We still owe you the consolidation piece on university systems but these two comments are interesting and related. Both take an important issue and overstate the significance of it.
Barton Swaim is reviewing The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission by Herb Childress in the WSJ. Barton, and many of the folks in Herb’s book have had a tough time in academia. Barton says:
Unless your child attends an elite liberal-arts institution, during his first two years—and maybe even in his third and fourth years—he will almost certainly be taught mainly by graduate students or contract workers with no permanent connection to the institution. [Emphasis added]
Over at the Corner in NRO, George Leef is worried about faculty in the North Carolina System being evaluated by students for teaching awards. We called it Student Evaluation of Instruction (SEI):
For one thing, each of the system’s constituent institutions selects one faculty member as its best teacher and that individual receives a cash prize of $12,500. But as Hennen notes, exactly how the selection committees make their selections is unknown. Do they just rely on student evaluations, which are of very dubious value since many students give high scores to faculty who are entertaining and give high grades for little effort and low scores for demanding ones. If the way to get yourself in the running for an award is being popular, that would tend to be counter-productive.
In our 40 years in academia we have had exposure to lots of different schools: two year, comprehensive, private, and flagships. As department chair and associate dean we have looked at data on many more. We have significant experience with hiring and SEI scores. Wisconsin has useful terminology of faculty, meaning tenure track, and instructional academic staff (IAS) for those not on the tenure track. Full-time IAS almost always have a connection to the university. For business schools and others it is a way to bring in practitioners.
The one place we haven’t taught at is an elite liberal-arts institution so we don’t know if Barton is right about that. We don’t know if he thinks our undergrad school was one of them but we weren’t keeping track of the contracts of the instructors. In retrospect, we especially wonder how the contracts with the clergy were constructed. What is true, if you go to a flagship school with PhD programs you will get many grad students as instructors. It is also true there are some schools that use a higher percentage of part-time adjuncts. Quality comprehensive schools don’t. Accreditation standards ensure that certain ratios of IAS to faculty are met. Accredited business schools have much more detailed standards. See here to download.
Sidebar One: We spent time deciding on the adjective “quality” and are not entirely happy with it. We don’t have the data to say most. End Sidebar One.
At quality comprehensive schools you will have full-time folks with a connection to the university. It doesn’t take away from the problem of the treatment of grad students and IAS by some schools but good consumers can avoid it.
One way to avoid these problems are SEI scores. Students are in the classroom every day and should have a voice in evaluating instructors. Students aren’t perfect at it but neither is anyone else. There is little evidence of what George suggests that students are enticed by high grades or little effort. Our research has found no relationship between grades and SEI scores.
Sidebar Two: Sometimes there are bad SEI questions. At one school they asked for an numerical response and a written response to “The instructor is enthusiastic about the discipline.” The written responses showed that the students misunderstood the question. They thought is was about enforcing discipline rather that the discipline being taught. End Sidebar Two.
George and Barton point out two serious problems: It is hard to evaluate instructors and some schools treat instructors and/or grad students very poorly. We think both George and Barton are too harsh. George needs to recognize that SEI scores need to be part of evaluating instructors. Barton needs to recognize that part-time IAS are going to be part of the instructional portfolio for most departments and grad students will be part for some. Consumers, accreditation bodies, and oversight bodies (like the Board of Regents or the legislature) need to see that departments don’t abuse them.
Universities have many areas to clean up. George and Barton have identified two of them but we don’t want to ignore other problems by going overboard on these.