Is Teaching A Profession?

In a recent interview, “Teacher tenure has little to do with student achievement, economist says,” Washington Post reporter Max Ehrenfreund asked the following question of Jesse Rothstein, former Obama administration economist:

Eherenfreund: “Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter. So far, I’ve heard you say that there’s not a lot of evidence suggesting ways that that could be accomplished effectively. Is there one policy that we haven’t discussed?”

Rothstein: “We could double teachers’ salaries. I’m not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn’t even enter the conversation tells you something about what’s wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it’s just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They’re looking for easy answers, not hard answers.”

Higher pay reflects poor comprehension of the fundamental nature of the problem and a poor, albeit likely necessary, part of the overall solution to the problem.

A hallmark of professionalism is a lack of errors. People who make a lot of errors are not considered to be “professional.” Unfortunately, teachers make a lot of errors, as do business leaders. In addition, people who provide a service, teaching, must comprehend what students want. Likewise, managers must understand what employees want, often don’t and, as a result, marginalize their interests to a great degree. On these grounds, it is difficult to characterize either teaching or management as a profession.

The good news is that the errors that teachers (and managers) make are easy to identify, and, If necessary, their root causes can be determined. This paves the way for identifying practical countermeasures to prevent errors from recurring. Teaching becomes a profession when this becomes part of one’s daily routine.

Better Than Shared Governanace

Faculty and faculty labor unions (AAUP) have a loud voice when it comes to shared governance: it’s importance, the good it has done, threats to shared governance such as the rising use of adjuncts and corporate management style, and so on. They argue for stasis of a concept that has evolved over time and continues to evolve, whether one likes it or not.

The main arguments for faculty influence in institutional decision-making include:

  • Assure that the future purpose of higher education remains at it has been in the past
  • To safeguard academic values and sound decision-making in academic matters
  • To assure academic rigor and the quality of higher education
  • To perpetuate the mission and benefits of liberal arts education
  • To maintain global preeminence of American universities

Conversely, erosion of shared governance de-professionalizes faculty and puts American higher education at risk of decline and the loss of its globally preeminent position.

Yet, the preeminence of American universities is due to numerous factors, shared governance being just one. Professionalization corresponds with work in which few errors are made. As teaching is the primary role of faculty, we know that most faculty make many recurring teaching errors. Quality in teaching and teaching materials is not as high as it appears to be. Global preeminence will not continue if the preferred solution to change is one practice that seems to have served varied interests well in the past.

The typical arguments used to defend of shared governance represent the failure of shared governance. Its advocates fail to recognize changes in public and private attitudes about higher education, global competition, resource constraints, new teaching pedagogies and technologies, and the power struggles that ensue.

I believe shared governance has extended its each far beyond where it does the most good. The Lean thinker would ask: “Is shared governance necessary for everything, or for some things?” In We Can Do It!, I wrote that of the 30 or more committees on a typical university campus, faculty need to be involved in only a handful: particularly those related to the product – curriculum and graduate studies – and the people – promotion and tenure – and forego much of the rest. Let the administrators earn their high salaries. They can tap individual faculty for guidance as-needed.

In most cases, faculty have experienced amateur-levels of leadership in senior administration. By amateur, I mean leaders who make lots of fundamental errors in how they lead. If leadership were professional, with far fewer errors, then faculty would have greater confidence in their leaders’ decision-making. Yet, even the best decision-makers make bad decisions.

The whole point behind shared governance is to improve institutional decision-making. Shared governance is an antidote to poor (often centralized) senior management decision-making. But, there are other ways to do that. One such way is called kaizen, whose intent is to improve processes at the local level. As with any method, kaizen must be practiced correctly (see kaizen principles here), which includes the establishment of a “no-blame” environment by senior leaders.

Higher education leaders who want to continuously improve their leadership skills and capabilities to strengthen professionalism and who lead kaizen can take a university to better places than can be achieved by shared governance.

The Value Of Higher Education

At the start of this semester (Fall 2014), I asked my students (n = 97) in my courses (one undergraduate and 3 graduate) the following questions:

  • What do you value in a degree program?
  • What do you value in a course?

