Monday, September 17, 2012

Academics vs Educators: Thoughts on Faculty Make-Up at Universities


"Universities are Institutions which the educators have lost interest in the students."

Several years ago, I penned those words for my University Admissions essay to a prestigious school in the US as a high school senior applying for her undergraduate degree. My admissions essay proceeded to blast University Systems for not focusing on their largest constituents, the students. I never got into that school. I had gotten a generic, "Thank you for applying, but unfortunately..." letter that didn't go into any sort of detail. But it was that view I held onto for the greater part of my education. 

With such a controversial admissions essay I was surprised that a few Universities still wanted me. (Granted, some of them had automatic admissions for top 10% of your graduating class, but there were a few that found my essay provocative and after all of the chips fel)l-- I managed to get myself into a decent school, with a few scholarships and a good prospect for full time employment afterwards. Several years later and now in a position where I work intimately with Universities... on the subject of Undergraduate Education-- I've refined my opinion... and found it interesting opinion shift. 

"Universities are Institutions which the educators have lost interest in the students."

Universities, or any post secondary education, voluntary education are also known as Higher Education. Most of these schools are voluntary attendance and are a place where students may continue their education. Wikipedia has a good download on the general statistics and facts about Universities. 

The United States has a total of 4,495 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions: 2,774 4-year institutions and 1,721 2-year institutions,[2] an average of more than 115 per state. As of 2010, the US had 20.3 million students in higher education, roughly 5.7% of the total population.[3] About 14.6 million of these students were enrolled full-time.[4] -Wikipedia on US Higher Education

It is accepted across most Industrial Societies that Universities are an integral part of the fabric of society. These are places of learning, research, development and... teaching.

The word Institution has it's own set of connotations. 
 Rom Harre that states: 
"An Institution [is] defined as an interlocking double-structure of [people] with [jobs] and [administration] and of social practices involving both expressive and practical aims and outcomes." 
How do I interpret that?
There are two parts to an institution. 1. The goals/aims of the institutions creation
 and the 2. resources required to achieve those. 

Applying to Universities, a University is united in purpose and cause or establishment, but requires resources to exist. These resources are a combination of those who are simply a part of the Institution, are a contributor to such or are managing aspects (if not the entire) establishment.

The major point to me?-- Universities are complex multi-layered objects that require resources at all levels to function. (Keeping that in mind helps shape the remainder of what it takes to understand certain issues (such as Students' importance being downgraded).)


 Perhaps a long way to get to the point, but I find it helpful to step through each level as I discuss it. 
Universities are Institutions 
Institutions require Resources
Resources are People+Skill Sets+ Immediate (Tools and Equipment) Assets+ Future Investments
More Succinct: Tools + Equipment, Hiring and training of people, and Investments= Need Funding
Bottom Line: Universities = Need Funding


*Side Note* If one ever wanted to understand the motivations of a particular University for shaping their curriculum as it is... one only needs to see the sources of funding. 


"Universities are Institutions which the educators have lost interest in the students."
Since Universities the constituency is assumed to be students... a University will always have a student component to their charter. 
A way I often look at the quality of a University is by measuring the quality of students. 
Looking at the institution as if it were a process and the student was the output. 
As with most things you can judge it either by it's process or the result. Although we often say, "It's not the result of the game, but rather how you played it..." (process) by human nature we will always put more importance on the direct impact or (result).
In the United States, the calibre of a University is often times measured by either the types of students it attracts or... the types of students that it outputs. 
None the less, every University must have a paradigm where students are an integral role. 


"Universities are Institutions which the educators have lost interest in the students."
This is where my statement... is in need of being revised.

Looking at a University and assuming all of the people part of its ranks had Education first in mind ... is similiar to the frustrations that I feel when someone looks at the company I work for and assumes all divisions are exactly the same. In Universities, Educators, although perhaps integral part, are not the only division of labour.

 calling out the major groups (according to my view) within a University. 
Administratives, Academics and Educators. 




Academics and Educators are different


Both Academics and Educators are found in the same place, Universities. 
Both have a propensity and a drive to learn/discover. 
The key differentiator between an Academic and an Educator though is how they use the University. 
Academics are focused on the learning of a new idea/concept or in more common terms Research. Their view on the University is about using the University as a vehicle to other things (more research).

It's Educators that take that same focus on learning... and instead of applying it to external topics ... they apply that interest and energy into the classroom/students= Teaching.  Educator's view on the University is as a purpose/mission/responsibility. 

