The Heart of the Institution: The Faculty

The heart of any educational institution is its Faculty.  CU has an extraordinary group of instructors and researchers — many of whom have raised the bar related to research, scholarship, and instruction.— winning many national and international honors with CU’s four campuses impressively securing over $1 billion in research contracts in a single year.  Relatively few Coloradans recognize the magnitude of this truly extraordinary achievement — one whose size and impacts have been poorly communicated across the state.

CU has over 7,000 faculty members across its four campuses — split evenly between (a) tenured and tenure-track faculty members and (b) full-time, albeit non-tenure track instructors.  To reach the heights of academic scholarship, CU must aggressively seek talent from around the world.  It also needs to reinforce hiring criteria to place a greater emphasis on the teaching ability of new hires.  

Many universities have accepted a dichotomy between great scholars and great teachers while others have rejected that bifurcated approach.  CU has the attributes which allow it to seek great scholars who also are great teachers.  It often is these exceptional individuals who have the greatest impact on the lives of students and institutions.

CU’s Strategic, Targeted, Accelerated Recruitment program should be expanded significantly so the University can be more competitive.  This often means hiring or finding relevant employment for a target’s spouse or partner as an enticement to come to CU.  Given how Boulder, Colorado Springs, and the Denver metro area offer so many great opportunities as well as are wonderful places to live, CU has attractive conditions for dual-employment opportunities many universities don’t have.

WHY THE COST OF INSTRUCTION INCREASES FASTER THAN INFLATION

Almost every institution of Higher Education faces tremendous financial pressures from the costs of instruction for a number of reasons.  First, instruction is labor-intensive and the competition for the best faculty members means paying six-figure salaries to those who may teach only one course a semester.  

In addition, the cost of facilities and equipment in many fields has skyrocketed (especially in scientific and engineering arenas) — as has the cost of simply constructing or even maintaining academic buildings (including scientific laboratories which require equipment, mechanisms, and facilities which can add tens of millions of dollars to a single structure).  The result is these costs almost inevitably exceed the annual rate of inflation — often by 100% or more. 

TENURE TRACKS & TEMPORARY FACULTY MEMBERS

Many institutions have tried to address this challenge by hiring temporary faculty who are not allowed to get on a tenure track — the traditional path which almost guarantees a lifetime appointment.  Getting tenure often is the pinnacle of academia for a faculty member due to the academic independence and long-term financial security it can offer.

A tenure track gives junior faculty members an opportunity to prove — via excellence in scholarship, instruction, community involvement, and other contributing factors — they should be given permanent positions at the University.  These positions are highly desired because they assure tenured members of the best working conditions, opportunities for research, and salaries and benefits, often for decades.

Instead, CU and many other universities have opted to reduce expenses by hiring instructors on a short-term basis.  These low-cost faculty members may be instructors, adjunct professors, and similar positions who may receive a fraction of what a full (i.e., tenured) professor earns.  At CU, the number of non-tenured faculty members greatly exceeds the number of tenured faculty.

Many of these instructors are forced to view CU as a minor stop in their efforts to acquire a more stable position at another educational institution.  They know, when they arrive at CU, they will not be there very long — e.g., sometimes as short as one or two semesters.

While many of these instructors do a fabulous job — and simply could not qualify for a tenure track — they often do not have the ties or commitments to the University which are ideal for creating the community CU seeks to achieve because they have to spend so much of their time searching and positioning themselves for their next job.  And, due to their low salaries, they often must have other jobs just to survive financially.

A non-tenured instructor, however, may be a great teacher.  CU should refocus its hiring on a targeted division of (a) those exceptional persons who are great scholars and great teachers, (b) those persons who are great scholars or brilliant researchers, and (c) staff members who are exceptional teachers but are not focused on scholarship.

ADDRESSING SPECIFIC NEEDS FOR FACULTY MEMBERS

The University also needs to do more to provide subsidized housing to its wide range of faculty members, especially given the seemingly nonstop increases in Boulder County housing costs as well as the expense of living elsewhere in the Denver metro area.  Even Colorado Springs housing, while more reasonably priced, still is out of the financial reach of most instructors.  

A major initiative on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars is needed to provide adequate faculty housing (especially for junior faculty members) but the good news is any investment in real estate — from purchasing houses and apartments to construction on University-owned properties of new apartments and houses — is likely to appreciate in value.  Such an effort also would reduce criticism of the University’s impact on neighboring communities.

