I agree that this is the case (and indeed, a quick google search of even my worst professors yields considerably impressive CVs). I don’t understand why that’s the case. Is it, as ErickBall suggests, simply cheaper to hire good researchers than good teachers? I find that a little unlikely. I also find it unlikely that this is more profitable—surely student tuition + higher alumni donations be worth more than whatever cut of NIH/NSF/etc. funding they’re taking.
My question is who this system leaves better off? Students get worse professors, good researchers have to waste their time teaching and good teachers have to waste their time researching. Other than maybe the science journals or something, who has a stake in perpetuating this?
My question is who this system leaves better off?
My question is who this system leaves better off?
A natural equilibrium of institutions doesn’t have to leave anyone better off. Excellence at research is the most legible prestige-carrying property of professors, being good teachers is harder to observe. As Viliam points out, the purpose of raising researchers is best served by teachers who are good researchers, and also otherwise there is risk of content drifting away from relevance or sanity. So even for students, orgs with good researchers are more credible sources of learning, given the current state of legible education quality indicators.
My question is who this system leaves better off? Students get worse professors, good researchers have to waste their time teaching and good teachers have to waste their time researching.
I am quite curious about this, too.
I suspect there might be some kind of fallacy involved, something like “if we make a job that is for both research and teaching, we will automatically get people who are good at both research and teaching… even if we actually evaluate and reward them only for the research”. Maybe, if someone sucks at teaching, it is assumed that they would never apply for such job in the first place—they could get a job at some purely research institution instead. (So why does this not happen? I suppose that even for a researcher without teaching skills, a work at university can be preferable for some selfish reasons. Or they can be overconfident about their teaching skills.)
And the following step is that someone who is good at both research and teaching is obviously better than someone who is merely good at teaching, because such person will be able to teach the latest science. Which ignores the fact that a lot of what is taught at universities is not the latest science. But it is still better to have someone who has the ability to get the latest science right.
To steelman this position, imagine the opposite extreme: imagine a university where all teachers are great at teaching, but suck at research. It would be a pleasant experience for the students, but I would worry that a few decades later what the professors teach could be obsolete, or even outright pseudoscience. Also, teachers who are not themselves good researchers might have a problem to bring up a new generation of researchers; and where else would we get them?
I’d offer the counterpoints that:
a) Even at high levels, professors are rarely teaching the absolute cutting edge. With the exception of my AI/ML courses and some of the upper-level CS, I don’t think I’ve learned very much that a professor 10-20 years ago wouldn’t have known. And I would guess that CS is very much the outlier in this regard: I would be mildly surprised if more than 5-10% of undergrads encounter, say, chemistry, economics, or physics that wasn’t already mainstream 50 years ago.
b) Ballpark estimate based on looking at a couple specific schools—maybe 10% of undergrads at a top university go on to a PhD. Universities can (and should) leverage the fact that very few of their students want to go on to do research, and the ones that do will almost all have 4-5 more years of school to learn how to do good research.
If I were running a university, I would employ somewhat standardized curricula for most courses and stipulate that professors must test their students on that material. For the undergrad, I would aim to hire the best teachers (conditioned on a very strong understanding of the material, obviously), while for the graduate school I would aim to hire the best researchers, who would have to teach fewer courses since they would never teach undergrads. Top researchers would be attracted by the benefit of not having to teach any intro courses, top teachers would be attracted by the benefit of not being pressured to constantly put out research, undergrads would be attracted by the benefit of having competent teachers, and PhD students would be attracted by the more individual attention they get from having research faculty’s full focus. And as a university, the amount of top-tier research being outputted would probably increase, since those people don’t have to teach Bio 101 or whatever.
I contend that this leaves all the stakeholders better off without being more expensive, more difficult, or more resource-intensive. Obviously I’m wrong somewhere, or colleges would just do this, but I’m unsure where...
I would aim to hire the best teachers (conditioned on a very strong understanding of the material, obviously), while for the graduate school I would aim to hire the best researchers, who would have to teach fewer courses since they would never teach undergrads.
This seems like an obvious solution, so I wonder whether some institutions are already doing it, or there is a catch that we didn’t notice.
(This is just a wild guess, but it perhaps a university that only does a half of that—i.e. hires best teachers and mediocre researchers, or best researchers and mediocre teachers—would be just as popular, for half the cost. You cannot get unlimited amounts of students anyway, so if you already get those who want the best teaching, you don’t need to also attract the ones who want the best research, and vice versa.)
I was thinking from the opposite direction, whether it would make sense for the professors to make pairs—one who wants to teach, plus one who wants to do research—and trade: “I will teach your lessons, if you write my thesis and add me as a co-author to your publications”. Not sure if this is legal. (Also, it seems fragile: if one decides to quit or gets hit by a bus, the other’s career is also over.)