These are students in a school of engineering, science, and technology studying various technical and technology management disciplines (though I think the results are likely to be representative of students in other schools as well). Here are the key findings and practical implications for administrators and faculty (click on images to view details).


  • sv_survey1Students value professors with real-world work experience.
  • Students like it when: Degree program and courses have a real-world (practical) focus; professors are responsive to student’s needs; professors focus on student learning and comprehension.
  • Students don’t like: To be confused; needlessly struggle; have their time wasted; unresponsive professors; courses that lack real-world relevancy; degree programs that don’t connect to the real world.


  • On average, faculty are less responsive to students than faculty think they are.
  • Hire faculty with practical, real-world work experience or demonstrated ability to connect subject matter to real-world.

Compare this what graduate students had to say…


  • sv_survey2Students value professors with real-world work experience.
  • Students like it when: Degree program and courses have a real-world (practical) focus and job-related application; current information, professors are responsive to student’s needs.
  • Students don’t like: To have their time wasted; unresponsive professors; courses that lack real-world relevancy; degree programs that don’t connect to the real world.


  • Hire faculty with practical, real-world work experience or demonstrated ability to connect subject matter to real-world.
  • Courses and degree programs be current, with relevance and practical application made clear.

The findings are very closely aligned. The thing that stands out the most is how university hiring processes favor candidates with deep theoretical knowledge, which is misaligned with the background and capabilities that students want – and likely payers, parents/spouses, and employers want as well. This great mismatch imperils student success.

University hiring processes should be revised to give preference to academically qualified candidates with both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge. Not only would this better satisfy student’s needs, it can become a great source of competitive advantage to the school (and likely the institution overall), resulting in increased enrollment and improved retention and graduation rates.

Put another way, failure to seek academically qualified candidates with both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge could cause significant budget and prestige problems for academic programs and the school, as well as the institution.

I do not view these results as a reflection of the times we live in. Almost anyone with a undergraduate or graduate degree, age 21 or age 100, will tell you that their best professors were those who had years of professional work experience in the field and therefore deep practical knowledge. Not surprisingly, the pay offered to such candidates should be higher since they possess greater skills and capabilities compared to candidates with only theoretical knowledge. I think it would be wise for universities to return to their roots, where qualified faculty were understood to be those who possessed both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge.

Finally, contrast my results of students’ view of the value of degree programs and courses with what university leadership, along with their consultant (Boston Consulting Group), thinks the value proposition of higher education is (click here for source):








Notice any difference? The gap between how leaders view the value proposition and how students view the value proposition is large. And, this large gap is likely to remain large well into the future, which spells trouble.

Taming The Faculty

Faculty, in their interactions with top administrators, can be unruly, confrontational, and plain-speaking at times – especially those with tenure (which, we all know, is not a license to say whatever you want, misbehave, or be rude or disrespectful). Administrators dislike these behaviors, which is understandable. Deep down, they would probably rather get rid of problem faculty than understand the root cause of their discontent. This is not understandable.

If leaders do not bother to understand what troubles workers (or students), then leaders must contend with the same problems again and again. That is a poor use of leaders’ time. Eventually, they will ignore faculty to the extent that they can and focus on other things that they have some control over. A valuable resource, one that is fundamental to the functioning of the institution, is under-utilized.

Faculty are right to speak truth to power and to advocate for students. But, are faculty difficult for no reason or because of personality defects? Or, is it simply a reasoned response to legitimate explicit and implicit concerns? In my experience, it is the latter. Faculty can be difficult because:

  • They care about teaching students.
  • They feel overburdened by administrative work (and adding new tasks while taking none away).
  • They dislike it when leaders say one thing that aligns with their interest (“students come first”) and then do another (cuts to instructional support).
  • They dislike time-consuming committee work results in recommendations that leaders often ignore.
  • And they dislike it when shared governance proves to be more fiction than reality.

