Higher Ed’s Big Lie: Academic Excellence

It seems there isn’t a university administrator anywhere, and most faculty too, who claim the mantle of “academic excellence.” What is “academic excellence?” The words typically connote the span of university activities related to the degree programs, scholarship, learning, and teaching. It is common to read how funding must be preserved or increased to maintain or improve “academic excellence.” Claims of “academic excellence” vary according to the topic under discussion*. For degree programs, it is accreditation. For scholarship, it is publication in peer-reviewed journals. For learning, it is graduation rates and post-graduation employment. For teaching, it is…. mostly nothing. Academic excellence in the context of teaching is often unsubstantiated. If it is substantiated, it is typically based on unscientific, misleading, or inaccurate survey data.

The term “academic excellence” is a synonym for “bugger off:”

  • Our degree programs are accredited, so bugger off.
  • Faculty and student research is published in peer-reviewed journals, so bugger off.
  • Our graduation rate and post-graduation employment numbers are in line with peer universities, so bugger off.
  • Accreditation, research publications, graduation rates, and post-graduation employment prove that teaching is good, so bugger off.

The principal purpose of the term “academic excellence” is to fend off criticism from outsiders, keep external stakeholders in the dark, and to avoid doing the hard work of improving academic and administrative processes across the university. The term “academic excellence” is used to maintain the status quo, and continues to successfully deflect criticism despite the need for change – especially when it comes to teaching. Teaching remains, by far, the weakest element of the enterprise and the most in need of improvement.

Generally, if a university president considers something important, then others will view it to be important as well. How many university presidents consistently emphasize the importance of continuously improving teaching? How many university presidents follow up their nice words with personal actions such as meeting faculty in their office to encourage ever-better teaching, thank individual faculty for their good teaching with handwritten notes, and motivate poor teachers to do better?

While most university presidents advocate for good teaching, the method for improvement is left up to individual faculty and thus leads to variable results. There are no institutionally agreed-upon methods for continuous improvement. Teaching is core to a university’s mission, and to the satisfaction of students, payers, employers, and others. How can the improvement methods, and the results, be left to chance?

Let’s looks some facts that represent the teaching situation at most, but not all, universities where research contributions are required of the faculty:

  • Most faculty are not trained how to teach. Therefore, they teach the way they were taught. As students, we found most faculty to be average or below average teachers. Fortunately, a few of the 40 or so professors that undergraduates would come into contact over 4 years good. Typically, this means 3 or 4 professors, or about 10 percent of the total.
  • Most faculty do little or no experimentation in their teaching. They may do some experimentation early in their career, but few do experiments throughout their career. They settle on methods that to them appear to work best, but which their students likely view as poor.
  • Most faculty do not share their teaching methods with other faculty in any great detail. So, they do not subject themselves to criticism that leads to improvement and remain unaware of what the professor in the office next to them does.
  • In most universities, teaching counts for relatively little in faculty evaluation. There remains an illogical line of thinking that says because one has a terminal degree, they know how to teach. The reward for experimenting and improving one’s teaching is nil, so most faculty don’t bother.
  • Faculty will immerse themselves in the literature of their discipline, but will be largely uninformed about which pedagogies are more or less effective.
  • Faculty talk of “continuous improvement” yet they do not actually use the methods and tools of continuous improvement (rooted in industrial engineering). Routine changes to courses and programs, while necessary, are accepted as evidence of comprehensive continuous improvement activity.
  • From academics’ perspective, the answer to any of their problems is “more money.” They spend money instead of spending ideas. They should spend ideas instead of spending money.
  • For the last 8 years or so, university leaders have been more focused on enrollment numbers and admission of out-of-state students to improve the financial condition of the institution than teaching.
  • As far as I can tell, no university president knows of or can name the top 5 teachers in each school (business, engineering, nursing, etc.). Nor do they know specifically the reasons why each person is a good teacher.

Data that I have collected in recent years (see it here, here, here, and here) informs me that “academic excellence” is weak when it comes to teaching, and not nearly as strong as people think in other areas. Rather than confront the poor quality of as basic a human activity as teaching, university leaders prefer to run from it and instead adopt expensive technological or other solutions. Top administrators are too quick to spend money and thus increase the cost of higher education.

Instead, top administrators should recognize teaching as a process and, like any process, it can be continuously improved. The way to do that is by using a proven, low cost/no-cost method. That method is kaizen.

* It is challenging to associate degree programs with “academic excellence” when, in most cases, courses are disconnected from one another and sometimes even repetitive in bad ways. The same is true for accreditation, as this process allows even weak academic programs to be accredited. The focus of peer-reviewed publications is quantity, not quality. And graduation rates and post-graduation employment metrics are easily gamed. And, of course, reputation is not a reliable proxy for academic excellence. These, therefore, compromise overall claims of “academic excellence.”

