Best Undergraduate Teaching?

June 24, 2010

[Updated below]

An Earlham faculty member notes on our faculty listserv that Earlham has been ranked #5 for “best undergraduate teaching” in U.S. News and World Report.

Here’s my response to the faculty:

I believe this assessment is totally deserved.  Full stop.

Nevertheless, I also believe we need to note that this comes out of the same unacceptable methodology that U.S. News uses for its general rankings.  They simply added a question or two to the peer survey they send to Presidents, chief academic officers and academic  deans asking about “commitment to undergraduate teaching.”  Each respondent could name up to 10 institutions.
(See: http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/best-colleges/2009/08/19/methodology-best-undergrad-teaching.html)

Greg [Mahler, Academic Dean], Jeff [Rickey, Admissions Dean] and I decline to participate in the peer survey.  Why?  Because honestly none of us has any serious ability to rate what is happening at hundreds of other institutions.

I’m glad we did well in this respect, that we have a reputation for great teaching.  But if we didn’t do well in this survey, it wouldn’t budge my confidence in our commitment to and delivery of great teaching one wit.

And I’m sure [our faculty] would agree that the real focus should be on whether our students are learning.  There’s nothing in the U.S. News methodology that speaks to that.

Nothing.

UPDATE.  Bob Johnstone, now an emeritus professor of politics and a simply terrific teacher responds to my note to the faculty:  “I am, frankly, appalled that our chief institutional officers do not command a firm and detailed grasp of the conditions, circumstances, achievements, and flaws of hundreds of other institutions of higher education.  If this word gets out, where on earth will we stand vis-a-vis our competitor institutions which, by the measure of U.S. News & World Report Survey participation, seem to be in command of all of the above.  It is clear to me that, even in the teeth of hiring
freezes, we must give serious consideration to creating an Office of OtherLiberal Arts Hype  (acronym: OO-LA-LAH), with a new Vice President in charge, of course, to keep abreast of these things.”

UPDATE 2:  Another faculty member writes “With your assessment of these rankings I believe you make the perfect the enemy of the good.  As a research psychologist I am well aware of the methodological flaws of the rankings.  It seems to me that they are not truly rating excellent undergraduate teaching BUT they may be providing a reasonable measure of ***reputation*** of excellence of undergraduate teaching. The fact that these are two different constructs does not make the latter construct a meaningless one.  If, as you suggest might happen,a later ranking came out showing we had slipped, I would certainly find it important to discuss why our reputation for excellent teaching had a downward trajectory and whether there was any validity in our dropping reputation.”

Yes, but I think we have to ask whether there is ***any*** solid basis to the assessments of reputation that are gathered by USN&WR.  I simply don’t.  Most presidents, provosts and admissions deans of institutions of higher education know virtually nothing substantial about what is happening in teaching and learning at other institutions.  Speaking just for myself, I know ***something*** about teaching and learning at Earlham, at Swarthmore, where my son recently graduated, and at Haverford, where I served on the Board of Managers.  But I have a straightforward conflict of interest in assessing these institutions in comparison with others.  And with regard to the hundreds of others USN&WR asks me to assess, I know essentially nothing.  So I don’t fill out the reputational survey, and I don’t know why the officers of other colleges believe they can participate in a professionally responsible way.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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