Teaching or tenure? That’s the question
By Steven Tweddell
Socrates might have been a pretty popular teacher around the Parthenon, but he wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s cutthroat academic market if he couldn’t produce the research that brings in the dough at a contemporary American university. Of course, his career ended with an execution by poisoning- lending all new meaning to publish or perish.
Unfortunately, the process of getting tenure these days is only slightly less ruthless.
Just ask Dr. Robert Toreki, former assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Kentucky who got the boot for the inferiority of his research, despite his beloved status in his standing-room-only classrooms (no mean feat in the chemistry department).
But teaching is a minor part of the faculty goals at flagship state universities like the University of Kentucky – a reality he learned all too painfully.
He fixes himself a Coke, sits down at his kitchen table, and begins his story. He was denied tenure in December 1999, teaching his last class this past spring. His research wasn’t up to par, and he readily admits it. “My research, compared to the other research going on in my department sucked, to put it bluntly.”
He concedes that the initial quality of the assistance he received from graduate students – who are integral to the research process – was poor, and he perhaps wasted more time getting them up to speed than he could afford. And that mistake could have cost him some of his research goals. In the end, though, he admits it was up to him. “I take full responsibility,” he says.
Since he left the classroom this past May, Toreki’s moved on. He’s now devoting his full-time skills to the startup he founded a two years ago, Interactive Learning Paradigms, Incorporated, a web-based training, consulting, and advertising firm.
But UK has lost a talented teacher, respected and revered by his students. And his departure from the university leaves behind some larger questions about the role of the faculty on campus.
Susan Odom had Toreki for chemistry 107 (the second term of general chemistry) last spring. She says, “I know he got let go for lack of research, but people were shocked that UK would get rid of someone like that.”
Lori Watson, now a graduate student at Indiana University, had him for 450G – Practical Inorganic Chemistry – and she worked for him as an undergraduate research assistant for two semesters. She considered him an outstanding mentor.
His spring evaluations were filled with statements like “the most exciting, best chemistry teacher I have ever had” and “we need more teachers like Dr. Toreki” are scattered throughout. “Exciting” and “chemistry” aren’t words that commonly cozy up together on a student evaluation.
Apparently most of his students knew he was leaving because the forms are full of the battle cry, “Keep Dr. Toreki!”
So if this guy was so great, why did UK let him get away?
Follow the Money
Toreki readily admits he didn’t shoulder his fair share of showing UK the money.
Each department is allotted a certain number of faculty slots and tracks, or “lines” – some tracks are weighted toward teaching or research, and some encompass both.
“We get a certain number of faculty lines,” he says, “and with a certain number of faculty lines, you’re expected to produce a certain amount of tangible results which is money. It all comes down to money.”
Dr. Boyd Haley, chair of the Department of Chemistry, agrees. There are financial pressures from all over, and the state is just one source. According to Haley, “We try to get people who can fill both bills. If not, the state will not give money. They won’t give money unless we’re generating money.”
And the only way to generate money is through research and research funding.
It would seem that Toreki could’ve done something to save his job – maybe rearrange his distribution of effort to include more time teaching. But he doesn’t see it that way. “Most of us are there to do research,” he says. “I certainly was there to do research.”
But toward the end, when he saw that nothing was going to happen with his research, why not sit down with the chemistry chair and get his distribution of effort (DOE) reconfigured? “I never understood that to be an option,” he says.
Haley explains that, yes, it is very hard to reconfigure a DOE to include more teaching time, that research rules. It’s easier to accommodate a faculty member who wants to spend less time in the classroom, but not one who wants to spend more. “In the research direction, it’s very easy to change because grants require certain amount of time,” he says. “You can definitely change, but it’s definitely more difficult to change for more teaching. And that’s unfortunate because I could use a top-notch, full time instructor.”
It seems obvious that there may not be enough time for an assistant professor to excel at both. Tenure candidates have to prioritize their time, and while teaching might seem to be the practical choice – why else would so many students flock to the state’s flagship university? – quality research that brings in money is expected.
Students: A Necessary Evil
So where does teaching fit into this? And what about the students? Many would argue that the University of Kentucky is there to teach the students. If students are getting a raw deal, many would suggest, the university isn’t getting the job done.
