“World’s Finest Education”: That’s an approximation of the slogan from my now former university. It’s also one of the main reasons why I left my position there.
I’ve spent my career as a clinical scientist which means I’m board certified in a medical discipline and have taught/ conduct research in addition to my clinical work. But the ratio of those academic pieces has always been extremely skewed with 90% or more of my time devoted to clinical cases. That’s when I saw the posting for my most recent job.
The position at a medium sized, state university was advertised as seeking a clinical expert to teach courses in a new, MS level graduate program. The experience sought was my exact area of clinical expertise and included 20% consulting time. It seemed like a great way to readjust my career to be more student focused without losing my clinical connection.
In retrospect, the warning flags are obvious even from the job ad. Candidates were asked to send the usual cover letter, CV, transcripts, and teaching philosophy, but there was no mention of a research statement. It was only after I applied and had conducted a phone interview that one was requested. Both the document I sent and my interview presentation focused on my work on science education/ informal communication for undergrad research projects. This seemed warmly received, with faculty after my talk proposing ideas like developing collaborations with local science museums.
The job began to come apart just weeks after I started. I was informed by our associate dean while standing in a parking lot that I needed to start a molecular biology research program for undergrads. This was with no personal lab space and no start-up research funds. I attempted to push-back, but it was clear that I had experienced a “bait and switch”.
The cornerstone of my former department’s undergraduate curriculum was a two semester “Research Initiative” beginning in the freshman spring semester. The initiative was billed as an opportunity for undergraduates to engage in “authentic” scientific research with a mentor focusing on “real world problems”. This initiative would allow them to experience the “thrill of discovery and problem solving” outside the traditional classroom. Students could then opt to continue their research through independent study into their junior and senior years.
This could have been a fantastic opportunity to engage students in their own learning through research, but the reality of the initiative was very different.
As with formal courses, the university handled scheduling of Research Initiative sections. Unfortunately, they refused to take into account conflicting freshman/sophomore class requirements. During my last semester, all of my Research Initiative students had conflicts with other courses during our scheduled day/time. When I brought these conflicts to administrative attention, I was told that it was the instructor’s responsibility to find alternatives.
Instructors were required to have a minimum of six students enrolled in their Research Initiative sections or they were threatened with having them cancelled.
From experience, up to two thirds of students from a Research Initiative section would move forward into independent research. The means that each year instructors were required to mentor more and more undergraduate researchers. This constant influx of students forced instructors to in constantly be developing more project ideas, writing more IRB protocols, and begging for more money (there was no time for grant writing). Looking ahead to my fourth year at the school, I could expect to be mentoring at least six freshmen in my Research Initiative section and twelve undergrads at various levels through independent research.
In reality I only lasted for two and a half years. When I left, I had ten Research Initiative undergrads, eight independent research students, and nineteen Master’s level projects I had specifically been hired to coordinate.
The research curriculum was unsustainable.
My fellow research mentors were overwhelmed and exhausted. Because of the registration requirements and the ever-increasing number of independent students, project ideas were driven by the sheer number of bodies we needed to accommodate, not faculty interest or scientific questions. Limited resources, lab supplies, and equipment meant that many research sections were reduced to rudimentary group projects. This wasnot authentic research.
When these issues were brought to administration, their sole solution was a promise to hire more adjunct faculty. They explained that this would fix the problem and that current instructors “would be fine”.
During my time at the university, I watched as they developed the “World’s Finest Education” slogan as a university brand. It was prominently displayed on the school’s webpage, printed onto promotional handouts, and stamped onto frisbees, water bottles, and anything else they could press into the hands of perspective students. During my last round of student recruitment, I started to regret my role in the process.
I felt like an enabler and it made me feel guilty.
There was little reality in the pitch that I was hearing from the school, and my face and my accomplishments despite overwhelming administrative neglect were being used to hide that reality.
Education was just bait. It wasn’t “World’s Finest” anything.
I literally never heard anyone address the quality of the education we were providing or ways we could improve it. The faculty were too exhausted and administration didn’t care. Students told me stories of pervasive cheating in science courses, of faculty not showing up for classes for over a month, of homophobia and misogyny, and simply not being treated like human beings. As someone who had spent a career developing my skills as an educator, it was demoralizing and depressing.
My exit from the university was completely unceremonious. I gave three months notice when I resigned so that I could finish out the current semester for my students and to make sure replacement instructors could be found for my next semester courses. During those three months, my resignation was never acknowledged by the administration. No announcement in a faculty meeting. Not even a brief email.
I didn’t even have an exit interview.
World’s Finest Indeed.
Well expressed Rob. Sadly, these “unfunded mandates” universities are demanding of their faculty are a death knell to science and research. I wish you well my friend. 😉