Monday, March 28, 2016

a new op-ed on higher ed

Over the weekend, my new article came out on the CBC:
Underfunding higher education is hurting Manitoba's economy

As the partner of a professor, the two of us are sometimes wrapped up in knots over what's going on in universities.  How things are funded, how a professor's teaching load and classes are assigned, how to manage the hundreds of emails and students and details.  What is particularly interesting is that by choosing not to get a PhD or become a professor,* I have a different perspective.

From outside the ivory tower, sometimes you can see how individual professors or departments have lost track of their mission.  For instance, professors are, in part, teachers, but often lack any kind of training in how to teach.  So, they struggle with how to be effective instructors...and their assignments sometimes don't match the objectives they hope their students will master.  Their students don't learn all that they could, because the professors lack the teaching tools they need.  Some professors don't even like teaching!  Professors aren't perfect, by any means, but they are experts in their particular field of research.

Yet, in an era of cost-cutting at universities, there's a tendency to push professors to do many things they aren't trained to do:  master travel vouchers and reimbursement software, deal with all their grant funds with no training in accounting, nurture students with special needs or challenges (again, without any training) and more.  Getting a PhD means you are smart--in your specific field of expertise--but it doesn't mean you are good at everything.

Sure, smart people can figure out how to do a lot of things, but how long does that take?  I often wonder what would happen if professors were unleashed from some of the bureaucracy and allowed to really innovate in their areas of strength.  There would likely be new patents and ideas, technology and business start-ups.  There would also be some great teaching, because some professors are, at heart, very good educators.

If there were competent people in supporting roles, managing grants and travel and all the details that keep a university functional, well, professors might get to spend a lot more time on teaching and research-- in our house, that might mean more science and less time fighting over small bureaucratic change.

If you're curious:
*I have two master's degrees.  One in English Education, and one in Religious Studies.  I started out trying to get a PhD in Religious Studies, but midway, my advisor retired without any kind of plan in place for his grad. students.  I am the only one of his students from the period who got a degree out of the situation.  I had a serendipitous opportunity much later to go back to school again to earn the PhD, but at that point, I'd already done 5 years of grad school and two degrees. It would have required a long commute, more years of study and yet another university.  (I'd already attended three)  I decided I was done...I still wish I'd managed a PhD, but since it's hard to get two academic jobs in the same city, I might not have managed to stay married or have kids.  Life's all about choices...

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