The Waco Tribune-Herald: Baylor learns to balance research, teaching through controversial 2012 plan

May 9, 2012

Baylor 2012: A Decade of Change by the Waco Tribune-HeraldArticle reprinted with the permission of The Waco Tribune-Herald.


Wednesday May 9, 2012

This is the fourth of a six-part series examining the successes and failures of Baylor University's 10-year growth and visioning plan known as Baylor 2012.

Baylor University's push to increase its research activity was not only a hallmark of its Baylor 2012 plan but also one of its most controversial components.

Some professors worried the new emphasis would promote a "publish or perish" environment that would diminish Baylor's legacy of teaching excellence. They also feared the creation of a caste system in which older faculty who wanted to focus on teaching would be snubbed in favor of younger, research-oriented professors.

Fast-forward a decade later, though, and Baylor's faculty seems generally pleased with how the school has balanced research and teaching. Though some point to minor trade-offs, most who were interviewed concede no catastrophe occurred.

"It's worked better than many of us feared it would," said neuroscience professor Charles Weaver, who was vocal in expressing concern about the 10-year plan early on. "The people who continue to get the big salary increases, promote early are the stellar researchers. At the same time, people who have contributed for decades to the academic community by outstanding teaching, I think (administrators) recognize the value they have."

Tension about the research component exploded in 2003, as professors and other Baylor constituents drew attention to the two faculty "profiles" created as a result of the vision plan. Faculty who began teaching at Baylor before August 1991 could choose either the "A" or "B" profile. Those who arrived after that date were put automatically into the "B" group.

The distinction was that "A" faculty would receive pay raises based on their teaching skills and service and were not expected to publish regularly.

The "B" faculty, meanwhile, were expected to publish regularly in exchange for a lighter teaching load.

Administrators said the system was implemented to ease fears about longtime professors being penalized. But some within the Baylor community thought the profiles created needless division. Weaver, for example, would quip that "A" faculty were so valued, Baylor never wanted to hire such a professor ever again.

The turmoil was evident in the results of a faculty survey released in the summer of 2003.

Less than one-third of tenured professors expressed confidence in Baylor's direction, with some saying they felt their contributions were no longer valued.

Some in the "B" profile, meanwhile, said they worried that openly supporting Baylor 2012 would cause senior colleagues to retaliate against them during promotion and tenure reviews.

Not long after, in fall 2003, administrators scrapped the system.

History professor Jeffrey Hamilton groaned when asked about the profile system recently, joking that he had repressed his memory of it. His main concern about Baylor 2012 was it could split the faculty and erode collegiality. The profile system only stoked those fears, he said.

But thankfully, Hamilton said, that's not how things have turned out, at least in his department. Some faculty teach more, while others research more. But all professors remain invested in undergraduates, with everyone teaching at least one introductory class per semester, he said.

"I think we've steered through it as well as it could have been hoped," said Hamilton, who has been at Baylor for 16 years and is department chair. "I would at least like to think all the faculty are equal colleagues within the department."

Class size has not suffered, he said. Even introductory courses top out at 35 students.

Students continue to have great access to professors, Hamilton said. Faculty must still keep "office hours" during which they are available to students -- at least one hour for every hour they are in class each week.

Small concessions

A few minor trade-offs resulted from the research drive, Hamilton said. Faculty aren't in their offices as much on days when they don't teach, which can have a slight effect on collegiality.

Also, the use of lecturers increased, Hamilton said. More than 50 percent of the history department's survey classes, for example, are now taught by lecturers. But even so, Hamilton said he doesn't think there is much cause for concern. The department is still primarily staffed by tenured faculty -- 20 professors versus five full-time lecturers, he said.

Plus, the lecturers all have doctorate degrees and are salaried with full benefits, Hamilton said.

That's a better arrangement than the university hiring only adjunct, or part-time, faculty to handle the teaching load, he said.

"There have been some compromises that have had to be made," Hamilton said. "But I don't think we've really given up a whole lot."

Greg Benesh, chairman of Baylor's physics department and a 30-year faculty member, had a unique view into the early controversy.

He became the university's first-ever faculty ombudsman in 2003, a position that made him a mediator in disputes involving faculty and administrators.

Benesh said he thought Baylor needed to step up its research activity, but he understood others' concerns about how Baylor 2012 might affect teaching or faculty who weren't research oriented.

Opinions about the vision plan remain varied, Benesh said. Some professors feel it enhanced Baylor in ways such as cutting-edge research being brought into the classroom more frequently, he said.

Others point out that master teachers used to be campus "royalty," Benesh said. That's not as true anymore.

"We do extol researchers a lot," he said. "We do hear about those successes more than we do about excellent teachers."

Even so, Benesh doesn't think Baylor has abandoned its commitment to undergraduate education. In hiring new professors, for example, his department has turned down good researchers because their teaching skills weren't up to par, he said.

In the end, Benesh thinks the benefits of Baylor 2012 have been worth the accompanying balancing act. Without the strategic plan, Baylor probably would not have built a new $103 million sciences building.

It also likely would have lost ground in academic rankings, he said.

"You have to work hard to improve just to stand still in the rankings," Benesh said.

Research critical

Jeffrey Olafsen, an associate physics professor, also has been pleased by the results of the 10-year plan. People outside academia might think research is superfluous, he said. But it is critical for both professors and students, he noted, emphasizing that they work side by side on research.

"This isn't busywork. This isn't play," Olafsen said. "They are all working toward publishing in journals about work no one else has ever done. Going to class and just getting a degree isn't enough anymore. It isn't enough for the students, and it isn't enough for the programs."

Kevin Pinney, one of Baylor's most celebrated researchers, agreed.

He said he regards the time he spends in the lab with students as "a pure form of teaching."

"There isn't a paper to follow, a book to read, because you're writing it," said Pinney, who is working to develop compounds to kill cancerous tumors by cutting off their blood supply.

Weaver, the neuroscience professor, said one thing that improved his outlook on Baylor 2012 is that administrators made a concerted effort to emphasize teaching excellence in recent years. It has gone beyond lip service, he said, with developments such as the Academy for Teaching and Learning, which was established in 2008.

Improving teaching

Baylor was the only Big 12 Conference school without such a center, which has numerous programs aimed at helping faculty improve their teaching skills.

Though Baylor had some such initiatives previously, the academy coordinated and expanded them.

Higher education professor Laine Scales, who pushed for the center, said one key area the academy provides guidance on is how faculty can integrate their research into their teaching. On the flip side, the center can help faculty identify curriculum areas that might make for a good research project, she said.

"If you're strategic and intentional, you can make it all come together rather than getting pulled in all different directions," said Scales, associate dean of graduate and professional studies.

Provost Elizabeth Davis, who is Baylor's top academic official, said she is glad to hear administrators are doing a better job of communicating the importance of teaching. It has always been valued, she said, but that message may have gotten lost sometimes as the university became more aggressive about research.

The reality is that learning occurs in many settings, Davis said. Students gain important knowledge not only in the classroom and laboratory but also through experiences such as internships and discipline-specific mission trips.

"It's thinking about it in terms of the learning experience, instead of just the teaching experience," Davis said. "The scholarship needs to be thought of as part of the educational experience."

Read other Waco Tribune-Herald stories on Baylor 2012.

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