A discussion at Leiter’s site, prompted by an admittedly alarming letter from an anonymous correspondent focuses on whether teaching counts for anything in a large research university. Here’s the prompt:

(1) “Teaching counts for nothing.” It was a shock to me how dishonest research schools are about teaching: on the brochures, to parents, in official pronouncements the line is that we care about teaching deeply. But in private all my colleagues, even at the official orientation, have said teaching counts for virtually nothing for tenure purposes, for merit raises, etc. (Exception: if your student evaluations are truly awful that might hurt a bit.) In other words, there is hardly any institutional concern for teaching, i.e. concern that manifests itself in aligning incentive structures with good teaching. It’s not 50-50 research/teaching, it’s 100-0 or maybe 90-10. Experiment: try explaining to your non-academic friends, neighbors, legislators that our top universities basically ignore teaching in their evaluation of teachers. I often wonder whether our actual policies could survive publicity.

Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, in their excellent Remaking the American University muse about why it is that despite the fact that tuition costs, especially for elite colleges, have risen fast over the past couple of decades there has been no evidence of improved quality of instruction over the same period. They give what seems to me the most likely explanation:

Critics of higher education, and to some extent higher education itself, have misunderstood the core business of these institutions. Whereas most believe the task of universities and colleges is to supply quality educations at reasonable prices, their real business is to sell competitive advantage at necessarily high prices.

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Frequent CT commenter John Protevi has an excellent piece about the proposed closure of the the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University at IHE and the THES. For those who don’t know, the University administrators are proposing to close the Department despite the fact that it is the highest ranked department in the University according the RAE, and seems to be heavily in the black. Of course, that it is in the black turns out not necessarily to work in its favour: apparently, due to a quirk in the RAE system, the university will continue to receive its RAE money from Philosophy for the next 6 years even if it closes the department. Protevi explains:

Philosophy at Middlesex received the highest rating of any programme in the university in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, a periodic exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which determines disbursement of government funds for research. Middlesex Philosophy had 65 per cent of its research activity rated “world-leading” or “internationally renowned”. This put Middlesex philosophy 13th of 41 programmes in the UK, at the top of all the other ex-polytechnics or “post-1992 universities”, and ahead of established heavyweights such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham, and Glasgow. To cut such a programme, while bragging on its website about its commitment to research excellence – that was just too much administrative hypocrisy for even many hardened American academics to bear.

When word got out that at Middlesex from 2008 to 2009 academic staff has fallen from 748 to 733, while administration has risen from 888 to 890; that the number of senior staff with total compensation above £100,000 increased from 7 to 13; and that total compensation for the VC increased from £223,000 to £246,000 – all these facts rang an all-too-familiar note with American academics as well. And it certainly didn’t help the administration’s image when people learned that consultant fees increased from £2,321,000 to £3,122,000 in that time period. (Details on these figures may be found here, in the university’s financial statement.)

Another outrage was learning that philosophy produced a yearly revenue of some £173,260 for the university from its excellent results in the 2008 RAE. Incredibly, the university will continue to receive that sum yearly until the research excellence framework, to be held in 2014 or perhaps even 2016, even if it has closed the philosophy programme! This was an all too blatant case of ripping off the labour of the philosophers. Then it came out that the “subject group” composed of philosophy (six faculty members) and religious studies (one member) contributed 53 per cent of its revenue to central administration in 2009-10 and was projected to contribute 59 per cent in 2010-11. The central administration requires 55 per cent, so it is willing to cut its most highly rated research programme for a temporary 2 percentage point shortfall. Veterans of penny-pinching, short-sighted, and arbitrary administrations winced with sympathetic familiarity at this sort of “reasoning”.

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