Faculty are trained to be critical thinkers, not obedient conformists (nor diplomats), so leaders who expect to go unchallenged or be fully supported are not realistic. Instead, leaders should view critical commentary as teamwork and dissent as a practical counterbalance to authority and an opportunity for all to learn and improve.

The bulk of faculty discontent seems to be caused by poor leadership (leaders who make many basic errors) and poor strategic and tactical management of the institution. Faculty discontent is the response that one would expect from amateur, rather than professional, quality leadership.

In my own case, I see leaders who follow the herd, yet who take credit for having accomplished great things, and who largely ignore innovators in pedagogy and management practice. So, I can be difficult at times, but it is not just so for its own sake or because I have tenure. It is grounded in a specific purpose: To improve higher education.

I’m sure many of you are difficult at times for similar reasons. And, like any other person who is low in the hierarchy, we become unhappy and frustrated when we see problems that our leaders do not see or which they choose to ignore. The one problem that bothers me the most is the assumption that the overall quality of teaching is high, and that the quality of teaching has no relation to enrollments, retention, or graduation rates. University leaders would not be the first leaders to be out of touch with the details of the business.

Having worked in organizations led by amateur and professional quality leaders, I can assure you the latter type of leader would tame the faculty and make far better use of it as a resource to improve the institution’s processes for the benefit of students and payers. Amateur leaders are out of touch with the details of the business (e.g. quality of teaching, etc.), professional leaders are not.

Further, I would rather have professional quality leaders – people who make few errors and who break free of the herd – so that I don’t have to spend so much time on committee work related to shared governance. Instead, I want to focus on continuous improvement work that benefits students and payers. That’s what I should be doing, in addition to teaching and research.

Spotting Great Teachers

This recent article from The Wall Street Journal, “Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher,” underwhelms. The author cites the following elements of “superb teaching” among K-12 teachers:

  • Have active intellectual lives outside their classrooms
  • Believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn
  • Are data-driven
  • Ask great questions

In my view, superb teaching (K-12 and beyond) is more broadly defined and includes (not in order of importance):

  • Subject matter knowledge
  • Knowledge that surrounds the subject matter (to make connections)
  • Ability to explain relevance in different contexts
  • Continuous improvement of course content and delivery
  • Respects students
  • Enthusiasm for subject and for teaching
  • Guides conversations to interesting places (by asking questions)
  • Fair but rigorous evaluations
  • Adjusts to changing times (short-term and long-term)
  • Makes few teaching errors

This describes the best K-12 teachers that I had.


Imperiling Student Success

Here is a thoughtful opinion piece titled, “I studied computer science, not English. I still can’t find a job.” The upshot is that college and university professors teach what they know, and if all they know is theory then they cannot convey practice to students. The hiring process in most college and universities strongly favors hiring professors with deep theoretical knowledge and strongly disfavors hiring academically qualified candidates with both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge.

Undergraduate students, in particular, pay the price for this long out-dated view of faculty qualifications (it used to be the other way around as recently as the 1960s). It did not hurt new graduates when corporations wanted well-educated people and would train them as-needed. Like it or not, corporations now want well-educated people who also possess practical knowledge that they no longer feel the need to pay for.

Irrespective of what corporations want, students want a more practical education, even in the practical disciplines such as engineering, science, and technology. The inability to convey practical knowledge harms students and puts them at risk, despite all the talk from administrators and faculty that students matter most.

Couple that with another opinion piece titled, “In corporations, it’s owner-take-all.” It informs us that in the past, and likely for some time into the future, corporations will continue to distribute as much money as possible to shareholders, make investments that favor shareholder’s short-term interests, and also reduce the cost of labor by minimizing hiring and tightly controlling wage and benefits costs. This means that corporations expect different capabilities from new college and university graduates if they are to hire them.

The process for hiring faculty is time consuming, so this path, though necessary and in great need of improvement, can help the correct the problem over the long term. To reduce the risk to students now, faculty should find new and better ways to connect the subject matter to the real world and add greater emphasis to teaching things that are practical. Industry advisory board can help identify, but one must be careful. Often, industry advisory boards ask for things they don’t truly want or need, or do poorly themselves and have no intention of improving.

