When a university administration does something that is in the service of something that doesn’t have immediate payoffs for its revenues or prestige, I think it is worth noting, and maybe even applauding. I’d like to do that for my home institution today.
Universities everywhere seem to struggle with the balance of teaching, research and service. Actually, they don’t usually struggle enough. It is no secret that research is the coin of the realm, and in Canada research that receives Tri-Council funding (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR) is more desirable than any other. Why? It brings real additional revenue to the university for indirect costs of doing the research, and it has high prestige in academic circles. Theoretically, at least, it promotes excellence in research, because the competition for funding is fierce.
Teaching, by comparison, also generates real revenue for the university. Tuition dollars and associated funding associated with registrations keeps universities afloat. The problem this raises, in comparison to research, is that there is no direct financial incentive for universities to promote high quality teaching, just to bring more tuition units into the institution. One might argue that the pressure to attract tuition dollars even results in poorer learning environments (crowded classrooms, part-time teachers instead of professors teaching the classes, lower admission standards to attract more students). You’ve heard the arguments before, and by the way, I don’t really agree with most of the arguments, which miss the point entirely of what it actually means to create a dynamic learning environment. But that’s another post topic for another time.
For now, I’d like to applaud my own institution, the University of Saskatchewan, for doing something important for teaching and learning on campus. First, in the past couple of years, they have created a University Learning Centre that brings a host of student services and faculty services under the same roof–which will be eventually housed in a transfigured first two floors of the library on campus. That alone would have been a solid demonstration of commitment to teaching and learning, but they are following it up by creating a new administrative position: the Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning.
Now, I think I can guess what some of you are thinking (or even commenting by now). Even as I say these things, my inner edupunk is shouting, “Big freaking deal! Why is the world, or even the U of S, a better place with another administrator? Aren’t there already too many administrators, and not enough people looking after the core functions of the university?” Well, normally I would agree. I’m no fan of centralized services, and I’ve rubbed up against enough administrators during my career to make me skeptical (I refuse to become a cynic). I think that our institutions even sometimes get in the way of learning.
But I think this position is important for several reasons, and I’ll mention a couple. For one thing, Research has a Vice-President and a large Office of Research. Service was once led by an entire College-level unit: the Division of Extension and Public Service (more on this another time too). T & L only had a director of a centre, and that was all; until now, T & L had no senior administrative posture in the university. Let’s not kid ourselves, that matters when it comes down to making things happen on a campus.
As a result of this move, T & L has been given a voice — a loud voice– on campus. A Vice-Provost position is about as high as you can get in the food chain around here. It is an important move symbolically, saying that the university is going to invest in T & L in substantial ways.
Now, the skeptical side of me is aching too. Will this produce actual change? Will it matter at all? Is it window dressing? Will it be backed up with resources and commitment?
I don’t know. But forgive me for being hopeful. I love teaching and have always considered it the most important thing I do in this position. Hands down. Period. I haven’t thought that my university felt the same way about it. In fact, there have been many, many years that it suffered from serious neglect. So, when the official announcement is made today, and the name of the appointee revealed, I want to put my skepticism aside and applaud what I hope will be a very important move on the part of our university.
And before you ask, no I don’t know who has been appointed to the position. I’m on my way to a meeting where it will be announce in less than an hour.