Balancing Research and Teaching at an Elite University

- - posted in bigpicture, favorite, incentives, institutions, tenure, yale

A few weeks ago a reporter for the Yale Herald (“Yale’s most daring publication since 1986”) interviewed me about teaching at Yale. We had a long pleasant talk, and the resulting article was just published. Many faculty are quoted, but it seems I was willing to say the most extreme things and thus got fairly high billing. I don’t (yet) regret anything I said, but I do want to flesh out a few points.

The focus of the article is on how Yale balances the dual priorities of world-leading research and excellence in teaching. In hiring, promotion, and tenure of faculty, the quality of professors’ existing research and the potential of future research is paramount. To be promoted, a professor must publish in their field’s top journals and be considered one of the world’s experts on something important. I think almost everyone at the university knows this and most of that group agree that it makes sense.

The disagreement (at least in public) is about where the bar is for teaching in these promotion decisions. Some folks will tell you a professor’s teaching has to be excellent to be promoted. That’s just false. I believe the bar is pretty low. It would be very interesting to see some real data on this.

The bar for teaching is low because producing the research required for tenure is difficult and requires most faculty to sacrifice time spent teaching in order to get tenure. It’s almost impossible for a junior professor to be a great teacher AND a great researcher. One has to give, and that’s teaching.

I would like to see the bar for teaching raised at least a little bit. If we require faculty to invest too much time in their teaching, the quality of their research (and thus the prestige of the university) suffers. I’d also like to see more honesty about the primacy of research in the promotion process. This would make the expectations of the undergraduates more reasonable and give them more empathy for the faculty (especially the junior faculty).

Stepping back, how much Yale values teaching and how much Yale values teaching in the promotion process are two very different things. In many important ways, Yale does encourage excellence in teaching:

  • Many departments (including Economics) do their best to reward good teaching. We put our best teachers in the most important classes and give them extra credit for it.
  • Yale doesn’t have a lot of lecturers (i.e., non-tenure track faculty), but it pays them well and pays close attention to their teaching. The incentives are perfectly aligned here.
  • Support from IT and Facilities is excellent. I have a long list of people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in helping me teach.
  • Our classrooms are mostly beautiful and filled with modern AV equipment and natural light.
  • Our provost (in charge of day-to-day operation of the university, one step below the president) clearly values teaching. He was the best teacher in the economics department for years before taking his current position.
  • Yale has just created the Center for Teaching and Learning and put a well-respected senior faculty member in charge. Scott Strobel and his executive director Jenny Frederick have great ideas, a seemingly substantial budget, and the ear of the provost.

When an institution has dual priorities (research and teaching) there will inevitably be trade-offs. Yale chooses to have a faculty of world-leading researchers. Undergraduates may not always get a great teacher in the classroom, but they are always learning from someone at the cutting edge of their discipline, and there is no subsitute for that. Yale perpetuates this state of affairs through the promotion process, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. On the other hand, I do believe the leadership at Yale cares about teaching and I think with the new teaching center things are moving in a positive direction. Even if the faculty don’t spend any more time on their teaching than they are now, there’s plenty of room for improvement in what they do with that time in the classroom.