Few consumers have as little control over what they buy as students.  Initial tuition payments purchase largely requirements; even past the freshman year, the few choices permitted – such as that of major – immediately entail additional restrictions and demands.  A student has no say over the selection of subject-matter in his or her courses, the requirements they impose on him or her, the criteria by which he or she is evaluated or the instructional techniques practiced on him or her.  Most importantly, the student has to endure whatever quality of teacher and teaching fortune and the tenure system might visit upon him.

            This last point is particularly important.  For some might argue that students should have no control over what they are taught and how their performance is judged.  But no one would want to say that they should be taught poorly.  And some might even think that, given the human condition, education must be forced and perhaps painful.  But no one would seriously maintain that this is done best by boring entire generations or when students snore in the lecture hall.  Yet many of the structures and processes of higher education promote just this result.

            If one listened to the rhetoric instead of looking at the facts, one would of course never suppose that this is so.  For deans and presidents maintain that they are thoroughly committed to the improvement of teaching at their institutions.  Yet students incessantly complain that favored teachers are denied tenure while those who spend their time in the lab or in their study reap the benefits of employment in perpetuity.

            During the student unrest of the 1960’s, several programs were conceived to improve the quality of teaching.  None had a broad or lasting influence.  More recently, the growth of vocationalism has removed much of the pressure for teaching reform.  Students survive bad teaching in the hope of better jobs; since there are fewer complaints, teachers suppose that they teach well enough.  Outside agencies, even the Danforth Foundation, appear to have lost interest in teaching improvement efforts.  The National Endowment for the Humanities has put large sums into curriculum improvement and faculty renewal but, remarkably enough, it has undertaken no significant initiative toward improving the quality of teaching.  Officials seem to have overlooked that growing professional orientation among students is only a part of the reason for the national decline in humanities enrollments.  Staid approach to subject-matter and stale teaching constitute the rest.

            How can the quality of teaching be improved?  Student evaluations help only if they are taken seriously by all the parties involved and especially by those who allocate rewards within the university.  Workshops and faculty training session cannot hurt.  But the only ultimately effective way is to make teachers directly responsive to student perceptions and needs.  There is a way to accomplish this which would at once enhance student interest and participation in the educational process.

            I propose that, within limits, students should determine faculty salaries.  Of course, students already finance faculty salaries through their tuition payments.  But this money finds its way to the faculty in a roundabout way and, in the process, all student control over the funds is eliminated.  If we allowed students the freedom to reward good teaching directly and substantially, the operation of the marketplace would attract better instructors, weed out poor performers and tend generally to improve the performance of all who stayed.

            Obviously, I do not have in mind an informal system which would have students waiting outside the lecture hall with $10 bills after a happy hour.  If contributions were to be made voluntary, everyone would have a financial interest in claiming that his education was not worth much.  My proposal is to make the allocation of tuition a matter of choice, not its amount.  Nor do I think it would be desirable to make the entirety of the student’s tuition available for such differential reward; tuition buys, after all, not only instruction but facilities and facilitators (which is how we should think of administrators), as well.

            Perhaps only a quarter, certainly no more than a half, of tuition should be devoted to the direct reward, and hence the enhancement of teaching.  Each student should be required to spend the entire sum designated for this purpose each semester, but each would be free to allocate it to his instructors on the basis of his judgment of how well they taught and how much he learned from them.  To be sure that there is no undue correlation between contributions and grades, the two activities should be carried out simultaneously and independently of each other.  Students would learn of their grades only after they made their irrevocable allocations; professors would never see a breakdown of who gave how much.

            In order to eliminate undue anxiety and reduce the viciousness of competition, the university could use a part of the institutional portion of tuition to provide a base salary for all faculty members.  The base should be no more than minimally adequate and should be adjusted only for inflation, never for merit or length of service.  Since teaching is an activity completely consumed in the doing, no one should reap continuing benefits for what he had done long ago.  This reward for past achievement is one of the factors that contribute to reducing current motivation to excel.

            A system in which each faculty member must earn the bulk of his salary each year by the quality of his teaching has obvious dangers.  Some course in some fields do not attract many students, no matter how good the instructor.  Yet it may be important to retain these courses and teacher in order to proved instruction in an adequate and balanced set of scholarly fields.  This problem is best solved in conjunction with the opposite one of huge enrollments in introductory classes, which might invite the entrepreneur to limit himself to those, to his huge financial gain and scholarly loss.  It would be perfectly reasonable and in accord with our sense of fairness to tax large introductory sections to help pay for some advanced courses and the scholarly diversity we need.  But the tax should not be so high as to discourage the effort to attract more students and to teach them well.  And the support of instructors in small-enrollment courses should always be proportionate to the support they receive from those they teach.

            The financing of research may be thought to present another serious problem for this free-market approach.  There is, indeed, little doubt that in our current system teaching finances research.  Since teaching has suffered as a result of this, I am not at all ready to concede that it should be called on to maintain the same level of support.  And yet, since we are talking primarily of the reallocation of salaries, there is no reason to suppose that teaching loads need to increase or that research time would be lost.  Those on full-time research assignments could no, of course, earn a salary.  But they should not be supported out of tuition anyway.  And sabbaticals would have to be funded by each faculty member out of his earnings.  But those with small classes in arcane fields could, once again, be helped by a modest tax on high-enrollment courses.

            Those who stand for the sober purity of knowledge may object that such a system would make teaching a popularity contest.  Humorous lectures and generally easy grading could secure huge enrollments and corresponding salaries.  If economic considerations were introduced into the process of disseminating knowledge, professors would begin to act in a profit-maximizing way:  they would give students exactly what they want, instead of what scholarly discipline demands.  Moreover, the argument might continue, the academic world would soon be inundated with sophists prepared, for a goodly fee, to convey a facile account of the rudiments of any field.  These developments would spell disaster for the university as an institution devoted to the propagation of knowledge.

            This cluster of objections is altogether without merit.  There is, first of all, no danger of untrained outsiders flooding in.  My proposed change would leave the mechanics of hiring intact.  Access to teaching posts would continue to be controlled by departments employing criteria which include (but are not restricted to) professional qualifications.  It is simply unreasonable to suppose that qualified professionals would lose all respect for their field in their pursuit of financial rewards.  And even if a few of them did, the well-established procedures of control by department and dean would quickly control excesses.

            That leaves the matter of “playing to the galleries.”  Here I want to stress that a certain amount of humor and liveliness are positively desirable in a teacher.  We are not disembodied spokesmen for the truth; the high seriousness of learning need not – in fact, probably cannot – be conveyed by a dull solemnity in courses.  Animation in class, a continued relating of abstract knowledge to daily experience help make interest in the subject-matter contagious; when the professor yawns in class, what he shows is that not even he himself is infected.

            Finally, I do not think so poorly of students as to suppose that they are unable to tell a good teacher from a buffoon.  In fact, students have little patience with professors who are to chummy or who offer fun to take the place of facts.  Successful teachers are, typically, solid professionals, as well.  Students know whom to respect and who to laugh at; a funny show without substance may gain an audience but will garner no rewards.

            A system of incentives along the lines I have sketched would improve the quality of teaching almost at once.  No one has yet come forward with another workable plan to accomplish this.  Nevertheless, it is unlikely that my suggestion will be implemented.  The reason is as simple as it is distressing.  Teaching has become a comfortable occupation.  My plan would make teachers discard their old notes and get to work.  Students would no longer represent a trapped audience; they would begin to act as what they have always been – our employers.



                                                                                                John Lachs   

                                                                                                Vanderbilt University