In defense of University faculty

Larisa Manescu

In his State of the University Address last week, President William Powers Jr. made a variety of remarks concerning how to not only preserve but also improve our position as a top public research university. Proposals to increase efficiency included the use of technology to restructure curriculum and an investment of $50 million over five years to significantly raise four-year graduation rates, from 51 percent to 70 percent. But the foundation of his speech, his core message, was clear: the importance of supporting UT professors cannot be overstated.

Our success as a university stems from our professors; essentially, they are the fountains of our education. And Powers is correct in his emphasis on hiring the best of the best.

UT’s first priority is to preserve the quality of teaching to create an intellectual dialogue between professors and students. We must ensure that professors share the results of their research with their students. Their purpose is to spread new knowledge, not to become distracted by their personal research and carelessly present an unsubstantial PowerPoint in class.

However, we cannot expect to simultaneously reduce research budgets and retain the most educated and influential faculty.

We are not a factory line. We don’t attend class to be faced with mediocre lessons from unexceptional instructors. Despite the University’s large undergraduate population of almost 40,000, one shouldn’t feel like a number here. This type of individualized attention begins in the classroom. It’s not a matter of the student-to-professor ratio in classes; it’s a matter of office-hour availability, passionate lectures and evident preparation for classes. As Powers mentioned, this type of faculty is maintained by selective hiring and also by offering professors the means and resources for their own projects of research, whatever their subjects.

Critics of Powers’ address believe that Powers is resistant to change. They argue that he’s stuck on defending the faculty from previous attacks, such as Rick O’Donnell’s report on the low productivity of UT professors, and is less enthusiastic about more progressive measures. But what better measure is there to focus on than investing in the faculty? O’Donnell’s report illustrated a picture of a wasteful faculty, one filled with inefficient “dodgers” and “coasters” who bring in less money than the University spends to maintain them. Furthermore, O’Donnell suggested that the University should focus on teaching over research.

However, teaching and research are not mutually exclusive; they travel together. Professors use their personal research to frame their teachings, in turn improving the quality of our education. If research projects, enjoyed and employed by a heavy majority of professors at UT, were cut down, teaching would also be affected.

The debate over higher education, which drove the message of Powers’ address, comes down to a trade-off between quality and efficiency. Powers made admirable statements about the University’s purpose as a powerful research university, including that cheaper labor, mass-produced degrees and huge classes have not historically been and should not become the school’s future.

Obviously, everyone wants to receive the best education available at the lowest possible cost. But we must recognize that our University needs to uphold its prestige. Ultimately, quality is more important than productivity. Not every single issue can be tackled at the same time. And when determining what’s important for the University’s improvement, focusing on our faculty cannot be cast to the side. In Powers’ words, “very little gets done by spreading ourselves too thin”.

Manescu is an international relations and journalism freshman.