Fixing Higher Education, Part 15

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Faculty: “Either I do what the dean wants, and screw over this person who deserves the position…or I get fired and lose my health benefits, which I really need right now. What do you think I’m going to do?”
–overheard faculty dilemma. The illusion that faculty have any real influence over anything on campus is casually dispelled once one realizes administrators can fire at will.

This is, I believe, my 15th essay on all the fixes that higher education needs.

As each fix is enabled, the problems of a corrupted higher education system will get less intertwined. With faculty doing the hiring, the pressure to pass everyone fades away. “Spineless” or incompetent faculty giving in to nightmarishly incompetent administrative demands will no longer be a constant issue. Ultimately, most hiring and firing would be done via a department head, with assistance of departmental committees, and this leads to a very real worry: the department head, despite being faculty, can turn into an administrator, in turn answering to the whims of those above him. There’s an answer to this, an answer so seldom considered that I must build up to why it is necessary.

Student: “[That professor] is great. You won’t have to learn a thing in her classes.”
–student describing a professor whose courses are so popular she gets extra sections, extra money. One student saying something like this means very little, but when it’s semester after semester after semester, that’s a sign only an administrator could miss.

Student evaluations are key to promotion and hiring, and administrators use them to make their decisions. This is despite that it is the faculty receiving high evaluations that are not doing their job, as studies, as well as common sense, have shown. Administration, as is often the case, has it backwards, although faculty members have always known this. I’ve heard it explained many times to administrators at meetings, to no effect. Evaluations need to no longer be used as the definition of good teaching, key to hiring, pay raises, and promotion.

The fix here is simple enough: instead of punishing faculty members with less than stellar evaluations, it should be understood that teaching is not a popularity contest, and student evaluations should actually count against a teacher if they’re consistently too high.

This may sound wrong, but evaluations are an average of all student ratings. A great teacher should get great evaluations, but all it takes to turn a class of great evaluations into mediocre evaluations is just one angry student, just one student rating a professor negatively is sufficient.

The only way to get perfectly high evaluations is to never have even one disgruntled student. But there’s only one way to get a disgruntled student.

Always—always!–this disgruntled student is a failing student. The only way to get perfect evaluations is to fail nobody, and a professor that fails nobody probably isn’t covering any material worth knowing (or paying for). There are no college courses for shoelace-tying, belt-buckling, beer-drinking, or tv-watching because nobody can fail at those, either.

Crap, any administrator reading that last sentence probably just got the idea of offering college courses in shoelace-tying, belt-buckling, beer-drinking, and tv-watching. Well, college credit for tv-watching is already taken, but now non-administrative readers understand why such silly courses exist.

Administrator: “We needed to forgo faculty pay raises to get the funds for a new student recreational center. It will have a rock wall, and be over twice as big as our current center.”
Faculty: “But how does that contribute to education?”
Administrator: “The new center will allow us to attract more students.”
Faculty: “How does having more students contribute to education?”
Administrator: “More students means we’ll have a larger construction budget, for more facilities.”
Faculty: “Like an even bigger student recreational center?”
–The faculty, wisely, didn’t say that last line, but this is the madness of higher education now. Every administrator is working to get more growth, so that the growth can support more growth, for the purpose of increasing growth. Do we really need the entire population of the country in college? If so, will administrators then try to get people enrolled in multiple colleges simultaneously?

Changing administration’s thinking on this matter, or any other matter, is unlikely to happen, not with mere words. Time and again the imperviousness of administration to common sense, even when backed by real studies, has been demonstrated to me. There is no fix that would allow administrators to become reasonable; this isn’t part of their job any more than teaching or research or respect for education is part of their job. Instead of getting administrators focused on high retention, what is needed is a way to get administrators that listen to educators, and care about education. It’s time to think outside the box, and change the way how institutions get administrators.

Or not. As is so often the case, the fix is to revert to the system that made American higher education so respected in the 20th century. Next time…

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