest are inherent in faculty control over curriculum. When not addressed, these conflicts can result in faculty behavior that is neither in the best interest of their students nor of their colleges and universities. Our proposed approach for mitigating such conflicts involves shared governance, with faculty and administrators facing, and mitigating, potential conflicts together.
The possibility that conflicts of interest can lead to inappropriate decisions is recognized by nearly every profession and form of governance. Whether for lawyers, physicians,journalists, governments, the financial industry, or nonprofit corporations, a national or international regulatory body or trade association has imposed or recommended standards and disclosure requirements covering all types of conflicts.
Academe has also addressed conflicts of interest. The Redbook of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defines a conflict of interest:
“A circumstance in which a person’s primary interests and responsibilities (such as the responsibility to analyze research results as dispassionately as possible) may be compromised by a secondary interest (such as financial gain). Identifying a conflict of interest does not entail an accusation of wrongdoing. Conflicts of interest have been shown to affect judgments unconsciously, so a conflict of interest refers to a factual circumstance wherein an impartial observer might reasonably infer that a conflict is present. Not all conflicts of interest are financial in nature, but financial conflicts of interest are not only the ones most easily managed but also the ones most likely to undermine public respect for, and trust in, higher education.”
Other academic organizations as diverse as the National Science Foundation (which requires its grantee institutions to have “an appropriate written and enforced policy on conflict of interest”) and the American Psychological Association (one of the largest academic organizations in the world), also have such policies. Virtually every college and university also has its own conflict of interest policy. For example, the conflict of interest policy of the State University of New York defines a conflict of interest generally as “any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect; participation in any business, transaction or professional activity; or incurring of any obligation of any nature, which is or appears to be in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of an employee’s duties in the public interest.”
However, all of the examples provided by SUNY concern financial conflicts, and the policy requires the identification of only a “financial disclosure designee” for each campus. This is typical of higher education policies, which focus on financial and/or research integrity conflicts. The City University of New York (CUNY) does have a policy (the multiple positions policy) that limits faculty teaching extra courses (for pay) within their institutions, but this policy does not directly touch upon faculty work concerning curriculum.
There is one internal, course-related, conflict of interest situation for which policies do exist: faculty assigning their own textbooks in their courses. The AAUP has such a policy. Rather than state that faculty members should not assign their own texts, however, the policy states that faculty should “seek to ensure that course-assignment decisions are not compromised by even the appearance of impropriety.” Again, this policy does not directly address the issue of faculty conflicts that may exist regarding curriculum.
For the majority of faculty members, course instruction constitutes a substantial workload, and the amount and type of that workload depends on what they are teaching. At the same time, decisions about what sorts of courses should be required for a major or a degree and what courses should be available are usually made by faculty members. Hence the potential conflicts.
The decisions made by faculty about what courses students should take not only have a direct impact on the work done by the faculty but also on department resources. Robert Zemsky, in his excellent book Checklist for Change, goes so far as to say that the question that “dogs nearly every attempt to change a collegiate curriculum [is] to what extent is the real purpose of a college curriculum today to distribute enrollments in such a way as to preserve faculty slots?” The more faculty in a department, say, of English, the more influence, power, and budget that department, especially its chair, has.
Consider some specific possible examples of conflicts of interest involving faculty members and curriculum. These examples are based on the almost 40 years of personal experiences of one of us (Logue) as a faculty member and administrator involving approximately 30 colleges and universities (though the experiences are primarily from prior to Logue’s most recent administrative position).
Faculty members could decide that a course should be a required general education course for all students, thus guaranteeing enrollments for a given faculty member and/or department. Further, two departments might agree to vote for each others’ courses being required general education courses, so that both departments’ courses would be included. Such actions could result in unusually high total general education requirements for students, so that students have fewer electives, and increasing students’ difficulty in efficiently scheduling all required courses and in doing double majors.
