Clear View from Afar

Undergraduate Teaching

IN PERHAPS the most comprehensive study of the state of the academic profession in recent years, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching last week called attention to the tendency of major universities to neglect teaching while unduly emphasizing research in tenure decisions. "Too often," foundation president Ernest L. Boyer wrote in the foreword to the 360-page report, "universities give the highest rewards to those faculty members who may not be committed to giving their best efforts to the students." Harvard undergraduates--in case those watching recent tenure decisions have been wondering--aren't the only people concerned that teaching is getting short shrift.

David Pilbeam, associate dean of undergraduate education, was quick to offer the administration's usual response to this issue when asked about the Foundation's findings. "Tenure appointments here," he said, "do consider teaching very seriously." Maybe. But it's about time the Harvard Faculty, like their colleagues at Carnegie, realize that if that's true, then "very seriously" just isn't serious enough. Every student knows, because administrators have assured them, that the teaching of such departed junior professors as Alan Brinkley and Bradford Lee, who rated among the College's best teachers, was given adequate consideration before they were sent packing to prestigious posts at other top institutions. They were denied tenure for reasons which--out of consideration for the failed candidates, of course--senior professors decline to discuss.

Could it be, as the foundation's report said, that those reasons have to do with the fact that "good teachers who spend 'too much' time with students too often are regarded by colleagues as men and women with misplaced academic goals"? Or is it that "too much" time spent with students caused the research of those two junior professors to fall off the pace set by academics for whom teaching is an unwelcome responsibility to be discharged with little effort? Another question is worth asking as well: If "very serious" consideration of teaching ability were serious enough, would the ranks of senior faculty be filled with as many lackluster teachers as now seems the case?

Students recognize that the quality of academic scholarship must be of paramount importance in tenure decisions. But it looks increasingly as if the elaborate calculus by which teaching is taken into account needs some adjustment. And as last week's report said, Harvard's influence in academia gives it a particular obligation to reaffirm the worth of good teaching. If schools like Harvard neglect teaching, the report said, "other institutions are likely to undervalue it as well."