Culture of Success

A few days ago I attended the President’s and Provost’s meetings, given annually at the start of the fall semester. Here is a brief critique from my perspective as a Lean thinker and practitioner:

The president emphasized accomplishments made over the last 9 years and attributed these achievements to a “culture of success.” What I saw was mainly a recitation basic things that any university needs to be do, but largely focused on spending money (vs. spending ideas) as the measure of improvement. He made a call to reduce criticism and improve alignment and support for the president and for the strategic plan (an odd thing to ask for when faculty are trained to be critical and ask questions). There was near-zero focus on improving teaching – the core activity – as a means to grow enrollment, improve retention, and improve graduation rates. From a Lean perspective, our path is the same as other regional public universities. We are following the herd.

Last year, the provost asked that we expand our use of educational technologies and create more online and hybrid courses. Basically, a call for high-tech, low-touch teaching. This year, the provost asked us to focus on low-tech, high-touch ways to improve undergraduate student retention and graduation rates. It came across as a mixed message. The reality, of course, is that we have to do both – despite the fact that evidence indicates educational technologies do not improve undergraduate student engagement, learning, or academic success among some groups of students.

Finally, higher ed is no different from other industries in that senior managers search within the industry – other colleges or universities – for solutions to its problems. They think they are unique. Leaders do not look look outside of higher ed (which would be interdisciplinary), resulting in the herd mentality and which fails to distinguish one institution from another. That narrow focus makes it tough for Lean management and Lean teaching to gain an audience among university leaders and a foothold in higher education. The lack of innovative thinking means that students and other stakeholders will continue to suffer.

Treat Students As Adults

In a recent blog post, I criticized higher education leaders who seek big disruptive strategies and suggested that they recognize the importance of small daily improvements that eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness in non-zero-sum ways. However, there is one big disruptive strategy that is worth pursuing: curriculum design.

In most cases, products or services are designed by the producer with no customer input (or, sometimes, a little customer input). As a result, the product or service fails to meet customers needs, either in whole or part. The producer, then, has a cost problem that can only be corrected in by discounting until an improved product or service is designed and brought to market. Leaders of organizations err when they allow engineers to design products and services that lack customer input.

The situation is largely the same for higher education, especially public higher education. As faculty, we have designed undergraduate curricula based on what we think is best for students, payers, and society. We have designed general education and in-major curricula from our point of view, heavily informed, no doubt, on the curricula that we experienced as undergraduates. Our educational service has failed to meet students’ needs, either in whole or part, for a long time. As the relevancy of higher education decreases over time, discounting will become even more common than it is today. Likewise, the leaders of higher education err when they allow faculty to design undergraduate programs that lack customer input.

So how can this situation be improved? Administrators and faculty can willingly cede power to students, who, after all, come to higher education because they want to solve their own individual educational problems. We know from decades of complaints, students learn little in certain courses or dislike taking courses that they will never use, or likely never use, just because faculty think the subject is what students should know. Ignoring this feedback will drive students to other sources to satisfy their individual educational needs, thereby further weakening public higher education.

Undergraduate students are adults, and most will make intelligent decisions about how best to satisfy their individual needs. Most will seek multiple sources of advice prior to making important educational decisions. They will confer with parents, academic advisors, payers, professionals, others students, and so on, to determine the out-of-major and in-major courses that best solve their individual problems.

Students should be allowed to design their own curriculum, particularly when it comes to courses outside the major, while courses inside the major should include many more experimental courses on cutting-edge topics. Doing so will help students as they enter the job market or graduate school, and keep faculty fresh and engaged.

Rigidity and requirements-driven public higher education should be replaced with flexibility and needs-driven education. Rather than being a checklist of courses to complete, the plan of study should reflect students’ solution to their individual educational problem. Doing so will create graduates who can think, take risks, enjoy the fruits of their decisions, and also bear consequences.

Brown University made this change 45 years ago. Few colleges or universities followed their lead, not because Brown’s Open Curriculum (originally called the “New Curriculum”) was bad or produced inferior graduates. No, it was a great innovation, one that produced superior graduates. Administrators and faculty in these colleges and universities preferred to insist that they know better and ignored chronic students complaints. They preferred to be laggards. Public higher education can instead prefer to be leaders.