Having more members of the faculty live in the Boulder area helps foster a closer bond between faculty members and the community.  It also means faculty members are likely to be more invested in the University and more accessible to students so efforts should be expanded to assist as many faculty members as possible.

Expansion of other benefits, such as daycare and medical benefits will keep CU competitive in the marketplace as it seeks the best scholars and instructors in the nation.

CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY VARIATIONS IN TEACHING QUALITY

One area which requires substantial improvement is the process CU uses for student assessment of teaching quality.  The current system uses a numerical averaging format which results in what appear to be nominal differences between “good” and “bad” teachers.  The system actually shows statistically significant variances but, to the untrained eye, they appear too similar or marginal, at best.

The University should switch to a Faculty Instructional Rating System for students to use which parallels its own grading for students by using a simple, easy-to-understand “A” to “F” format along with the option to include comments.  This would better serve both students and faculty as well as the University as it evaluates its instructional cadre.

The University immediately needs to begin a comprehensive review of the teaching quality of its staff and weed out those who do a poor job.  While CU has some great teachers, the variation in the quality of its instruction is unacceptable.  

CU’s fantastic faculty members do an amazing job of motivating and inspiring students.  They have a lifelong impact on their protégés which can last decades from just the exposure of a single class.  In one case, a faculty member was so impressive and impactful in the class experience she created and the extraordinarily high level of instruction she offered that one student switched majors simply to be in her department.  CU should be proud to have faculty members such as this but needs many more.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF HOW INSTRUCTIONAL QUALITY CAN BE IMPROVED

At the same time we praise the faculty, the University needs to be far more cognizant of the damage inferior instruction can create.  A poor instructor can demotivate students, can convince students to abandon a field, and can create a negative experience which reflects poorly on the institution — permanently damaging the relationship between students (who become alumni) and the University.

While poor instructors are in the minority at CU, their impact on students can be great because they are negatively impacting large numbers of students.  This is why it it vital for the University to take action immediately.

For example, one professor at the University told her students “Everything I say is important” — indicating an abysmal failure to understand her job was to encourage critical thinking.  By arrogantly saying everything she said was of equal value, there was no opportunity to critique or prioritize the concepts she presented to her class.

Another professor, a department chair, told her class, “I want you to remember for the rest of your life what I teach you in this class.”  Again, this is the opposite of the University’s professed goal of teaching critical thinking.  Far too much of CU faculty instruction is based on memorization and long-outdated rote practices.

One professor who required students to view a film then included a test question which asked them what other film — which they had not seen — was obliquely referenced in the film-ending credits of the movie they were required to watch.  Not only was the question nominally qualified for the CU Trivia Bowl of yore, but it was a wasted opportunity to use that question to ask students about something relevant which would demonstrate their analysis of the actual film or some other element actually related to critical thinking.

This faculty member was more intent on using a “trick question” to see who had watched the film in its entirety rather than focusing on a question related to important content.  Too often instructors take the easy way out and create tests and exams which focus on trivia — which, while easier to grade, degrade the educational process and the benefits of a course.  This misguided emphasis also sends the wrong message to students about what information truly is important.

Another tenured faculty member suffers from multiple memory lapses but continues to teach — repeating in its entirety a lecture from Friday on the next Monday without realizing it.  The same professor forgot to post the question students were supposed to answer for an essay and did not do it until the Saturday prior to the paper’s Monday due date.  This failure to recognize the variation in learning styles and writing speeds among students was indefensible as was the fact she thought she had posted the assignment prompt long ago.

This professor repeatedly mixed up days of the week, went over a lecture about material that could be useful in the last paper the same day it was due, and seemed to grade randomly at times.  While she certainly had other great teaching abilities, the fact the University was not aware of her significant problems or their impact on her students was inexcusable.  Either this faculty member needed an assistant who could keep her on track or she needed to no longer be in the classroom.

Yet another example of a tenured faculty member who taught a music course and required his students to memorize 62 songs for a test which ultimately included only a dozen of the 62.  He also required his students to memorize how various artists died — and tested them on these allegedly important facts.  Again, while the information may have been of interest, none of these approaches met a nominal test for critical thinking and none of them belong in a Higher Education exam, especially given the limited number of questions most tests or exams have.

In other cases, instructors who tell their entire classes that the average test score was a 75 out of 100 and that was “good,” need to have someone explain, “No, 75% on a test is not a good score and it certainly is not a ‘good’ average for an entire class.”  Perhaps those instructors realized the low score for the entire class may have been, in part, a reflection on them but such assurances are unfounded and self-serving, at best.

