The case of a disgruntled Michigan Tech professor who mailed his teaching awards back to the university (along with angry letters) raises anew questions about how universities value teaching relative to research, and whether it is reasonable to expect someone to be good at both for their entire career.
In the Michigan Tech case, the professor is an associate professor who has not advanced beyond that rank, apparently owing to his low level of research activity.
The professor in question says it is an "either-or proposition" for him -- teaching or research.
I don't want to dwell on the specifics of the Michigan Tech case, in part because I don't know the expectations of that institution regarding research and teaching. Instead, I want to discuss the more general question:
Should a tenured professor who focuses primarily on teaching at a research university be 'valued' the same as those who remain active in research?
(by 'valued', I refer to promotion to full professor, salary, etc.)
Teaching is valued by universities, and there are serious efforts to improve the teaching abilities of professors via workshops and mentoring. Our teaching is constantly evaluated, and teaching (as measured in large part by teaching and peer evaluations) is part of the equation for promotions and raises.
Nevertheless, teaching is, of course, just one component of the job. At a research university, most tenured faculty are expected to teach and maintain an active research program. Those who do not advise graduate and/or undergraduate students in research, work with postdocs, write grant proposals and papers, and give presentations at conferences are, technically, only doing part of their job, no matter how much additional effort they put into their undergraduate teaching.
The question raised by the Michigan Tech case seems to be what to do after a professor gets tenure and decides to choose between teaching and research. Should this individual be promoted and be given the same salary increases as colleagues who maintain active research programs but who are, perhaps, not as great at teaching as the not-as-active researcher?
I have no idea what the answer is for Michigan Tech, but at a major research university, I think that an outstanding teacher who has tenure and a decent salary and recognition for teaching excellence is doing pretty well already. I'm not saying they should never be promoted to full professor, especially if there is some level of research activity, but perhaps it will take longer for promotion. And the salary of such a person should certainly not dwell at the lower limits for their rank, but perhaps it won't be as high as those who are active in both research and teaching.
Being active in research and advising requires a lot of time and effort, and therefore faculty who are active and reasonably successful in both research and teaching should advance in their careers with respect to promotion and pay.
Of course universities also like the grant $ that active research faculty bring in, but I hope that the 'value' of research is calculated in a broader sense, encompassing the tangible and intangible benefits of discoveries and ideas, the synergy between research and teaching, and the excitement and visibility that research contributes to a university's overall mission, not to mention the time and efforts of faculty, students, and other researchers.
It's difficult to ignore the role of money in these discussions, though. According to the Chronicle article on the Michigan Tech case:
[Students] have a nagging sense that their tuition money is subsidizing the salaries and stipends of professors and graduate students who spend little time in classrooms.
I hope that students will therefore be happy to know that if their tuition money is supporting a graduate student, that graduate student is teaching. If the graduate student is not teaching, she or he is not being supported by undergraduate tuition money. And professors who are not often in the classroom may be bringing in grant money; these faculty are therefore not sucking up tuition dollars whilst pursuing arcane research in secret labs.
All universities need outstanding teachers, and I respect and admire my colleagues who excel at teaching. I suppose, though, that I have an active-researcher's bias and therefore think that a mid-career professor who views teaching vs. research as an either/or proposition should realize that they are making a choice with consequences, but that those consequences do not directly translate into the value (or lack thereof) that an institution places on teaching relative to research.
Perhaps the denied promotion and raises in the Michigan Tech case were too severe (I don't know), but in general I think it reasonable that low research activity be a factor in decisions about promotion and pay at a university.
2 months ago