To rebuild public confidence, focus on teaching

Published March 21, 2024

By Public Ed Works

By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein

Much has been written about how confidence in higher education has plummeted. As devastating as they are, the surveys cited showing this crisis of confidence predate the disastrous events in December when three prominent and accomplished college presidents were ambushed in Congress about antisemitism on their campuses. If the surveys were run now, the results would likely be even worse.

Twenty years ago, the two of us—one (Buck) an entrepreneur who loved his alma mater and his experience there, and the other (Holden) a lifelong academic steeped in the traditions and principles of university life—started writing about the ways in which higher education had failed to live up to public expectations. While much of what we wrote underestimated the difficulties that lay ahead, many of the themes have come together in this moment. The most conspicuous of these is the need for institutions to rededicate themselves to education above all else.

In our collaboration, we learned a lot from each other. Holden explained the intricacies and importance of tenure, shared governance and academic freedom. Buck argued that most Americans did not know such principles even existed, let alone that they were central to the very idea of American higher education. In the end, we came to a set of shared understandings we never would have reached on our own. As we reflect on that process, the theme we come back to is the chasm between the public’s expectation that the mission of higher education is to teach while the university devotes most of its financial and intellectual resources to research—which is certainly within the core mission of the university—but also to other activities, like big-time athletics and Greek life, that have little or no impact on educating students. In our book, Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between America and Its Colleges and Universities (University of North Carolina Press), we summed up this conclusion with the phrase “Everyone should teach.”

Myriad analysts have determined where to place the blame for the de-prioritization of teaching. The truth is, there is a lot of blame to go around while, at the same time, the individuals in the system are all acting rationally. Administrators are constantly being pressured to grow and do new things that their external and internal stakeholders want. Growing research grants is the simplest way to achieve this in the short run: being able to pay faculty salaries with grant funding frees up funds for new faculty and staff while the indirect cost recovery is often used to pay debt service on bonds used for the construction of shiny new buildings. This leads to pressure on faculty to increase their research. They are behaving perfectly rationally when they seek time away from teaching to spend more time generating grants and high-profile publications. All of this then puts more financial pressure on the university, because research requires investment in infrastructure and administration that is not fully covered by indirect costs on grants. Meanwhile, trustees like to see positive news coverage and improvement in the rankings, which rewards high-profile faculty research. Trustees also tend to want success in athletics, which comes with significant costs and makes the ability to win grant funding to pay faculty salaries even more important when the bills for athletics come due.

Making teaching a high priority will not happen as long as one set of stakeholders is the only one required to change. If faculty are simply told to put more emphasis on teaching without changes to the incentives, nothing will happen. Nearly every college president has started off their tenure by saying they are going to emphasize teaching, but usually with no effect. Trustees hear pained testimonials from students and ask for more emphasis on the classroom, but they are unwilling to make the financial tradeoffs necessary to make this happen. All of the groups are going to have to collaborate to get this done. If trustees simply mandate better teaching (or anything else for that matter) without changing the underlying financial model that is highly dependent on research, not much will change. And the day-to-day work of the university—teaching classes, enrolling students, writing grants and publishing papers—still must go on.

The truth is that universities have made commitments about teaching that they simply cannot deliver. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where we spent the bulk of our careers, the admissions website makes a strong claim about faculty commitment to teaching: “Faculty are part of an engaged community you can count on to help you succeed in class and in life,” the site says. “They’re not only at the top of their fields, but they’re also available with their doors open, ready to listen.” Most admissions websites make similar promises. It’s certainly reasonable for students and families to expect this kind of attention after they read these statements, and there are plenty of faculty who behave in just this way (we hope that included us). But neither of us recalls being told of or tested on these expectations as faculty—or implementing a system to ensure that they were met when Holden was an administrator. And for sure, these are at best voluntary obligations that, even when met, are barely rewarded by the institution beyond teaching awards and inclusion in admission videos.

What is required is a recognition by all that academic culture in its present form does not encourage great teaching. If you don’t believe this, look around. Why are adjuncts unionizing? Why are graduate students on strike? Why are centers for teaching and learning relegated to the sidelines? Why are many faculty members on a career-long quest to lower their teaching loads? All of this behavior is a rational response to incentives built into the system. Of course, research is important, but the public has never accepted the idea that it’s more important than teaching. We think they would accept the idea that teaching by faculty who are actively engaged in research is the best way to infuse a love of learning in students.

The amount of discomfort it will take to make teaching our highest priority will only be accepted when there is no other choice. Have we reached that point? One can hope. It’s hard to see how things could get worse. The crisis that was mainly localized at public universities in red states has spread to the Ivy League with their blue-state locations and vast resources. Colleges and their presidents have never been less popular. The blame game needs to end in favor of a coalition of faculty, administrators and trustees who refocus institutions on the student while maintaining that outstanding researchers who create knowledge also inspire their students to love learning.

Things need to get better, because—in the words of Lennon and McCartney—they can’t get no worse.

Holden Thorp is the editor-in-chief of Science and a former college administrator; he previously served as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and provost of Washington University in St. Louis. Buck Goldstein is the former entrepreneur-in-residence at UNC Chapel Hill. They are the authors of two books on higher education from UNC Press. This essay first appeared March 11, 2024 at Inside Higher Ed; reprinted with permission.