From Dean Nordt

In this Dean’s Letter, I’d like to discuss an important subject — the vigorous support for undergraduate education at Baylor University. As you may have heard, Baylor aspires to become a nationally recognized research institution — while an institution that at the same time retains its strong focus on undergraduate education and commitment to a truly unique Christian mission.

Dean Nordt

The second pillar of Baylor’s strategic plan, Illuminate, calls for “Transformational Undergraduate Education.” It demands that we continue to value the importance of undergraduate education and promote it even further. The College of Arts & Sciences takes undergraduate education very seriously — so seriously that in our own A&S five-year strategic plan, the goals and action steps for that pillar are more detailed than any other.

Illuminate expects that Baylor will be recognized nationally as one of the very few research institutions that still demands excellence in the classroom. Some question whether this combination is possible. I contend that it is, and I’m devoting this letter to a review of the major investment the College of Arts & Sciences and Baylor itself are making in undergraduate education.

The number of services and opportunities provided to our students today is much greater than ever before, and many more of our tuition dollars are invested into undergraduate services than they were when our alumni might have studied here.

Faculty expectations

Here are just a few examples of the excellence we expect from our faculty in the classroom: A faculty member’s annual performance evaluation is dependent in large part on teaching performance in the classroom. Faculty on tenure track must score well on annual teaching evaluations by students and by assessments from faculty peers to be granted tenure. Prospective faculty candidates must show an understanding and passion for teaching to be seriously considered.

More and more of our undergraduate teaching is done outside of the traditional classroom, which may include faculty and students working together on research projects and publications, faculty preparing students for competitive national scholarships, faculty leading study abroad programs (about 40 last year) and mission trips, and students and faculty cooperating on community service projects.

To engage our undergraduates in research, the College sponsors a number of popular groups and programs, including BURST (our student organization for those interested in research), B-TRUE (a sponsored summer research experience for undergraduates), internships at the National School of Tropical Medicine Summer Institute at Baylor College of Medicine, the Hillis Scholars program (providing scholarships, internships and research opportunities for pre-health majors), Science Research Fellows (a new major), and Scholar’s Week where students formally present their research on campus.

Arts & Sciences undergraduates also write, edit and publish an annual research journal called Scientia devoted to the sciences and the journal The Phoenix devoted to the humanities. I am always surprised at how many such learning and service activities are sponsored by our tenure track faculty. They take it very seriously — in fact, sometimes we worry they are doing too much. I just reviewed a tenure portfolio of a tenure-track faculty member with 38 undergraduate students working in their research lab!

Investment of resources

Some years ago we appointed undergraduate program directors to each of our 25 academic departments to help with class scheduling, advising and mentoring. That costs a lot to implement, but it is a priority for us. We’ve tripled the number of staff in our Office of Prehealth Studies to help prehealth students prepare for their professional careers. We’ve increased the number of staff in student publications by 40 percent to prepare the next generation of journalists. We’ve also added an advisor for pre-law students, and our Arts & Sciences professional undergraduate advising staff (CASA) has grown over the past 10 years providing excellent care for students in their first year at Baylor and towards a successful graduation.

Baylor’s Academy of Teaching and Learning (ATL) advances the pedagogical skills of our faculty, and the number of activities the Academy has sponsored has increased by 250 percent since 2012. Faculty Teaching Fellows receive stipends from ATL each year to allow them to develop pedagogical methods and topical themes across campus.

Proactive approach

With change comes challenges, and being proactive is critical to the continued success of our research and teaching aspirations. For example, we’ve hired a number of non-tenured lecturers across Arts & Sciences to meet our teaching needs from the explosive growth in the undergraduate student population in recent years. The upside of lecturers, however, is that they are some of our best teachers. Many are also scholars who bring their research into the classroom, and four of the past five recipients of Baylor’s Collins Outstanding Professor Award have been A&S lecturers!

And while our tenure track faculty today might teach fewer courses per semester, that time is used to support their scholarship that helps them become more informed teachers. For example, the last three Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year winners from Arts & Sciences are known for their excellence at both scholarship and teaching.

In practice, the lines between good teaching and good research become blurred, as they should — one strength complements the other, and one will never be done at the expense of the other at Baylor.

What the rankings say

Another way to look at undergraduate education is by recognizing that the best students nationwide are attracted to attend R1 institutions — those with the highest research profile. For example, of the top 50 ranked institutions in U.S. News & World Report’s (USNWR) college rankings last year, 46 of them were R1 institutions based on metrics that are largely undergraduate-based. We want to become an institution invited to participate in national conversations helping to solve the grand challenges of society through research, while at the same time being known as an excellent undergraduate institution.

Speaking of the latest US News rankings, Baylor was 20th in the country in the category of “Best Undergraduate Teaching” — ahead of all other Big 12 universities as well as many prestigious schools including Harvard, MIT, CalTech, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Virginia and the University of Chicago.

On a final note, I can remember being on tenure track with a two-course-per-semester teaching load (50 percent research and 50 percent teaching), and not getting my research done because I was spending 75 percent of my time on teaching, which was supposed to occupy only half of my time. The research kept getting kicked down the road to next weekend, the end of the month, to the next holiday or to the summer, and so on. This is not an uncommon experience for tenured and tenure-track faculty. Juggling both can be challenging jobs, but their passion for both teaching and research is what motivates our faculty to a higher level of excellence here at Baylor.

My ultimate point is that we have great faculty dedicated to educating the next generation of students, who go on from here to make significant contributions to the betterment of society around the world. I am committed to promoting quality undergraduate education and excellence in research, two sides of the same coin.