They would be naive.
Educating students is a very small and fiscally insignificant part of a university’s goals – as many faculty members were willing to confess on background, if not for the record.
Toreki spent a lot of time and energy making sure his students learned what they were supposed to learn, and his help was always available if they took the initiative to get it. He was an innovator in using the internet as a powerful teaching tool, for example. He installed a virtual lab tour in which a student could move through the chemistry lab, click on anything, and get a definition and description. He also installed linked hypertexts so a student could look up inorganic chemistry terms and related problems easily without depending on an inefficient text book. He equipped his practice quizzes with automatic suggestions that would pop up when a student answered incorrectly.
Some might insist that the expectations put on an assistant professor are too demanding- that it’s too much to expect a person to produce top-notch research and, at the same time, perform respectably in the classroom.
Haley seems understanding. “It’s tough to do both,” he said. ” If you teach a class with 300 students, they will all want to talk to you.”
Dr. David Robertson, former Director of General Chemistry at UK, who recently left to take a position at the University of Missouri, explains the way it should work. “If you expect two things from people,” he says, “you’re going to have people that are better in one field and vice versa. In the end, it should all balance out to give the students a unique opportunity.”
Michael Kennedy, president of the American Association of University Professors University of Kentucky Chapter, seconds the balancing theory. “It would be nice if really great teachers could stay on and just teach,” he says. “And really great researchers could spend all their time doing research, but the university expects balance. UK is pretty well balanced.”
But with the always present push for better research and more research money, it is easy to infer that teaching would be overpowered or neglected.
Kennedy insists that this is just not true, that it all comes down to what the professor is emphasizing. He is quick to add, “In general, though, almost all faculty members take their teaching very seriously.”
But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if your job is riding on research – and this mandate comes from the governor on down – that the classroom is going to get sloppy seconds at best.
Toreki saw the university’s commitment to the students as lacking. He thinks many were short-changed by a system built to the advantage of researchers that gives no kudos to good teaching. He says, “I wouldn’t say that if somebody’s a great researcher, they’re not a great teacher-but it’s crazy to think that you have to succeed in both research and teaching when teaching doesn’t really count.”
He goes on to say that, “The fact of the matter is that if you have a researcher who is as good a teacher as I am, and his teaching is as bad as my research-that is, you had an inversion-that person would automatically get tenure.”
Haley disagrees. He says that lack of quality teaching has stopped a person from getting tenure before. He says, “student evaluations and the success of our students weighs heavily, at least for me when I’m evaluating a performance.”
Toreki’s sterling evaluations and sellout crowds might suggest otherwise, but Haley soldiers on in defense of his thesis.
“It is very rare,” he says, “that you get a heavy researcher that doesn’t enjoy teaching. That’s the norm. And just because you like research doesn’t mean you’re going to be a lousy teacher – no correlation there at all.”
According to Haley, research should in no way be considered the culprit. “It’s the inflexibility of the system,” he says.
Still, many students feel like teaching is the last thing on the “to do list,” of many professors. For instance, when a student walks into class and realizes that the teacher can barely communicate coherently or seems visibly annoyed and inconvenienced by the presence of the students.
Odom admits her problems with instructors in the past. “It’s so hard to get a good TA who can speak well. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the math department. I had to drop math.”
Thanks, But No Thanks
Toreki is quick to talk about his contributions to the chemistry department, but he’s equally quick to discount the value of any of it in his bid for tenure. He clarifies, “It’s a disincentive to spend a lot of time working on your classes because you know your teaching depends on, especially as an assistant professor, getting those publications and research grants.”
He’s visibly excited and enthusiastic when he reflects on the teaching he did and the contributions he made to taking chemistry into the 21st century with computers and the web, but he’s also disappointed with the lack of recognition, much less gratitude, he received for any of it.
“I fell into spending a lot of time on my teaching,” he says, because his research was going badly and instead of wasting time on the futile, he spent his time trying to fix some of the department’s problems.
“And so I did something that the system doesn’t encourage,” he explains, “something that counts against you in these departments, and that is trying to help others get stuff done. You don’t get rewarded for solving problems like that. I certainly got the appreciation of my department for getting their website up and all that, but it doesn’t count as a tangible reward.”
