Show me the money: Is our obsession with grant money creating an avoid-teaching-at-all-costs mindset?

There is a pecking order in my department, as I’m sure there is in yours. At the top are those with the biggest research grants and at the bottom are the sessional instructors. Few people on campus will come right out and admit this, and many of the bigwig administrators will deny it, but like it or not most academics know where they stand on the ladder. A university hierarchy based primarily on grant size and research achievements can have major impacts on how departments, their staff, and their students behave and interact.

First, it can cause faculty to put grantsmanship above all other academic endeavors, such as teaching and undergraduate mentoring. Worse, heavy teaching loads and extra service duties can be perceived as punishment for a lack of grant and research success. I have known a number of high-profile scientists who openly confess to avoiding teaching and service at all costs, and advocate such an approach. In his book Letters to a Young Scientist, renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson writes: “Avoid department-level administration beyond thesis committee chairmanships if at all fair and possible. Make excuses, dodge, plead, trade … Consider carefully job offers from other universities or research institutions that include more research time and fewer teaching and administrative responsibilities.”

This is great advice for those looking to maximize their research and funding potential, but many academics have different motivations. For instance, some aspire to be excellent teachers, communicators, and mentors, and are willing to sacrifice research productivity to achieve these goals. E. O. Wilson would likely never have become so famous had frontline educators not eloquently communicated his evolutionary theories in undergraduate classrooms and textbooks.

Anyone who has spent time in the teaching trenches knows how challenging, time-consuming, and exhausting it is to prepare and deliver engaging lectures and course materials—and how artistic, creative, and talented one needs to be to do so. Nevertheless, pre-tenure faculty members would arguably be well advised to focus on scoring high on their next grant application rather than the next teaching evaluation.

Most academics can name the top researchers from their discipline, but I bet far fewer can name the best instructors. One of the best teachers in my department at the University of Western Ontario is Tom Haffie—a biology lecturer and first-class communicator who has won multiple teaching awards, including the 3M National Teaching Fellowship. Watching Tom in the classroom is as inspirational as seeing a top-notch scientist carry out experiments in the lab. Recently, I asked Tom if he felt that universities put too much emphasis on research excellence and too little on great teaching.

“Yes,” he said. “Overall, universities are not putting enough emphasis on excellence in education to adequately respond to the role they find themselves in—educating larger and larger numbers of diverse undergraduate students. It is a society-wide problem. Teaching is like social work—important but not highly respected. Case in point is the poorly paid and supported sessional academic staff.” Tom then described a recent conversation he had with a colleague about the impact of the $12 million dollar investment in science education at the University of British Columbia that came with the appointment of Carl Wieman. “The Wieman money made caring about education respectable.”

Unlike most of the other lecturing staff in my department, Tom has a full-time, permanent position. Recently, there have been heated debates and intense bargaining between contract faculty and administrations across Canadian campuses. In March, for example, contract workers and teaching assistants at York University in Toronto went on strike demanding better pay and job security. Tom agrees that it is concerning that those who carry the brunt of the teaching on campus, including colleagues with limited-duties and limited-term appointments, often have the lowest wages, pitiful job security, and little support for developing and delivering courses.

I asked Tom if he felt that there was a hierarchy within academia: “Certainly,” he said. “Just look over the alternative workload documents to see who is doing what they want versus who is doing what they have to. Large grant holders have grants because of research success. It seems sensible (to them) to buy themselves out of teaching duties in order to work on keeping and augmenting their large grants. Hiring sessional staff to cover teaching that has been bought out from rock star researchers can lead to deteriorating academic relationships—sessional instructors often have weaker ties to the institution and students, less autonomy, and lower morale than regular faculty. It is hard to see such a model resulting in sustained excellence in teaching.” The situation that Tom describes is also self-perpetuating: research money typically begets more research money, which leads to even more teaching relief.

I am currently the communications liaison officer for my department, which means that I gather news stories from students and staff and bring them to the communications people at the Faculty of Science who ultimately yea or nay the stories. It is interesting to see the types of stories that make the cut. News on research awards tends to go further than pieces on education and mentoring, with the exception of major teaching honours. But big grants and major publications almost always trump teaching.

Another trend within the Faculty of Science is the push for private-sector collaborations. From undergraduate internships to graduate and postdoctoral fellowships to major grants, the current Canadian research funding landscape favors those who can find industrial partners. Thus, scientists that can market themselves and collaborate with industry are moving up the academic ladder faster than those who can’t.

As an early career academic, I sometimes find it hard to know where to focus my energy. Should I shift my research to attract industrial partners? Should I invest in my teaching more than my publications and grants? Should I avoid tedious service? When thinking about this, I am reminded of a TV interview I once saw of music icon Billy Joel. When asked the secret of his success, Billy replied (and I’m paraphrasing): “I am not the best song writer, I certainly don’t have the finest voice, and I’m far from the greatest guitarist or pianist. But I am good at all of those things and that is what has made me so successful.” As academics, it is unrealistic of us to expect to be the greatest researchers, grant writers, teachers, and administrators. But if we can strive to be good at all or most of those things we will likely find success.

No matter where we fit in within the academic hierarchy, we want to be respected and appreciated for what we do. It takes many different types of people and skill sets to run a university. We all deserve to feel that we belong and are on equal ground with our colleagues and coworkers.

This article originally appeared on Loop.

David R. Smith is an assistant professor in the Biology Department at the University of Western Ontario. He can be found online at www.arrogantgenome.com and on Twitter at @arrogantgenome.