And yet another example of the undermining of Academic Integrity by faculty members occurred in a course team taught by a Professor and a non-tenured Instructor.  One was a tenured Professor and the other was an Instructor.  The teachers gave the class of approximately 70 students an exam and the results were very positive.  Instead of being pleased with the outcome, the pair was displeased the class’s test average was so high.

What followed next was difficult to believe in any context.  The two faculty members ordered the course’s Teaching Assistant to take 20 of the 70 exams and “re-grade” them downward so the class average would be lowered.  This gross violation of several academic principles was astounding.

First, to re-grade a test when there was no factual or academic basis was inexcusable.  Second, even if there were some kind of justification for the re-grading, it should have been done for all 70 students — not just 20.  Third, the way this was executed not only resulted in two or more different sets of standards being applied to the same test but also was even more unfair because the Teaching Assistant did not even randomly select which tests were to be re-graded. 

The result was some students who did well and received an “A” on their exam later found they received a “C.”  Even more stunning was the fact there wasn’t even an effort to hide the original grading so students could see, on some of the exams, what their original scores were for each question and to what those numbers were downgraded.  

Perhaps what was most disturbing was, when this was generically discussed with other faculty members outside of the two relevant departments, they did not see anything wrong with what had been done.

Again, these examples are the exception — not the rule — at CU and similar problems can be found at most other institutions.  But this does not mean CU shouldn’t take these challenges seriously.  And the University continues to have much to lose by not correcting these deficiencies.

WHY FEEDBACK IS SUCH A VITAL PART OF THE EDUCATIONAL PROCESS

During the semester, many faculty members give their students little or no feedback on their work; rather, they simply issue a grade.  At the end of the semester, many faculty members upload final grades to the University site immediately without allowing students to see them first.  They even will upload a final grade without informing their students what their final exam grades are.

While some faculty members inform their students of their final paper and/or final exam grades as well as give them feedback explaining the basis for the grade, most faculty members fail to do this.  Often the timing of the end of classes and the time grades are finalized is very short — and everyone is eager to start their break.

This is a lazy and bad practice the University needs to reevaluate for a number of reasons.  First, by failing to give feedback on papers and final exams — i.e., explaining the basis for scores and grades — the University is sending the terrible message that the only factor which matters is a student’s grade.

The vast majority of faculty members are missing an opportunity to have their students learn what they need to do to improve their work.  By having an Academic Calendar which makes feedback difficult for both faculty and students, the University is failing one of its most important responsibilities to its students — i.e., helping them understand how they can improve.

Certainly, if you get a 75% on a test or a “C” on a paper, you know you need to improve but that is difficult if the reasons for your low score or grade are never explained to you.  Just as unfair is the current dominant process which gives students little opportunity to identify grading mistakes which might have been made as well as to appeal such mistakes.  It’s tough to appeal something you don’t know or for which the facts have been kept from you.

In another instance, one academic department requires its majors to take a course which intentionally only uses long-outdated technology which not only constantly breaks down but has almost never again been used in the field for well over a decade.  Even more challenging is the reality that the technology generally is unavailable.  

While the department’s goals are laudable — i.e., (1) to create a better understanding of the historical development of tools in the field, (2) to gain an appreciation for the artistic and creative processes involved at different points in time, (3) to teach students about the history of the development of the field, and (4) to heighten the appreciation for the wonders of today’s extraordinary technology — dedicating a full semester to outdated and unused technology is a gross misplacement of priorities.  The reality is all of these are lessons could be learned in one or two weeks within another course.

What the faculty and department leadership fail to recognize is the Opportunity Cost which overwhelmingly outweighs the net benefits of requiring an entire course centered on an outmoded technology which is expensive to support and which constantly breaks down.  To dedicate one of the relatively few required courses to such a subject when students could be learning about truly relevant topics and gain contemporary skills in their field indicates poor decision-making by the department’s faculty and a lack of oversight by the University.

THE USE OF GRADUATE STUDENTS

Another issue is the use of graduate students in the classroom.  As discussed previously, many universities commonly use this form of cheap labor by requiring graduate students to assist with instruction as part of their acceptance of admission and the benefits they receive.  This means a significant number of poorly qualified and even unqualified people are in the classroom.  And some of them are quite unenthusiastic about being what they see as “Forced Labor.”  Many of them make it clear they have little or no desire to be there.