A department could decide to require students without college-level skills to take remedial courses that generate substantial enrollments for that department, even though the students cannot afford these courses, may be likely to fail them (repeatedly), and the students may not receive from these courses information or skills they are likely to need in college or beyond.
Departments or individual faculty could deny transfer credit so that transfer students will have to take these institutions’ own courses, delaying the transfer students’ graduation.
Courses of little student interest could be offered, thus enabling particular faculty members to teach them, either because the topics or the low enrollments are favored by these faculty. This would increase average course cost.
Faculty members could refuse to expend additional course preparation time in order to incorporate new technologies into their teaching, even though there is evidence that these technologies result in students learning more and/or having to spend less time to learn.
The faculty of a campus within a system could object to participating in establishing a system-wide course (such as calculus) that would ease student transfer within the system, due to the campus’s faculty not wanting to spend the extra time needed to work with a system-wide faculty committee to design the course.
A campus’s faculty could seek to offer more advanced degrees (e.g., master’s degrees at a baccalaureate college), not due to evidence that more graduates with those degrees are needed, but because those faculty wish to teach more advanced students, thus decreasing the institution’s time and funds that can be expended on the campus’s other students.
A department’s courses could be scheduled at the times preferred by faculty members, making it difficult for students to put together a full schedule of courses.
These are all situations in which faculty are making decisions regarding what sorts of courses should be required for or available to students. In some colleges or universities faculty members have been given, essentially, actual veto power over curriculum. In others, tension between the faculty and the administration has resulted in the administration awarding faculty what amounts to veto power. For example, at San Jose State University, the president had unsuccessfully tried to promote the use of online pedagogies, and then approved the following policy: “As departments and faculty control and determine the appropriate pedagogies for their courses, the university will not agree in a contract with any private or public entity to deliver technology intensive, hybrid, or online courses or programs without the prior approval of the relevant department, through the same department procedure that the department reviews pedagogical changes in in-person courses."
In still other institutions, the administration has the final authority and has exercised it (e.g., CUNY regarding its Pathways program). The Wisconsin legislature is moving to establish such an authority structure for the University of Wisconsin system. However, none of these cases address the issue of faculty conflict of interest with respect to curriculum.
Virtually everyone — board members, administrators, and faculty — agrees that it is the faculty members who have curricular expertise. Virtually everyone also agrees that when all parties work together, participating in shared governance, colleges and universities function better, including with better outcomes for students. However, there are disagreements as to precisely how shared governance should be structured. Some contend that it should consist of dividing up campus authority.
We contend, consistent with the eloquent exposition in Bowen and Tobin’s new book, Locus of Authority, that governance works best when everyone works together in teams with the administration making he final decisions, at least regarding faculty conflicts of interest (for an example of a recent disagreement about who should have final see see this article.)
Some writers see shared governance as a way for faculty to put checks on “administrators [who] often find it expedient to pursue their own purposes rather than, or at the expense of, those of the larger organization or their supposed superiors” (Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty). There is no doubt that some administrators engage in such behavior. One of us (Logue) saw an administrator at a not-wealthy university spend a large proportion of the administrator’s budget to start a new center that lacked an adequate business plan. Instead of bringing fame to the administrator, the center imploded within a few years.
However, although it may be useful for administrators and faculty to participate together in governance of institutions of higher education, the existing protections against conflicts of interest are not identical for these two groups. Most administrators — even presidents and board members — have supervisors who have the authority to terminate the administrators’ employment if their job performance is not satisfactory. Theoretically at least, major decisions made by any administrator can be reviewed by his or her supervisor, and if the supervisor views this administrator to have acted more with personal, rather than the campus’s, interest in mind, termination can ensue.
Most states are employment-at-will states, meaning that employers have the right to terminate their employees without justified cause. The administrator referenced above who started the inadequately funded, short-lived center that drew funds from departments that badly needed them lost his position soon after the center began to implode.
