It isn’t a question of either/or. Columbia needs to find a way to do both as well as possible. The school faces the same dilemma as every other research university, one that originates in the hybrid history of American higher education. It inherits the missions of both the English college, with its emphasis on teaching and the humanities, and the German research university, which gives priority to scholarship along the scientific model. Columbia College on the one hand, Columbia University on the other.
In the decades since the Second World War, with the explosion of scientific funding, the balance has tipped ever more decisively toward research. The IT and biotech booms have only amplified the trend in recent years. So have new rules about the ways that universities can profit from their faculty members’ work—the term of art here being technology transfer. Just look around at how much money is being poured into new facilities for biomedicine and the other sciences. (Or glance at “The Great American University,” by Columbia’s longtime provost Jonathan Cole, and notice how much space he devotes to the sciences as opposed to the other liberal arts.) Columbia, like its peer institutions, has become a large technological research facility with a small annex for undergraduate teaching.
Also crucial are the ways that professors are rewarded. Research is where the prestige is, so research is what gets you hired, retained, promoted, and tenured. If anything, being too good a teacher can make you suspect at a place like Columbia. One Stanford professor told me that when he received a teaching award as a junior faculty member, the provost leaned over and whispered in his ear, “don’t worry, this really is a good thing”—meaning, it shouldn’t endanger your chances for tenure. A friend of mine at another school was actually warned against spending too much time on his teaching. Sorry—despite the lip service given to student evaluations, they have no effect on your professors’ futures.
Academics aren’t rewarded for teaching, and they aren’t trained for it, either. If anything, they’re trained against it. Good teaching means being able to communicate with a non-specialized audience in ways they can understand and relate to. A good teacher speaks from her whole self, and whatever her subject, touches on broad and fundamental questions. But academic professionalization, in graduate school and afterwards, means learning to do exactly the opposite: to speak jargon to an ever-smaller audience of highly specialized experts. “Her intellectual identity is totally encased in the profession,” a friend once said about a colleague of his. The spirit-crushing, mind-narrowing process of academic professionalization leeches out the very human qualities on which good teaching depends.
Teaching is an afterthought in the contemporary research university, something that’s supposed to take care of itself. The assumption, or pretense, is that great scholars will make great teachers, or at least good ones. I leave it to your own experience to test the truth of that hypothesis. Sometimes the two sets of skills coincide in the same extraordinary individual, as they did in my graduate school mentor, Karl Kroeber, or with the legendary Columbia English professor Edward Tayler. More often they do not, as I’ve explained, there is no reason to believe they will. But great teaching is much more important to the undergraduate experience than great scholarship is. Most of you will not become academics yourselves, and most of your courses will be taken in fields outside your major. The length of your professors’ vitas has little bearing on how much or how well you learn.
So what is to be done? Columbia should not stop trying to maintain its position as one of the world’s great research universities, which means that it must continue to reward professors, or at least a lot of them, on the basis of their scholarship. Restoring teaching to equal importance probably requires the creation of another, parallel faculty, people who are hired and rewarded on the basis of their pedagogy. The trick would be to make sure they aren’t treated as second-class citizens, are equal in prestige, pay, and total workload. In fact, Columbia College once had its own faculty, long since absorbed into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. But whether this or any other reform is made, whether teaching becomes not even the priority but merely a priority at Columbia, will depend entirely on student (and perhaps parental) pressure. The University itself has no incentive to change the system.
The author is a critic, essayist, and the author of “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” From Columbia, he received a Bachelor of Arts in 1985, a Master of Science in journalism in 1987, a Master of Arts in English in 1990, an M.Phil. in English in 1993, and a Ph.D. in English in 1998.