This isn’t to say most graduate assistants don’t do a good job.  Many do well in the classroom and even perform exceptionally.  And the fact they are closer in age to undergraduates than faculty members often creates better opportunities for communication.  Nevertheless, in terms of improving the quality of instruction and the experience students have at CU, a review of the University’s practices in this arena is a must.

The use of graduate students, however, does not mitigate the fact CU’s Student-Teacher Ratio is significantly worse than the national average (almost 40% worse with an 18-to-1 ratio compared to a national average of 14-to-1).  The University needs to embark on an ambitious effort to decrease the ratio so class sizes are reduced and faculty members can spend more time with students.

The good news is CU has a higher percentage of full-time faculty members than the national average and, on a percentage basis, does not “overuse” graduate students compared to other institutions.  But is it clear more full-time faculty members are needed, despite the cost.

Making life better for graduate and professional students should be a key goal of the University because this will positively impact how they see their roles at CU.  The University needs to do a better job addressing their needs by seeing what else it can do in terms of providing more and better subsidized housing, more extensive day care, transportation support, superb health care and medical coverage, and better financial compensation for the work they do.  The graduate experience can vary greatly, especially for those students tied to a specific faculty member.  And there often is a tremendous financial gap between someone in a science lab versus a humanities department.  That gap is even greater for those in humanities versus those in professional schools.

As someone who began examining how teaching can be done most successfully when he was a 14 year-old consultant to the Ford Foundation Teacher Training program at the University of Chicago, I have been aware of the enormous differences in the quality of instruction from my days in elementary school through those in graduate school.  I know CU can do much better.

CLASSROOM and ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

There is no question CU has many opportunities to deploy more and better technology in all aspects of its operations to improve its functioning, create better classroom and out-of-classroom experiences, and streamline administrative functions.

The average level of expertise on the part of CU’s faculty and staff when it comes to using technology is unacceptable.  Many faculty members and instructors are incapable of deploying technology to their own and their students’ greatest advantage.  The University immediately needs to create an initiative to bring all of its teachers up-to-speed so their instructional efforts take advantage of what the world has to offer today — not a decade ago.

It should not be acceptable for instructors to constantly fumble with presentations, fail to find critical documents, not timely respond to emails, take days or weeks to return assignments and tests processed by machines in minutes, or have classrooms where the technology fails them repeatedly despite their being knowledgeable and well-prepared.

Similarly, many administrative offices function with technology that is out-of-date or inefficient.  And some administrative staff members, similar to faculty members, need to be better trained to use the technology available to them.

With advances in a number of technological fields — including Artificial Intelligence — there are extraordinary opportunities in methods of instruction, learning, administration, and management of all aspects of the University.  CU needs to do a better job of planning and implementing strategies which take advantage of these advances.  Fortunately, for the most part, it already has the talent in-house to do this.  The deployment of this talent should be expanded immediately to make the University a leader in how technology is used in Higher Education.

CU already has “hybrid” courses which combine in-class instruction with online work.  There often is confusion about these, however, and the University needs to do a better job establishing standards for such courses.  For example, one course misleadingly stated it met “Monday through Thursday” during the term but actually had an instructor who met the class on its first day and then told the students they would be on their own for almost the entire course until they were next scheduled to meet only two more times at the end of the course because everything actually was online.

There also are rapid developments in the world of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — which present a range of challenges to institutions of Higher Education.  The extent to which CU embraces MOOCs and how it uses its resources in the world of MOOCs are constantly evolving decisions.  How the University can use MOOCs to advance its agenda, provide learning opportunities, and promote the image and reputation of the academy all are strategic issues which CU needs to further debate and then exploit.

For example, CU Boulder is located in a community with what probably is the greatest concentration of Climate scientists in the world (detailed, below).  If it created a MOOC such as “Climate Science Today & The Future of the Planet,” it could provide an extraordinary service to the world while showcasing how special the University is.  

Such a course likely would attract tens of thousands of new students who would learn about issues critical to their future — especially for young people who will be the ones experiencing the impacts of Climate Change — and who would see the University as the global center for what many of them believe is the most important issue of their generation.  Unlike most institutions, CU has all the assets in place to do this on an extraordinary scale today.

Because the advances in on-line learning present special opportunities and challenges for institutions of Higher Education, a new President who understands, at a deep level, the opportunities technology offers is a must for CU today.

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