Contrast the situation of administrators with that of faculty members. Most faculty are members of a department led by a department chair. However, for tenured faculty members, that chair, though he or she may review department faculty, has no authority to terminate any faculty member simply for unsatisfactory performance, nor does anyone else have that authority. At most institutions, the standard for removal of tenure-track and tenured faculty would consist of significant unprofessional conduct, and would involve multiple reviews with multiple opportunities for appeal by the faculty member. (Non-tenure-track faculty members are unfortunately often lacking in job security, but they also are often not consulted in curricular decisions.)
These differences in the employment status of faculty members and administrators are essential, many would claim, to ensuring that faculty have academic freedom. Faculty members need job protections to ensure that they are not removed for expressing views that may be unpopular with others, and for protecting the important status of higher education as a place in which all views can be expressed without retribution.
The AAUP policy about faculty assigning their own textbooks states that “it is equally necessary to ensure that procedures followed by colleges and universities to protect students do not impair the freedom of faculty members or their flexibility of choice in deciding what materials to assign their students.” There is no question that tenure and the particular employment status of faculty members help to protect the tradition of academic freedom that we in the United States — justifiably — hold so dear. However, this structure also ensures that there are no checks or balances on curricular actions taken by faculty that may be motivated more by self-interest than by interest in the best outcomes for students or by an interest in exercising freedom of speech. At many institutions, faculty are essentially functioning as managers of themselves and of the academic enterprise, which is why conflicts of interest arise.
American higher education cannot maximize its efficiency or efficacy in producing qualified graduates, and cannot maintain credibility with the public (and funding sources), unless every effort is made to disclose and minimize all types of faculty conflicts of interest, including with regard to curricular, and not just financial, aspects of their institutions.
How can this situation be improved? Here is what we recommend:
National academic organizations should take the lead in devising model policies that cover all types of faculty conflicts of interest, including with regard to curriculum.
Using the national organizations’ policies as models, faculty and administrators should work together to devise conflict of interest policies that are appropriate for their particular institutions, policies that cover the curricular, and not just financial, interests of faculty.
These policies should recognize that curricular expertise lies with the faculty.
These policies should also recognize that, wherever possible, in order to minimize even the appearance of conflicts, curricular decisions should be based on objectively obtained data such as enrollments and demonstrated learning outcomes, and not simply on individual faculty members’ opinions.
Faculty with appropriate expertise should continue to make recommendations regarding curricular action items, whether those items are initiated by faculty or by other members of the institutions. However, consistent with the standards existing in so many other professions, and in accordance with their institutions’ agreed upon conflict of interest policies, along with those recommendations faculty should disclose, to appropriate faculty members and administrators, any possible conflicts of interest.
Simply disclosing possible conflicts of interest may have a dampening effect on them. Nevertheless, prior to any adoption of the faculty’s curricular recommendations, nonconflicted faculty (perhaps a curriculum committee whose members, according to themselves and others, have no conflicts with the particular item) should conduct an independent review of the curricular recommendations, of whether the conflict of interest policies have been followed, and of any potential conflicts of interest. If they find that there are potential conflicts, they should also state whether or not the curricular recommendations are nevertheless justified for the students.
Final decisions concerning procedural issues and whether there are conflicts (including among members of the review committee) should be made by a senior academic administrator. Should the administrator decide that one or more conflicts are present, the institution’s procedure might give that administrator one or more options, such as that the administrator can (i) reject the curricular recommendations as not being in the best interests of the students, (ii) ask for another faculty review, (iii) remove or reduce the conflict by approving the recommendations, but decreasing the benefits to the relevant faculty member and/or department, and/or (iv) decide that the curricular recommendations benefit students sufficiently to proceed even though a conflict exists.
We live in a country that has now fallen to 14th in the world in terms of the percentage of young adults with college degrees, a country in which public funding of higher education has been decreasing. Resources flow to higher education, in part, depending on how well the public perceives that higher education is doing its job, and that, in turn, depends, in part, on how much the public trusts higher education. That some of the instruction provided is designed more for the benefit of the instructors than for the students can harm that trust. Above all else we need to remain true to our mission of advancing learning. All of those involved in higher education should work together in facing these issues.