Both have their own merits and values and neither one nor the other is better than the other. A University is judged greatly on the type of students they can attract or the type of students they can turn out and both Academics (Research), Educators(Teaching) and all of the Administrative functions (viewing Universities as the main focus) the are all needed. 


For an Institution to be healthy, it's the balance of these segments that really makes a difference. 

I had the opportunity to sit in a University visit where the focus was clearly Research Centric. 
The VP that I was with opened the meeting with the following:

"I'd like to spend some time talking about your teaching before you go into your Research. I feel what you teach your undergraduate students is what a school really believes."
*Side Note* We ended up funding the department anyways, (Luckily the faculty in the room didn't bat and eye and enthusiastically agreed). 

Where the problem arises is when the University begins to tilt the balance to other segments at the detriment of other segments. Issues such as: Funding or Resources are usually primary drivers.

My VP asking the University to first speak about their Educational efforts was checking the program's balance. Too often a school will be spectacular at turning out researchers and projects ... but the students that are attending don't get any of the benefits. I personally chalk it up to an imbalance.

Examples:
Here are a few observations I've had from traveling and looking at different school's curriculums in regards to what type of students they tend to turn out... (of course there are different extremes, I only selected a few):

========= Examples of Imbalanced Curriculums=========



 Evolving Institutions- We find these types of schools when either the department is new, there is an interim head from a different school. distance ed type of curriculums or there is a LOT of turn over in the department. 

+ These are fairly regimented and process oriented curriculums. There is very clear paths. 
+ There oddly usually is a lot of flexibility in the curriculum and special programs such as study abroad, outreach and work-study. 
+ Many times these curriculums use material from other schools, so you can get the same material as a more prestigious school (depends on the teacher). 
- Faculty is often times not motivated to go against the processes and instead are only there to collect pay-cheques. 
- Students are left to fend for themselves. 
- Resources are usually consumed outside the department and students don't get to see the results. 

The types of undergraduates these tend to turn out... are usually very well rounded in all disciplines... but weak on the technical skills they obtained (e.g. Electrical Engineering).


 Research Institutions- Schools where the faculty is mostly composed of researchers.
+ Best and Brightest minds are attracted to the facilities and the prestige in working at these schools
+  University has access to direct funding for the research and publicity
+ Students have access to cutting edge research ideas
- Requires a great deal of resources to continually attract the best
- University usually becomes specialised in a particular area.
- Students are often not taught by the professor, but rather TA's or Graduate Students 

The type of undergraduates these tend to turn out are... future graduate students/ require re-training when they are hired by employers. These students usually are lacking strong fundamentals or are very specialized into one area of expertise.




 Teaching Institutions- Schools where the faculty is mostly composed of educators.
+ Strong focus on fundamentals 
+ Faculty is focused on the students
- tends not to attract big names or "wow" factor faculty.
-funding may be difficult to obtain 

These types of graduates are my favorite. However, I have run into issues where they are too theory based without enough hands-on-research like exposure. These tend to be technically sound graduates that may need to be refined.




========

As with most venn diagrams, the overlap is usually the most interesting. 
Below is my take on the type of faculty that exists within each of these segment. 
This is where a few pivotal faculty members can easily change the dynamic of a curriculum. e.g. A strong researcher that has interest in education can bring his research into the classroom to give students a hands-on experience. An Educator with an administrative bent may want to standardize the curriculum and offer more options. Most importantly, I have found that department heads that are well balanced... tend to manage programs that tend to mirror that balance. 


You can also take the same diagram and map out examples below:
Using the Stephen Hawkings: "Students are the transition between the layman to the expert" and my Bamboo Writing Tablet to scribble my notes...



I'm sure there are more things that I can put on these graphs. 
Looking back on that college admission essay, I should have revised my statement to 

"Some Universities are Institutions which the educators the Academics have over-whelmed the Educators and the University has lost interest in the students."


... and focused on the merits of Teaching Institutions over Research or Administrative. In the end it really just depends on how that University sees the value of each of these departments and knows what type of student they wish to turn out. Good, Bad... Indifferent... because Universities are voluntary, it ultimately comes down to the student's choice... which, in my case? I would have chosen a teaching institution :-)


Overview of Main Points:
  • Universities tend to be large and complex organizations and expectations should not be that they are only made up of Educators. 
  • In a University the need for resources drives a lot of decisions. 
  • Both Academics and Educators exist to pursue learning. However, Academics/Research pursue learning using the University as a means versus Educators pursue learning as their purpose. 
  • The Administrators in the University are important to offer extra curricular and services. 
  • The balance of these departments influences largely what type of students the program will output. 




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