How Important is Teaching in a Modern University?

In his book The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr mentioned several times that the modern university- or muti-versity as he calls it- places more emphasis on research over teaching:


(p6)“Teaching is less central than it once was for faculty members; research has become more important. This has given rise to what has been called the ‘nonteacher’-’the higher a man’s standing, the less he has to do with students.’ and to a threefold class structure of what used to be ‘the faculty’: those who only do research, those who only teach, (and they are largely in an auxiliary role), and those who will do some of both. In one university I know, the proportions at the PhD level or its equivalent are roughly one researcher to two teachers to four who do both.”


(p32) “It [UCLA] will soon have 100,000 students- 30,000 of them at the graduate level; yet much less than one third of expenditures are directly related to teaching. ” (p68) The mark of the university ‘on the make’ is a mad scramble for football stars and professional luminaires. The former do little studying and the latter little teaching, and so they form a neat combination of muscle and intellect.”


(p78) “If the faculty looks on itself as a guild, the undergraduate students are coming to look upon themselves as a ‘class’’; some may even feel like a ‘lumpen proletariat. Lack of faculty concern for teaching, endless rules and requirements, and impersonality are the inciting causes.’”


(p79) “Student pressures for better undergraduate instruction may be supplemented by the complaints of parents, who think their children are being sacrificed on the altar of research. Also, the public at large, whose attention has been riveted on the elementary and secondary schools as the ‘population bulge’ has affected them, may now turn its attention increasingly to the university level when the ‘bulge’ reaches there. Generally the public is more interested in quality of instruction than in quantity of research. The spotlight which the universities have helped turn on the teaching of others at lower levels may now be turned on their own. ”


(p83) “Teaching loads will be competitively reduced, sometimes to zero, although more teachers are needed and students are complaining about lack of attention. ”


(p85) “The balance is not equal treatment, the provision of equal time in some mechanical and eternal way between teaching and research.”


Clark Kerr is obviously concerned about the deterioration of the quality and quantity of teaching in modern universities in his book. What are your opinions on this issue? What do you think about the quality of instruction of the universities you have attended? Do you think the same thing as Clark Kerr mentioned in his book written in the 1960s is still jeopardizing and plaquing the modern university today? If you are the president of a university, who is supposed to be a “supergiant” balancing various aspects of the university, how would you balance the contradictories among research, teaching, administration, and public engagement? What kind of status should teaching have in a modern university- or multi-veristy, where external factors such as industry, society, government, and internal factors such as research, administration, and student development all exercise great impact on the university? And if teaching should indeed be improved and given more attention, what do you think are some of the measures that could be taken to achieve this purpose, from a policy level, the instruction level, the administration level, and from the students’ level?

5 thoughts on “How Important is Teaching in a Modern University?

  1. Jing I noted some of the same passages you did! I’m afraid much of my reading was influenced by the criticisms of Kerr during the Free Speech Movement, happening at the same time as the publication of this book, including Mario Savio’s

    It is significant that the President of the University of California should be the foremost ideologist of this “Brave New World” conception of education. President Clark Kerr dreamed up the frightening metaphors: “the knowledge industry,” “the multiversity,” which has as many faces as it has publics, be they industries of various kinds, or the Federal Government, especially the Pentagon and the AEC. He also invented the title “the captain of bureaucracy,” which he is, by analogy with earlier captains of industry. He is the person directly charged with steering the mighty ship along the often perilous course of service to its many publics in government and industry. Not to the public, but to its many publics, the Kerrian whore is unlawfully joined.

    and this better known quotation from a student protest

    ”There is a time,” he said, ”when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

    I went into the reading biased against Kerr, and the two chapters did nothing to challenge my distaste. To me it read as a big “It’s so hard to be a university chancellor, wah!” He resents the faculty and the students and tries to pit them against one another.

    The university president in the United States is expected to be a friend to the students, a colleague to the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees, a good speaker with the public, an astute bargainer with the foundations and the federal agencies, a politician with the state legislature, a friend of industry, labor, and agriculture, a persuasive diplomat with donors, a champion of education generally, a supporter of the professions (particularly law and medicine), a spokesman to the press, a scholar in his own right, a public servant at the state and national levels, a devotee of opera and football equally, a decent human being, a good husband and father, an active member of the church.” (p. 22)

    and three pages later, “But the day of the monarchs has passed.”

    I do agree that the roles of the president are multiple, contradictory, and difficult, but suck it up, Mr. President, you’re getting big bucks and high prestige to do it.

    Personal rant aside, I was struck by how much of Kerr’s concerns are the same today, especially regarding STEM and professional education vs. humanities and social sciences. Kerr quotes Newman that university training “aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles…” (emphases added by me) p.3 That sounds creepy to me, reifying European canonical thoughts and mores. He writes himself farther down the page that “Science was beginning to take the place of moral philosophy” and as you noted “research the place of teaching.”

    I work at a liberal arts college that while independent is affiliated with a university, and professors at my college must go through the tenure process twice, once at the college, where teaching undergraduates is meant to be a high priority, and again at the university, where one’s CV is expected to be of the highest possible caliber.

