Professors’ Credibility Problem

Higher education has been undergoing much scrutiny in recent years, from the price of tuition and student debt to time to graduation and job placement. Professors, of course, are not silent in voicing their opinions on what has gone wrong. Their lines of argumentation focus on inept administration, commercialization and corporatization of the university, unwarranted government intrusion, academically lazy students, politician’s short-sighted utilitarian view higher education, the proliferation of adjuncts, cost-cutting, resource-consuming athletic programs, online courses, and so on. (See the November-December 2014 issue of Academy, for example).

It seems that everyone and everything is at fault EXCEPT for professors and the teaching work that they do. How can teaching be perfect while everything else is a major problem? It is not possible. Careful study of the value-creating work performed by any organization shows it to be full of problems – what in Lean management is called waste, unevenness, and uneasonableness. The work processes associated with teaching – the value-creating work in higher education – are no different. They are full of waste, unevenness, and uneasonableness.

My data show that professors, whether full-time or part-time, are very much part of the problem, and that teaching is a much lower quality activity than anyone wants to admit. (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education).

While anyone can criticize, and perhaps do so with insight and clarity, one stands on better footing if they have reflected their own work and can demonstrate efforts to vigorously and continuously improve their teaching. Some professors do this, as I have done, but most do not. Credibility rests on a foundation of tangible evidence of improvement, not on endless, unsubstantiated talk of excellence as professors (and administrators) are known to do.

The professorial attitude of innocence in relation to the ills of higher education is enabled by college and university administrators who are willfully ignorant of poor teaching or unwilling to challenge the teaching staff to continuously improve their work. Most university leaders are unwilling to do this because they expose themselves to the ire of faculty and no confidence votes if they cannot provide data to prove that teaching is of poor quality and also provide the means by which to improve teaching. In other words, college and university leaders cannot lead efforts to improve teaching if they do not recognize the need to improve teaching and if they do not know how to improve teaching.

So, we are mostly leaderless when it comes to improving teaching. Professors have two broad choices in the routes that they can take to improve teaching. One approach is to incorporate the results of decades of research on how to improve teaching effectiveness. This would likely be a mostly one-time improvement. Another approach is to learn Lean principles and practices and apply them to teaching, which serves as the basis for continuous improvement.

It will be no surprise to you that I favor the second approach because I believe it is simpler and more accessible to most professors, and that it incorporates much of the best of what decades of research findings have to offer. Thus, while the route may be different, the desired result of improved teaching will be achieved more quickly and more effectively through the application of Lean principles and practices.

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