12 thoughts on “Higher Ed’s Big Lie: Academic Excellence

  1. Jay Bitsack

    Hi Bob,
    Let’s ask the question… What’s the purpose of education? Is it – in its fullest most rich context – to prepare human beings in ways that will maximize their contribution potential/capacity to the society/societies of which they are a member… the pinnacle of which is the global human society? Or is it much more banal in terms of simply attempting to provide individuals with a greater overall capacity to achieve a better “fit” within society? After all, given how much time, effort, and resources a society spends on fulfilling/realizing the primary purpose underlying its system of education, one would have to believe that such a question is paramount to determining/measuring the value-added that’s being realized.

    Also, let’s NOT limit the THINKING to just education as it’s typically understood at the higher levels. Possibly more importantly, the notion of academic (aka learning) excellence is germane at every level throughout the entire system. Additionally, there is the need to clarify the terminology in play in this discussion. How so, you might ask? Well, let’s begin by asking whether or not there’s any difference between academic, educational, and teaching excellence? And where does the notion of “learning” come into play within the overall discussion? Is it possible to have any the prior stated forms of excellence without any “learning” taking place?

    Certainly, leaning is a key “output/result/deliverable” of the academic/educational/teaching process. But that begs the question as to what constitutes a superior learning experience? Could that be a question that needs to be asked of the target “CUSTOMER” and factored into the dialogue?

    In the context of all these questions, I would contend that there should be NO DIFFERENCE between the desired/targeted outcomes of academic/educational/teaching excellence. ALL should be focused on providing a recipient with a superior quality (ala the Taguchi Loss Function and the notion of ROBUST DESIGN) LEARNING experience. And at the heart of that superior LEARNING experience is the transfer and/or creation of superior THINKING and BEHAVING competencies and capabilities, of the sort that would carry a HIGH VALUE-ADDING POTENTIAL regardless of whatever socio-economically productive arena they might be applied in.

  2. Jay Bitsack

    Hi Bob,
    As a continuation of my above posting… when it comes to the to quality/caliber of the output of any academic/educational/teaching process and/or system as being measured number and type of programs offered, the number and type of degrees conferred, the number of program graduates and the types of jobs obtained after graduation, the pay level graduates obtain at the job market entry level, the number of PhDs in tenured positions, or the number of publications per department per year and what journals they appear in… ALL of these sorts of operational/performance excellence metrics are SUPERFICIAL in nature (i.e., they lack any REAL/SUBSTANTIVE connection to the REAL [HIGHER-ORDER} PURPOSE) and are of little relevance when it comes to achieving/realizing/fulfilling the REAL/TRUE ESSENCE of a SUPERIOR/HIGHER-ORDER academic/educational/teaching SYSTEM; one whose primary purpose is focused on designing, delivering, and continually adapting/evolving a superior/high-order LEARNING EXPERIENCE. And where the REAL [VALUE-ADDED] LEARNING EXPERIENCE is one which enables its recipient to NOT ONLY LEVERAGE EXISTING KNOWLEDGE in a set of inter-related domains of interest, but also to be able to CREATE/DISCOVER AND APPLY/LEVERAGE NEW KNOWLEDGE in and across those domains via the development of superior competencies and capabilities related to analyzing/understanding the world we live in and synthesizing the inputs from that world into new (and better) ways of viewing and interacting with it.

    [Note: In this regard, I’d like to suggest that an very APPROPRIATE and MEANINGFUL metric for determining superior/higher-order academic/educational/teaching processes and systems would be found in their ability to convey/instill and maximize recipients’ D.S.R.P.-THINKING (ala Dr. Derek Cabrera) abilities their related THINKING AND BEHAVING competencies and capabilities. In so doing, the current emphasis/orientation that exists on promoting “REGURGITATIVE” skills and abilities could be shifted toward acquiring more socio-economically beneficial and sustainable competencies and capabilities.]

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      I agree, yet the fact that this has not yet happened shows that university leadership (and others) do not recognize these problems, and/or that correcting these problems seems to them to be insurmountable – so why bother?

      In my view, these are fundamental problems that speak to the core mission of higher education and which should not be ignored.

  3. Mark Graban

    This reminds me of every hospital thinking they are top decile or are somehow entitled to be. It’s not possible for every hospital or university to be “top.”

    But, they can all improve and perform far better than they are today.

    All hospitals can take action to reduce patient harm and death that’s caused by preventable error. That’s more important than their relative ranking against each other. As some say in healthcare, “Lean taught us to not be satisfied with being the creme of the crap.”

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      And may I also add that education presented as “excellent” when it is actually mediocre does harm to people, a) in the short-term as cost is high and value is low, and b) in the long-term but in ways that are less apparent and which generally blossom over time.

      As I have sown in my book Lean Teaching, there are at least 45 common preventable teaching errors that, if corrected, would greatly improve teaching. Yet I know of at least once case in which a university president reviewed the 45 teaching errors and thought it was no big deal. I fear that presidents with that attitude are the norm.