Maybe this time spent with the computers ate into his research time. He was, after all, hired with the understanding that he would pursue his research and publish his results and contribute new knowledge. But he insists that all his web contributions didn’t take away from his research time. “Computers [are] a hobby,” he says. “So this is mostly my hobby time doing that. Regardless, a lot of people around campus said, ‘hey, could you come give a talk on how to build a website or how you did this admissions thing?’ And I did several of those presentations around campus… before people said I shouldn’t be doing that because it gave the wrong impression that I’m not spending time on my research.”
Though he says these projects didn’t initially take away from his research time, he admits that once he realized his research was a lost cause, he “just decided to have a lot of fun.”
Perhaps more remarkably, so did his students.
In addition to the glowing evaluations, Toreki was blessed with students who skipped their section to visit his. According to Odom, “It was a difficult class [chem107]. Lots of the other students have a lot of trouble with it. Lots of students from [another professor’s] class went to Toreki’s because they could understand a lot better from him.”
Toreki explains, “My lecture was ostensibly 280 students this semester and there were approximately eight empty seats then if everyone showed up. Of course, as the semester goes on, people drop, and the class was Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 2:00 – [a slot] that people tend to blow off. And I was having times when there was standing room only and flowing out into the hall. So I was having people coming to my section that weren’t in my section.”
America’s NEXT Great University?
The UK chemistry department has been struggling along with some pretty sorry lab equipment for student labs. Haley went as far as to say that UK is lucky to even have student chemistry labs. “We were having to cobble from our research end,” he says, “from the equipment bought with grants.”
But the ship has come in.
UK recently received over $7 million from the state for new classroom and lab equipment.
Robertson admits that he would have been happy to expound on the shortcomings of UK’s dedication to the students until he found out about this latest windfall. He admits it deviates from the norm, however. “The state often gives money for research but rarely gives money for teaching purposes.”
Obviously, with the “America’s Next Great University” campaign (the execution of which has been a justifiable subject of local derision) and the push to become a top 20 research institution, there’s going to be more money coming into UK, more money to supply the superstar researchers with more funds and incentives to produce new knowledge. And teachers like Toreki will be pushed out of the picture because they can’t keep up.
Whatever the reasons, a respected professor at UK is now gone.
And even Haley admits, “When you have an instructor with exceptional talents and you lose that person, it definitely takes away from undergraduate instruction.
So what does Toreki think about “America’s Next Great University”?
He simply doesn’t see it happening.
“I’ve had undergraduates that can kick graduate students’ asses,” he says. “And we shove them off to Berkeley and MIT and Duke. The problem is that they never send us graduate students. We send them our very best undergraduates and we don’t get anything back for it, so the myth that we’re going to become a top 20 research university … I don’t see it happening just on that basis alone.”
Governor Patton is holding his breath.
In the meantime, there’s always a tasty cup of hemlock for any professor who doesn’t pull his weight.
The road to academic tenure – the equivalent of near-guaranteed life employment for a university professor – ensures a brutal journey.
Especially when that professor is beloved by students and recognized among peers as a talented and effective teacher. But this ain’t high school.
You take a heavy-hitting researcher and look at the amount of time that person is spending on research, and you wonder just how teaching doesn’t get pushed to the side. The interworkings of a university are complex, and a university doesn’t bring in money through teaching. A university brings in money through grants and research funding. According to Michael Kennedy, president of the American Association of University Professors University of Kentucky Chapter, “A large part of it [research demands] has to do with bringing money into the university. The university has to pay for overhead.” And, of course, top-notch research also brings prestige.
A tenure-track professor is expected-in most cases-to produce a certain amount of research and teach a certain amount of classes. Typically, a professor’s distribution of effort (DOE) is divided down the middle-45 percent of time spent teaching, 45 percent spent on research, and 10 percent spent in service to the university. Some say this is unrealistic, and many professors will opt to neglect the classroom in order to get the research done.
Special Titles Series
Richard Edwards, the former Dean of Arts and Sciences, created the Special Titles Series before he left. The Special Titles Series is composed of professors who aren’t expected to do much research-professors who are talented teachers.
The dean allowed the faculty of each department to decide whether they wanted Special Titles Series, and the chemistry department has not elected to include it.