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Editorial: Teaching and tenure

Cutting-edge research and first-rate teaching are the foundations of any university. But the two don't always come together. A brilliant professor is not always a brilliant teacher— the best scholars can leave students confused, frustrated or falling asleep during lectures. Unfortunately, these professors often receive tenure despite their sub-par teaching, and while Brown may add an impressive name to its list of faculty, its commitment to undergraduate education suffers.

In the coming weeks, a University committee will begin examining Brown's tenure and faculty development policies in response to concerns about the University's high tenure rate. While the tenure rate isn't necessarily a cause for concern, we urge members of the committee to take this opportunity to improve the current tenure process with attention to professors' teaching ability. 

Currently, the University evaluates the teaching ability of tenure-track professors by reviewing student course evaluations. But Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, who has been at Brown since 1959, told The Herald last November that these evaluations do not carry much weight in the tenure process.

If Brown is truly committed to excellence in teaching, the University must consider student input when awarding tenure to professors. Scholarship may drive academic institutions, but every university needs strong teaching as well as strong research. As students, we know better than anybody else if a professor is clear, inspiring and provocative, and the University should include our voices in the tenure process.

The current reliance on course evaluations for gathering student input presents a number of problems. First, because evaluations are not mandatory, professors may only receive feedback from students with particularly strong views about a course — be they positive or negative. Furthermore, many students do not give a lot of thought to the evaluations, and their reviews often correspond to the grading scheme or the course workload rather than the quality of teaching itself.

Instead of using course evaluations, departmental tenure committees should ask students more directly about their professors. To ensure that reviews capture a wide range of student opinions, and not just those on the extreme ends of the spectrum, committees should pick students randomly from professors' courses. Selected students would be contacted by e-mail and asked to answer a set of questions, such as "How does this professor compare to others in the department?" and "What does this professor bring to the Brown community?" 

If students know that their responses are part of a professor's tenure review process, they will be more likely to take the task seriously. What's more, they will be able to give some thought to their answers, rather than scribbling down last-minute thoughts at the end of the last class of the semester.

Brown has traditionally been a "university-college," and its current trajectory toward a research institution has raised concerns that expansion will occur at the expense of teaching and student attention. But to truly compete with the top research universities, Brown will need to assemble a faculty that excels both in research and in teaching. Giving students a voice in the tenure process will ensure the University does not lose sight of what really drives Brown: quality classes and a strong commitment to undergraduate education.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.




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