Higher Ed’s Big Lie: Academic Excellence

It seems there isn’t a university administrator anywhere, and most faculty too, who claim the mantle of “academic excellence.” What is “academic excellence?” The words typically connote the span of university activities related to the degree programs, scholarship, learning, and teaching. It is common to read how funding must be preserved or increased to maintain or improve “academic excellence.” Claims of “academic excellence” vary according to the topic under discussion*. For degree programs, it is accreditation. For scholarship, it is publication in peer-reviewed journals. For learning, it is graduation rates and post-graduation employment. For teaching, it is…. mostly nothing. Academic excellence in the context of teaching is often unsubstantiated. If it is substantiated, it is typically based on unscientific, misleading, or inaccurate survey data.

The term “academic excellence” is a synonym for “bugger off:”

  • Our degree programs are accredited, so bugger off.
  • Faculty and student research is published in peer-reviewed journals, so bugger off.
  • Our graduation rate and post-graduation employment numbers are in line with peer universities, so bugger off.
  • Accreditation, research publications, graduation rates, and post-graduation employment prove that teaching is good, so bugger off.

The principal purpose of the term “academic excellence” is to fend off criticism from outsiders, keep external stakeholders in the dark, and to avoid doing the hard work of improving academic and administrative processes across the university. The term “academic excellence” is used to maintain the status quo, and continues to successfully deflect criticism despite the need for change – especially when it comes to teaching. Teaching remains, by far, the weakest element of the enterprise and the most in need of improvement.

Generally, if a university president considers something important, then others will view it to be important as well. How many university presidents consistently emphasize the importance of continuously improving teaching? How many university presidents follow up their nice words with personal actions such as meeting faculty in their office to encourage ever-better teaching, thank individual faculty for their good teaching with handwritten notes, and motivate poor teachers to do better?

While most university presidents advocate for good teaching, the method for improvement is left up to individual faculty and thus leads to variable results. There are no institutionally agreed-upon methods for continuous improvement. Teaching is core to a university’s mission, and to the satisfaction of students, payers, employers, and others. How can the improvement methods, and the results, be left to chance?

Let’s looks some facts that represent the teaching situation at most, but not all, universities where research contributions are required of the faculty:

  • Most faculty are not trained how to teach. Therefore, they teach the way they were taught. As students, we found most faculty to be average or below average teachers. Fortunately, a few of the 40 or so professors that undergraduates would come into contact over 4 years good. Typically, this means 3 or 4 professors, or about 10 percent of the total.
  • Most faculty do little or no experimentation in their teaching. They may do some experimentation early in their career, but few do experiments throughout their career. They settle on methods that to them appear to work best, but which their students likely view as poor.
  • Most faculty do not share their teaching methods with other faculty in any great detail. So, they do not subject themselves to criticism that leads to improvement and remain unaware of what the professor in the office next to them does.
  • In most universities, teaching counts for relatively little in faculty evaluation. There remains an illogical line of thinking that says because one has a terminal degree, they know how to teach. The reward for experimenting and improving one’s teaching is nil, so most faculty don’t bother.
  • Faculty will immerse themselves in the literature of their discipline, but will be largely uninformed about which pedagogies are more or less effective.
  • Faculty talk of “continuous improvement” yet they do not actually use the methods and tools of continuous improvement (rooted in industrial engineering). Routine changes to courses and programs, while necessary, are accepted as evidence of comprehensive continuous improvement activity.
  • From academics’ perspective, the answer to any of their problems is “more money.” They spend money instead of spending ideas. They should spend ideas instead of spending money.
  • For the last 8 years or so, university leaders have been more focused on enrollment numbers and admission of out-of-state students to improve the financial condition of the institution than teaching.
  • As far as I can tell, no university president knows of or can name the top 5 teachers in each school (business, engineering, nursing, etc.). Nor do they know specifically the reasons why each person is a good teacher.

Data that I have collected in recent years (see it here, here, here, and here) informs me that “academic excellence” is weak when it comes to teaching, and not nearly as strong as people think in other areas. Rather than confront the poor quality of as basic a human activity as teaching, university leaders prefer to run from it and instead adopt expensive technological or other solutions. Top administrators are too quick to spend money and thus increase the cost of higher education.

Instead, top administrators should recognize teaching as a process and, like any process, it can be continuously improved. The way to do that is by using a proven, low cost/no-cost method. That method is kaizen.

* It is challenging to associate degree programs with “academic excellence” when, in most cases, courses are disconnected from one another and sometimes even repetitive in bad ways. The same is true for accreditation, as this process allows even weak academic programs to be accredited. The focus of peer-reviewed publications is quantity, not quality. And graduation rates and post-graduation employment metrics are easily gamed. And, of course, reputation is not a reliable proxy for academic excellence. These, therefore, compromise overall claims of “academic excellence.”

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