Alexandra W. Logue is a research professor in the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She was CUNY’s executive vice chancellor and university provost 2008-2014. Ian Shrank is a lawyer who provides pro bono legal services to educational and other nonprofit organizations.
Early in my career, there was an incident involving a senior professor in another department. He was a mild-mannered man but deeply embittered about his career. He began savagely berating students in feedback on assignments and writing vitriolic reviews of junior faculty members. To avoid an inevitable lawsuit, the college negotiated his early retirement. At commencement, the college always announced the recipient of its top teaching award. I happened to be standing near this professor before commencement began. I heard him tell one of his colleagues, “This is my last commencement, it would be really nice if I won the teaching award.” I was stunned. How could someone being forced into retirement for abusive practices believe he might be chosen as the outstanding teacher?
The experience raised a basic question in my mind: What do people think professors do to deserve teaching awards? The answer to this question is important. It defines the kind of teachers we strive to become. For institutions, the answer determines the kind of teaching that is rewarded with tenure and promotion (at least at places that don’t focus exclusively on research).
When someone wins an award for outstanding research or artistic expression, we understand that the person has made a critical discovery or created something unique and significant; but when a person wins a teaching award, what do we think he or she did to deserve it? Do we believe the recipient did something extraordinary and important, or do we attribute it to less admirable reasons, such as being popular among students? In my experience, the most positive reasons people give to explain why a colleague won a teaching award is that the person is especially passionate or dedicated to teaching. We applaud colleagues who win teaching awards who have sacrificed in some way for teaching, or who have worked to make their classes particularly fun and engaging, or who inspire students to excel.
What is notable about these reasons is that they have little to do with actual teaching skill. The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us. Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges. I propose that these traits, while certainly important, are not the critical reason why some faculty deserve to win teaching awards.
During my career I’ve seen faculty members who are deeply passionate about teaching and care greatly about their students who nonetheless are not particularly successful teachers. Passion, dedication and sacrifice are no guarantee of teaching effectiveness. They do not automatically translate into student achievement or satisfaction. Neither does disciplinary knowledge; faculty with distinguished research records are not necessarily better teachers than graduate students.
What, then, is the critical element for teaching success? I say the best teachers are learning driven; their teaching is wholly focused on developing a deep understanding of the subject matter in the minds of their students. This entails much more than presenting information. Learning-driven teachers don’t simply wish or hope their students learn -- they take actions to see that the desired kind of learning takes place. Consciously or not, learning-driven teachers are concerned with an array of factors that influence student learning. For example, they manage the class’s collective attention, monitor metacognitive awareness, respect the constraints of working memory and promote transfer-appropriate processing, even if these teachers are unaware of the formal names of such concepts.
These teachers create a classroom atmosphere that supports learning. They become trustworthy sources of knowledge for students. These teachers show students the shortcomings of their current thinking and understanding, and convince them of the value of developing a deeper, more accurate understanding. They create learning experiences that promote both long-term learning and appropriate recall and application beyond the classroom. These teachers are able to assess the level of understanding of students and recognize how to move that understanding toward a desired learning goal. The ability to accomplish all these tasks defines teaching skill.
The best teachers develop an accurate understanding of how people learn. They recognize the power they have to either help or hurt student understanding. They see learning as a shared responsibility between themselves and the students. Quality of teaching is judged by what students learn and how they can use the information. If students don’t learn, teaching is not successful, regardless of how brilliant and engaging the teacher might be.
A learning-driven approach can be contrasted with an information-driven approach to teaching. Faculty who adopt this approach see the goal of teaching as presenting information the students are responsible for learning. The teacher’s responsibility is to make sure the information is accurate, up-to-date and presented in as clear, organized and engaging way as possible. Quality of teaching is judged by informational content and quality of delivery. Little knowledge beyond up-to-date disciplinary expertise is needed. Cutting-edge faculty use the latest educational technology and the most current teaching methods, but their use and implementation is not guided by student learning. In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information.