      1. Mark Graban

        I’d add, in healthcare, that many executives would not only say the 45 most common healthcare errors are “no big deal,” they’d make excuses for why they can’t possibly be any better and they’d blame the individuals who end up committing a predictable systemic error.

  4. Jay Bitsack

    Hi Bob,
    Based on numerous past and currently on-going conversations with my nephew regarding the state of the education arena – here in the US – I’ve developed the strongest impression that there are problems on both sides of the “learning” equation… that is, on the design and deliver [aka supply] side versus on the receive and apply [aka demand] side. You’ve covered the supply side in depth, and seemingly tend to focus most heavily there in terms of where both the blame for the under-performance and the responsibility for improvement should lie. My nephew, who has been recently degreed at the PhD level, has been teaching at the college level for at least the past decade. Over the course of his career, he indicates that he has only seen the prevailing attitude toward the “learning” process and “learning” motivation levels decline. What he indicates as the primary interest and concern for those attending his courses, is getting a high grade while doing as little work as possible. According to my nephew, most students in his classes only want to be presented with whatever bits of information they need to pass the exams. In other words, their primary focus is on “regugitative” thinking instead of critical and synthetic thinking.

    And from the perspective of managing the educational system, the school administrators seem very content to respond to the prevailing interests of their customers, and doing so while expending the least amount of resources possible… including faculty pay and tenure. That being the case, the critical question becomes where does or will the greatest impetus to change – ideally for the better – come from?

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      Yes, I see the same thing regarding students. I have focused on supply because that is controllable. We can correct what we do on the supply-side. Demand is more difficult to control, if not impossible. However, I feel there is much we can do in the application of Lean principles and practices to influence demand. Also, universities don’t explicitly compete on the quality of teaching and learning. It’s time that they do.

  5. RalfLippold

    Great write-up, and laying out current reality, Bob!

    It is true, claiming “academic excellence” is one thing, being a living example is another (despite the numbers in the global university rankings, which focus on other metrics or the necessary accreditation).

    So what is missing?

    Perhaps the right incentives within the “given” context taking into account the various “outside forces” that stakeholders around the university push onto the organization (e.g. curriculum, grads system, receiving funds due to number of students (here in Germany for example), perception of a PhD/Dr. in the outside-university world, etc.)?

    A university in a sense is like a large, distributed, and social behavior driven organization like a “normal” organization in the business world, yet with one big difference:

    the subjects who drive and create value are the same as the receivers (students), and both are part of the process at the same time.

    Any action in one department, or at the university president’s office may trigger a kind of new behavior, yet not in a consistent, or even ranging across different campuses format.

    Appropriate metrics that focus on cross-departmental academic teaching and learning, and knowledge accumulation and later use are certainly not in place, even though one can find “role models” of professors and teaching teams who are close to what we all would call “academic excellence”.

    In the German university academic community there has been an “excellence competition” #ExzellenzInitiative over the past decade almost in order to raise global awareness of (mainly) research activities of universities which also have a large impact on the teaching quality (in the mid- to long-term). Quite recently (last Friday) an expert commission has given its advice on how to commence this program in order to bring the best impact to society, and the universities. What seems like a support of top of the top research institutes and departments within the university landscape it opens an opportunity to adapt the teaching quality (and other administrative processes that are necessarily run at universities) to a higher set of goals and future vision which look today like a “moon shot”, and often unreachable today.

    First and most important, from my point of view (seen many different education institutions from the inside as a student, also in the U.S., and having worked with them on a professional basis) it is a need of transparency in almost real-time (at least not the year-long delayed numbers) of key quality performance indicators (KQPI). Starting such move certainly triggers the “immune system” of any organization and its people, and yet that “is life at its purest”. Being open enough to name these challenges, and together working on paths on not only overcoming these, but embracing them into “academic excellence” shall be future fruits of the most courageous university presidents and their leadership teams.

    John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davidson gave their book the title The Power of Pull – How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Thinks in Motion – we have to figure out together what the small & smart moves are, and perhaps even use a bit of system dynamics to understand more about the past, what got us stuck, and where to see the “cracks” that lead us and universities towards the ultimate goal of “academic excellence”.

    PS.: This has become a bit longer, especially as I am a wanderer between the worlds of lean, education, and system dynamics over the last decades (seen BMW scale a plant from scratch, and the local University of Technology Dresden rise from an unknown and -seen seen player on the edge to rise to more and more global visibility through outstanding research, now the teaching and improvement of the administrative processes shall follow suit)

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      It is always a challenge to make convert rhetoric useful to the university (e.g. for enrollment) into reality that is useful for students. When the gap between the two remains large for too long a time, reality catches up, people can see through it, and they will demand better. As you point out, incentives, real-time measures, transparency, etc., are all necessary going forward.


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