    I see STEM fields increasingly emphasized and rewarded. I myself have my undergrad in theater and a professional master’s degree, so it’s possible I’m defensive about STEM being seen as the most valid undergraduate program and professional degrees seen as too workaday.

    Responding to your question about teaching, I think, as you ask, success is hard to measure. Teaching evaluations are gender biased, and ineffective. Many professors resent being assessed at all.

    • I don’t know what the answer to that problem is because faculty should be accountable to students, but otoh this quote cracked me up:

      Jefferson tried a system of student self-gov’t in the 1920s but quickly abandoned it when all the profs tendered their resignations.

      At last, my tl;dr is that everything is the same, and Clark Kerr was a ranty baby who rhapsodized olden days of higher ed in other countries, even if he was a decent guy when it came to defending people who refused to sign loyalty oaths.

  2. Thanks Jing for providing questions and Jenna for adding criticisms of Kerr – reading Mario Savio was helpful in understanding the context better.

    While reading Kerr’s chapters, I was struck by the idea of “the knowledge industry” (production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge) not only as “we” are part of them, but also because, in Kerr’s argument, knowledge industry is like the development of railroads or automobiles, in other ways, technological developments that were central forces of changing society (p.66). Kerr argues it in the chapter 3 titled as “The Future of the City of Intellect,” and that “future,” I guess, is our present—knowledge economy/information technology as leading forces of society. In this context, where “human capital” or “human resources” have come into our everyday language, how will/should teaching be? As Jenna (and as theatre major student), I see problems but it’s hard to provide solutions. Then, what can “we” as individual teachers do (as opposed to systematic change)?

    While reading Jenna’s comments and suggested links, I thought about the limits of academic knowledge production (in this case, the book). I think the criticism on Kerr’s administrative gestures is actually what Kerr himself pointed out in his book (as if he is not part of them?). They can be summarized as: the illusions of university as being radical and independent, but in reality it is conservative (supported by the guild mentality of the faculty) and governed by the external forces (federal, state government, industry, etc.). Kerr seems to propose a radical view, advocating the “uses” of education/university as democratizing axis of society, but he faces criticism of providing services to government and industry. How about other (public) intellectuals, radical in their thoughts, conservative in their real-life actions in terms of teaching and administration?

    • Kyueun I love that you brought up the “guild mentality.” I was thinking of Savio charging that to Kerr faculty were more or less factory workers, who each have a job (and maybe per Marx are isolated). When I think of guilds I think of skilled craftspeople, or in contemporary language “artisans.” That’s a way to frame professors as laborers that acknowledges that there is a long apprenticeship or training period that students themselves are now part of.

      I may have veered off topic there, but maybe the connection is that I’m trying to find an analogy other than “machine” to describe what is meant to happen in a university. This analogy isn’t exactly right either, because it doesn’t obviously address “life of the mind” majors. Even so, I’ve heard professors of every discipline refer to themselves as having been “trained” in their discipline. So maybe that’s how most people think of their academic experience. I don’t actually love that description, but I haven’t been through the rigors of a Ph.D. program! OTOH I wish my MLIS had involved some straight-up training!

  3. Greetings all and thanks for your sharing,

    Jing , my opinion about the quality of teaching might seem a little out of topic here, as for me the quality of teaching and learning are completely biaised by the fact that faculty are expected to dedicate more and more of their time to students while at the same time expected to be outstanding researchers.
    In fact, dedication to teaching or rather the quality of teaching is endangered by an element that seems banal at first sight: the teachers’ evaluation.
    Though my personal experience as both student and instructor might be insufficiant to jump into conclusions, I guess it might be an indication of if not a general malaise, at least my malaise.
    As a student, my first contact with an American university was in 2015, while taking a PHD course as a nonmatriculated student. The one think that shocked me was a question we as students had to answer in order to evaluate our professor. Specifically rating the overall teaching method of our lecturer. For sure, an argument could be that students(especially graduate students)are put in a collaborative position. But, when my lecturer spoke in an almost supplicative way to us before the evaluation in these terms : “it all depend on you if you want me to be there next semester…”, I realized in what stessful position he could have been while trying to give his best and knowing that at the end , probably people (students) arguably less knowledgeable in the field will have to evaluate his approach and dedication…
    As adjunct I have sometimes heard among colleagues sentences: you better try to do as much as They (students) want, otherwise they will give you a bad evaluation, or you better don’t do this or that, They don’t like it, etc.
    For sure, professor/ instructor evaluation might have had the purpose of helping lecturers to improve their teaching strategies through the students feedback, but that seems to me now – from my little experience – more like a customer service issue, where the student is the client – to be satisfied at all cost- and the instructor the vendor seeking to sell his product by all means.
    Viewed through the narrowed scope of teachers’ evaluation, what could be the place of knowlege and learning in the system if we have to consider other pressures as research, employment status and all the others pressures being put on lecturers?

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