Hire More Faculty

Why do professors always say, “the administration should hire more faculty”? It seems to be the universal solution to all academic problems that professors face. There are a few sound reasons for this, but some bogus reasons as well.

A sound reason is that adjuncts constitute around 75 percent of the faculty, and full-time faculty only about 25 percent. Part-time faculty cannot (under present structures and rules) fully integrate into department or university affairs, including shared governance. The burden to raise the ranking and reputation of the department, school, or university (through research) – which almost every top administrator wants – falls to ever-smaller numbers of full-time faculty. Often, these faculty are mid-career or later, and may lack the burning fire and fresh, creative mind to do cutting-edge research that younger minds have. They will also cut back on service work (“been there, done that”) that younger faculty would gladly participate in. So, the “old-timers” (50+ crowd) focuses on teaching instead, which does little to raise the ranking of a university.

Another reason, one that seems to be quite sound, is enrollment growth. All things being equal, more students means larger classes and less individualized attention to students. So, it makes sense that a department with 25 or 50 new students should hire a new faculty. Or does it? Faculty hiring cannot be in direct proportion to enrollment growth. A department with 25 or 50 new students should not hire one additional faculty, unless there is an unusual circumstance such as the need for a professor with highly specialized knowledge (more on that in a moment).

Taiichi Ohno, the so-called father of Toyota’s production system, recounts a story in his book, Toyota Production System (p.69) about hiring in direct proportion to demand. He teaches us that large increases in productive output that are possible, with the addition of only a few more people, when waste, inconsistencies (unevenness), and excesses (unreasonableness) are thoroughly eliminated:

“Corolla’s were fairly popular and selling well. We started with a plan to make 5,000 cars. I instructed the head of the engine section to make 5,000 units and use under 100 workers. After two or three months, he reported, ‘We can make 5,000 units with 80 workers.’

After that, the Corolla kept selling well. So I asked him, ‘How many workers can make 10,000 units?’ He instantly answered, ‘160 workers.’

So I yelled at him. ‘In grade school I was taught that two times eight equals sixteen. After all these years, do you think I should learn that from you? Do you think I’m a fool?’

Before long, 100 workers were making over 10,000 units. We might say that mass production made this possible. But it was due largely to the Toyota production system in which waste, inconsistencies, and excesses were thoroughly eliminated.”

Here is the lesson: A department with 200 students should be able to grow to 400 students with the addition of only one or two faculty. But, to do that that requires the thorough elimination of waste, inconsistencies, and excesses in all process that faculty participate in – including those demanded by the administration and accreditors (e.g. reports, reports, and more reports, and committee work, committee work, and more committee work). 

Thorough elimination of waste, inconsistencies, and excesses requires two things: Firstly, university leadership that allows departments to totally re-think everything they do and significantly improve all processes via kaizen. Secondly, it requires faculty who are eager to quickly study and improve how they perform administrative work (such as academic advising, academic program assessment, etc.), teaching , research, and service to the department and to the university – and to share with other departments how their new processes work so that their peers can learn from them.

Most universities are an entrepreneurial environment where individual faculty and departments can create new courses and academic programs. However, the processes for creating these new services are poor. So, historically, departments have overproduced both courses and degree programs in the hope that some will become popular among students and payers. Over time, universities offer much more than they are capable of delivering with both high quality and low cost.

As a result of bad management at the highest levels of institutional leadership for long periods of time, a painful effort to reduce and consolidate courses and programs eventually ensues. Hopefully, improved processes (both simple and quick) emerge so that new courses and degree programs are created that serve actual needs (versus politically motivated, such as the recent emphasis on STEM programs). And, that should include improved processes for modifying or shutting down courses and degree programs when demand wanes.

Needless to say, there should be concurrent activity to eliminate waste, inconsistencies, and excesses in administrative processes, including re-deployment of administrators to schools and departments to teach or to support teaching and research.