The two approaches lead to different views of teaching awards. From the information-driven perspective, teaching is straightforward. Anyone with sufficient disciplinary knowledge has the ability to teach effectively. The challenging part of teaching is developing good presentations and grading assignments. From this perspective, most anyone is deserving of a teaching award if they make a sincere effort to be clear, current, engaging and organized, because that is about all a teacher can do. Some faculty have a special knack or talent for teaching, but it isn’t something that can be developed through training. For learning-driven faculty, teaching is a complex challenge requiring innovation, creativity and constant adaptation based on evidence of student learning. The challenge of teaching is creating conditions in which learning will occur. Teaching awards are for teachers who have mastered that challenge more successfully than others.
One belief that both perspectives share is that student evaluations alone are not a sufficient measure of teaching effectiveness, but the learning-driven approach points to the kinds of additional information that should be collected. A learning-driven perspective demands evidence that one pedagogical approach or activity is superior to another in a way that contributes to learning. The same evidence that can help improve student learning can be used to evaluate teaching effectiveness.
The consequences of these two different perspectives on teaching are far reaching. For example, consider grade inflation. For information-driven teachers, if a large percentage of students in a class earn high grades, it is a sign the class is too easy and cause for concern. Learning-driven teachers distinguish between making it easier for students to get good grades and making it easier for students to learn. Learning-driven teachers see the former as grade inflation, but the latter as skilled teaching. In addition, the information-driven perspective means that universities need not provide much training to graduate students or faculty on how to teach, while the learning-driven perspective means that universities should provide professional development opportunities to help faculty become award-winning teachers.
Finally, the information-driven approach allows faculty members to believe that they are doing all they can to promote learning when their teaching may actually be suboptimal and even detrimental. As a result, they may end up with a poor classroom experience for both themselves and their students. They may mistakenly blame the indifference of the current generation, the inadequacies of high schools, or mollycoddling by the students’ parents. Faculty members may become frustrated and deeply embittered, like my colleague in the opening story. No, he did not win the teaching award, but the tragedy is that his students didn’t learn and he didn’t have the satisfaction of helping them learn, which should be award enough for any teacher.
Stephen L. Chew is professor and chair of psychology at Samford University.
The controversy over the value of teaching evaluation surveys completed by students has led to increased calls to include some type of faculty observation as part of one’s teaching dossier. Those against student evaluations argue that direct observations of teaching avoid the questionable validity of student opinions, which are heavily influenced by popularity and are vulnerable to faculty pandering. Even those who feel that student evaluations are still valuable for faculty evaluation feel that gaining additional data through observation is a worthy goal.
We argue that although there may be a place for direct observation of teaching (e.g., professional developmental -- such as helping new faculty members master a particular classroom technique), this type of evaluation raises a number of questions. Moreover, we believe that after careful consideration of the complexities of faculty observation, what now seems like a reasonable alternative or addition to student evaluations is not a worthwhile pursuit. Most important in this regard is that the observation of faculty does not help us deal effectively with critical issue of faculty accountability in the classroom.
There are both conceptual and methodological problems with direct observation of teaching. One concern is that it violates a sense of professionalism and academic freedom, both of which have been cornerstones of teaching in higher education. College professors, unlike secondary education teachers, are expected to assert their agency as scholars. Professors are trained, credentialed and expected to be responsible for their professional work. Both teaching and research depend on the assumption that professors do not require top-down management of their work. As a core principle of our professionalism, academic freedom is intended to preclude direct interference in our teaching and research.
College teachers are to be held accountable, yes, but as professionals who are governed by intrinsic dedication to teaching rather than extrinsic management. Having an outsider to the class drop in to watch seems to disrespect the professionalism of college teaching.
