By Doug Ward

At a meeting to provide highlights of KU’s latest climate survey, Emil Cunningham of Rankin & Associates asked audience members a question:

What is the point of higher education?

“Students,” someone in the audience said.

“That’s right,” he said. “Our purpose for being here is students.”

Cunningham is right, but the answer is more complicated than that. A university is an intellectual community with many different interests and goals that compete for the time of faculty members, staff members and students. Those include research, and service to the community, the state and alumni. At its heart, though, a university exists to educate students and to help them become mindful citizens.

cover of climate survey
The full climate survey, along with an executive summary and the slides from Rankin’s presentation, is available for download.

Or does it?

Although he stressed the importance of students, Cunningham failed to bring up a statistic that speaks to the value of students: Only 64 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members who took the survey said the university valued teaching, compared with 83 percent who said the university valued research. Among non-tenure-track faculty, those numbers were 63 percent 86 percent.

Those figures reflect what those of us who value innovative, high-quality teaching already know: The rewards system is heavily weighted toward research. To say that teaching takes a back seat to research would be an understatement. Teaching is more like a trailer hooked to the back of a carefully polished SUV.

One faculty member put it this way in the survey: “I think that KU *says* teaching is valued far more than it is actually valued when it comes to compensation, job security, etc.”

Service, the third leg of the university’s three-legged platform of teaching, research and service, fared even worse than teaching in the survey. Service means many things, from sitting on governance committees to leading community events to participating in workshops to guiding junior colleagues. It also keeps the university running through administrative roles at many levels. In many cases, though, service goes hand in hand with teaching through such means as advising and mentoring students – responsibilities that are not equally shared.

Only 45 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty said they thought KU valued service, and 47 percent said they did more work to help students than their colleagues did.

“Service and teaching obligations are not equal in our department,” one respondent said. “If we do a good job (i.e. do our job) in either regards, we are given more jobs to do. Those who don’t fulfill their service or teaching obligations are just taken off committees or given reduced teaching because they are bad at it.”

Another offered this: “So much service, so many students, not enough hours in the week.”

Women, especially, reported unfair distribution of service loads, with 50.4 percent of female faculty members saying they felt burdened by service, compared with 30.4 percent of men.

“As one of the few women in my department I feel that I am tasked with more service because I actually do the assigned work,” one respondent said.

Everything wasn’t gloomy. Seventy-seven percent of undergraduates and 83.7 percent of graduate students said they felt that faculty members valued them, and slightly smaller percentages (70 and 80) said there were faculty members they perceived as role models.

Those are encouraging numbers, but if we truly value students, we will make teaching a higher priority and reward those who serve students and colleagues. KU takes teaching more seriously than many other universities but not seriously enough that teaching actually carries weight in the reward system. As one faculty member said in the survey: “If teaching were valued at KU, KU would value its teachers.”

That leads back to the earlier question:

What is the point of higher education?


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A colleague pulled me aside this week and said she wanted my thoughts about something. She seemed apologetic.

She is relatively new to college teaching, having made the switch to academia after a distinguished professional career. Students rave about her. She pushes them to think creatively and to stretch their abilities through hands-on projects. She holds students to high standards, but she is also accessible and serves as a strong mentor. When we talk, I always leave feeling energized and hopeful.

This week, though, she seemed uncharacteristically down, and she wanted my advice.

“How do you, a teacher of teachers, feel at the end of the semester?” she asked.

I laughed before offering a brutally honest answer: Mentally and physically exhausted, I said. Morose and filled with self-doubt. I dwell on missed opportunities, worry about what I may have forgotten to teach, and wonder whether I have truly helped students.

She leaned back in her chair and exhaled. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was afraid it was just me.”purplish-red hibiscus

It’s not, I said. Teaching feels like both a sprint and a marathon combined. Each week, we dash toward short-term goals, never fully able to catch our breath as the pace of the semester sweeps us along. I felt much the same way as a student, pouring myself into my studies, gasping toward the finish line, and wondering whether I had made the most of my opportunities.

I learned something then that I continue to draw upon now: Even though I felt exhausted and numb at the end of the semester, I had a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate. Academia, I found, had its own seasonal pace, its own cycle of depletion and rebirth. Every semester, I had a chance to start over.

I try to hold on to that thought at the end of each semester now that I’m a professor. I also remind myself that my class is only one of many that students will take. As I told my colleague this week, none of us can teach students everything. Seeing end-of-the-semester projects with sloppy writing, weak research, haphazard connections and faulty reasoning may seem like failure, but it’s not. Each of us has only a small part in the broader learning of our students. If we have done our jobs right, we have helped students improve their thinking and their maturity, helped them gain confidence in their ability to learn, and provided strategies for helping them learn in the future. The work we do will help them improve on their skills old and new in future classes.

I also remind myself that students are as tired as I am at the end of a semester and probably aren’t doing their best work or their best thinking then, just as I am not doing my best work or my best thinking. The end of the semester is a lesson in humility for all of us.

My main advice to all faculty members is to be kind to yourself at the end of the semester. Take time to reflect: What worked this semester, and why? Most certainly you had some successes. What were they and how can you transfer those successes into other areas? At the same time, what didn’t work? What parts of a course do you need to change? What can you do to improve overall student learning but also learning in smaller components of a class? What activities or assignments can you change to boost students’ confidence but also help them improve on weak skills?

After that reflection, take some time to relax and revive. Yes, you missed some opportunities this semester. We all do. No, students didn’t seem to learn as much as you would have liked. Do they ever? So give yourself a break. Do something that doesn’t require intense thinking. (I personally favor binge-watching “The Walking Dead.”) And remember that rare, magnificent part of academia: Next semester, you get a chance to start over.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.