Another bogus reason for hiring faculty is academic over-specialization. If you owned a business, for-profit or not-for-profit, you would like the people you hire to be multi-skilled so that they can flexibly respond to changing circumstances (e.g. customer demand). You would hire specialists only where they are truly needed.

Universities usually hire single-skilled specialists throughout, and who have limited capability and little interest in doing something else. Faculty hiring practices and promotion processes assure that the university has an inflexible full-time faculty workforce. This, once again, is the result of bad management at the highest levels of institutional leadership for long periods of time. 

Even if the administration did hire more faculty, as professors ask, doing so would simply feed existing process problems that are mired in waste, inconsistency, and excess. The only answer, from faculty’s perspective, would again be to hire more faculty. That just cannot happen. Nor can the incessant hiring of administrators (at any level) – jobs postings for which typically outpace full-time tenure/tenure track faculty positions by 3.5 to 1 or more.

A Better Way To Teach

I recently received an e-mail from Magna Publications inviting me to join an online seminar about online courses (for $349). It read in part:

“In this new Magna Online Seminar you will learn how to modify your online courses and instructional approach so your students establish stronger connections with course materials and with you. 

Online Learning that Lasts: How to Engage & Retain Students will show you how to: 

  • Identify essential ideas, skills, or course objectives that students need to master, and learn to use proven strategies to ensure that students learn and remember course material
  • Break down online instruction into discrete components to keep students actively engaged throughout instruction
  • Use your students’ questions, issues, and concerns to construct relevance for the course content
  • Incorporate real-world scenarios, examples, and case studies to help students explore new concepts and ideas
  • Use creative discussion, debate, or what-would-you-do techniques to create a student-focused learning environment
  • Develop course outlines and assignments that encourage students to engage with the course at all levels of learning taxonomies
  • Include student-led instruction in which each student teaches a course concept to someone outside the class

You can make changes right away that will generate greater student success.”

Sounds really good! But, I’ll tell you that the Lean Teaching pedagogy offers these same benefits for face-to-face, hybrid, or online courses.

Most professors teach in ways that are based on memories of how their teachers taught them. We must question that. The assumption that teaching was good may have been based on your own strong performance, but I am sure you noticed, as I did, that many (perhaps most) other students struggled. If we question how we were taught, will will recognize that we must unlearn much of what we currently do and learn something new.

The question is, how do you do it?

The Lean Professor e-book (~128 pages and only ten bucks) is not a simple exhortation or call to action promoting Lean Teaching. It presents a better way to teach. It explicitly describes the teaching method that I developed and have used for the past 15 years. It is perhaps the most detailed account of a teaching method ever written, including results from years of student course evaluations.

The Lean Teaching pedagogy does not insert a new ideas into current ways of teaching. It replaces current (and largely ineffective) ways of teaching. And, importantly, the pedagogy is simple to learn and put into practice, and is extremely effective.

The Lean Professor will help you see the necessity of becoming a fully committed to continuous (daily) improvement and how to do it so that you are energized and even more proud of your work – even if university leaders rank teaching as the third priority behind publications and research grants. Simply integrate Lean Teaching into your daily teaching work, one course at a time and one step at a time.

• • • • • • • •

Review of The Lean Professor by Professor Gloria McVay:

In this book, Bob Emiliani addresses all of the facets of university teaching and makes both observations (from his own teaching) and recommendations (from his own experiments) for continuous improvement in course content, design, and delivery. If every professor seriously adopted a practice of continuous improvement as recommended in this book, the change to higher education would be nothing short of revolutionary. It takes being willing to really evaluate your teaching practice and realize that any single improvement in and of itself is not major. It is when you make many small improvements, knowing there is no end to improving, that you begin to understand the revolutionary power of lean in higher education. I found many good ideas that I will personally try out in my teaching practice. The big question then is – how do we create an environment which fosters this type of continuous improvement on a large enough scale to achieve a major breakthrough? For some of Bob’s thoughts on this challenging and broad-scoped topic, I recommend We Can Do It! – another excellent book on Lean in higher education.