The classroom is not the factory floor; college teaching should not require nor should it tolerate efforts to manage the process from beyond the agency of the teachers themselves. The idea that we need outsiders to watch us teach is the kind of assumption that can transform a teacher into a mere knowledge worker. Evaluating a college professor is not the same as evaluating a teacher in grades 1-12.
Teaching is ultimately an intimate affair, regardless of whether it occurs with a single student or a class of 500. Students and teachers engage in a personal dance; we do not teach classes, we teach students. Direct observation of classroom performance can be a major intrusion that disrupts the very nature of the teaching moment.
Methodologically, there are several practical questions about faculty observation that are rarely addressed. First, who will actually observe? Perhaps it will be leaders of academic units (i.e., department chair, associate dean or dean). The problems with such a strategy are that administrators have likely not been fully engaged in the classroom for some time, and (like most college faculty) they probably have had little or no formal training in theories of teaching or pedagogical techniques. There is no more harmful evidence than that generated by an uninformed, incompetent observer.
Especially troubling is the prospect of an administrator observing and evaluating faculty from disciplines that use different pedagogies than their home department. Alternatively, some or all faculty in a unit could serve as observers. The problems here are that some faculty will balk at the idea of judging their peers, especially without anonymity, and others may be unwilling to participate as observers because it takes away valuable time from other scholarly activities. Another problem with faculty observers is that the amount of teaching experience between observers will likely vary a great deal. This raises questions such as, “Should an untenured faculty member evaluate a senior tenured colleague?”
Second, how should what we will call “observer bias” be handled? This bias may occur because each observer is likely set in their own way of teaching. Different faculty members have radically different teaching philosophies, and our attitudes toward our philosophies will taint our regard for different approaches. In addition, an observer may be biased because they have a limited repertoire of teaching experience. For example, an observer may not have taught the course being observed or may not have taught a class of the same size. How valid are judgments about teaching in a class of 500 made by an observer who has only taught seminars?
Third, how many peers should observe each faculty member and how many observations should occur? There is considerable evidence that observational evidence can be easily distorted. For example, both the number of observers and the number of observations can dramatically influence the validity of observations.
Also, should the teacher being observed know in advance of the observational session? It would seem that unannounced observations would better serve the evaluation process, but that strategy introduces its own problems. For example, variations in course content (some topics are more difficult than others), external factors that impact students (the stress of midterm exams), and the physical health of students and teachers can all affect teaching and learning. To be observed on the wrong day by the wrong observer could easily produce a meaningless assessment.
Fourth, how should the observer evaluate the faculty member? There are many possibilities for this type of evaluation ranging from some type of behavioral assessment (e.g., how many students attended lecture) to tallies of how many active learning techniques were used during a class period. However, given the amount of variability between college courses, it is simply unclear what evaluation technique(s) would be best.
As accountability in higher education continues to grow, fueled by both internal and external institutional forces, expect to hear louder calls for improved teaching. Consequently, expect more hand-wringing over our inability to effectively measure teaching competence, and watch the momentum rise for implementing quick fixes such as direct observation of teaching.
Of course, instead of measuring the process of teaching, we could adopt the more reasonable tack of measuring what students actually learn. Rather than having faculty invest time and creativity in improving assessment of teaching as a proxy for measuring learning, we should be more deeply committed to the latter. Given the impressive progress shown by mind sciences in understanding learning, memory and thinking, and given the many new tools available as a result of the digital revolution, we believe it is possible to do just that.
It is our opinion that this measurement does not require reliance on standardized tests, simplistic rubrics or other conventions of the assessment movement. Rather, if we trust that faculty can design effective measurements of learning in their classes (e.g., through exams), then we should be able to develop ways of using similar measures to evaluate teaching effectiveness. As we move toward developing these measures, we should never forget that teaching is merely a means to an end, and it is that end for which we need to be accountable.
Jonathan M. Golding and Philipp J. Kraemer are professors of psychology at the University of Kentucky.