Doug Cohen: Striking the right teaching-research balance

Editor’s note: This is the second column in a two-part series on the future of research at GW. Last week, the writer proposed a sustainable model for research.

There is a delicate balance between research and teaching, and, as the University becomes more research-oriented, it threatens to teeter further away from making teaching a priority.

That’s a precarious place for GW to be.

That’s why as the University continues to focus on research, faculty who are leading researchers will inevitably become prized. Yet this can lead to a culture in which how frequently a professor publishes is more important than how well he teaches his students.

The University should require each professor to teach at least one undergraduate course a year, alter the criteria for faculty promotion and encourage professor contracts which strike a balance between research and teaching to ensure that the education of students always remains a priority.

Teaching versus research

“Research universities heavily weight efforts of many professors toward research at the expense of teaching, particularly in disciplines supported extensively by extramural funding,” Diane K. O’Dowd and Richard Losick wrote in an article for “Science.”

The more a university shifts toward research, the more it prioritizes faculty that can attract outside funding.

And it’s then that a school makes major changes to draw in more money, raise its prestige and generally tries to improve its pamphlet pitch. But these changes don’t necessarily mean an improved classroom experience.

In 2010, the University offered 39 buyouts in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which was part of “the ongoing academic evolution of The George Washington University as a major research university,” School of Engineering and Applied Science dean David Dolling said then.

There were another 101 buyouts in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2010 as part of the University’s growing research endeavors.

The University is doing everything in its power to become a research institution, but it must be careful to not swing too far in favoring research over teaching in the process.

Responsible research

The University should have a campus-wide requirement that every faculty member not on sabbatical must teach at least one undergraduate course during the academic year.

Often, premier and renowned research faculty expect to spend much of their time researching outside of the classroom and teaching only graduate students.

The University must set the tone that every professor, regardless of his or her academic credentials or prestige, has a commitment to undergraduate students.

No professor is above interacting with undergraduates, as teaching is the fundamental responsibility of all faculty.

Furthermore, requiring that leading research faculty also teach undergraduates will guarantee that all students will be able to learn from the best and brightest. Students should be afforded the unique opportunity to interact with professors who would otherwise be inaccessible.

But how do we ensure that professors actually care about teaching their students, and aren’t doing it for self-serving reasons?

Criteria for faculty promotion should be strongly rooted in teaching ability along with research. The Provost’s office criteria for faculty promotion currently says it is, “dependent upon professional competence as evidenced by teaching ability, productive scholarship, participation and leadership in professional societies, service to the University, and public service,” according to the University’s Faculty Code.

While teaching ability is a factor for faculty promotion, the current trend amongst many universities indicates there will be an inevitable pull toward favoring research credentials over teaching ability.

To counter this trend, the University should mandate that specific teaching qualities be considered for promotion not just in the provosts’ offices, but in specific schools, too.

Teaching awards received and undergraduate research opportunities provided could be mandated as specific requirements to be considered for the promotion of professors. Furthermore, a professor that is identified as having balanced his or her scholarly pursuits with a significant teaching load could also be recognized for a potential promotion.

The University must develop a culture among faculty that clearly indicates their work is judged not just on their research credentials, but also on their ability to teach. By specifically mandating the importance of teaching, it will be clear that the University believes that excelling in teaching and research are not mutually exclusive talents.

The University should also encourage schools to create faculty contracts that have a fair balance between research and teaching.

The push for hiring new research faculty has become a central mission throughout the University, meaning that faculty contracts will reflect this new norm.

GW must remain an institution where professors can build careers based on teaching and not just scholarly research credentials.

Not every professor must be producing research at the highest level for GW to become a successful research university. We should not be afraid to hire a professor who is an incredible educator but doesn’t necessarily have exceptional research credentials.

We can never stop questioning and critiquing ourselves. The future of the University is too important to stop doing so.

Doug Cohen, a junior majoring in political science, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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