CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

This was written in October, 1992 in response to a memorandum from Tom Keinath, then newly appointed Dean of the College of Engineering at Clemson University, requesting advice from the engineering Department Heads and faculty concerning the problem of defining, measuring and encouraging the increase of "quality" in the local educational setting. The tone is a bit brusque, reflecting perhaps my very soon to come voluntary separation from institutional academic life. I also deliberately neglected to mention service activities, directly, as I felt that faculty membership in a State institution such as Clemson in itself represents all of the service to society which can be reasonably expected of anyone.


Subject: Notes on Quality in Academia

(ref.: Memo: T Keinath:COE Department Heads, 10/2/92)


Quality refers to the general excellence of a thing or matter but more specifically carries the connotation of a superior degree or level of excellence. In the context in which Dean Keinath uses the term, as also in "quality enhancement" programs, the term refers to excellence in teaching, writing and research.


There are two semantic problems which must be addressed concerning this use of the term "quality." In the first place, it must be assumed that, unless significant deterioration in conduct has taken place, all Clemson faculty display quality; that is, a high level of excellence, in their activities. This must be the case since all were appointed, not at random, but as the result of searches in which relative quality (as well as other attributes) was examined and those candidates with the highest levels of excellence, as judged both by achievements and by promise, were selected. In the second place, however, all faculty were not equal when selected nor do they become so after a period of service. Thus, not all academics have the same level of excellence or, in quality terms, some must necessarily be of lower quality than others.


Given these two points, the selection of quality and its increase as parameters for implementation of the University's strategic plan must surely be intended to have an operational, affirmative intent, in the same manner as industrial quality control programs based upon the concept of "zero defects," not as an attainable state but as a goal to focus activities. Therefore, the idea of measuring increase in quality, rather than its absolute value, is reasonable.


However, quality in academic activities is difficult to define and still more difficult to measure. With regard to the former, I will confine myself to listing, in summary form, those attributes which I associate with excellence (and its lack) in academia:



Scholarly creation of new ideas, more generally called research, is perhaps the most difficult to evaluate since there are high degrees of risk and of chance involved in achievement in this activity. Hallmarks of excellence include an organized, long term focus on one or a group of related problems, with evidence of evolving insight; continuity of (national) peer-reviewed financial support; invitations to speak at national and international meetings in the area(s) of research focus; and a well-defined, perhaps iconoclastic, world view of the important problems in the field. Broad but shallow research interests; a preponderance of short-term and/or industrial (non-peer reviewed) research support; and exaggerated, grandiose claims of research relevance, especially in the lay press, are negative attributes in this area.



Academics produce three types of written material: reports of their research, discussions of the field (reviews and book chapters) and theses from experience over the long-term (professional and text books). The former two must be judged primarily by where they appear (preferably nationally and internationally recognized well refereed journals) while the latter have importance merely in their production. Thus, it is reasonable to expect an academic to write 3-4 original articles, on average, per year plus an occasional review article and, during his/her career, at least one full-length, single author book. Excessive written output; significant numbers of published abstracts which do not result in articles within 1-2 years; and failure over the long term to co-author or author books are negative attributes.




This is also a difficult area in which to determine quality since it is so hard to define achievement, even subjectively. The central, most important attributes of the great teacher, at any level of instruction, are the ability to inspire students, to excite them about the topics taught and to provide a synthetic world view to organize and direct their thinking. Secondary positive attributes, at the college level, are the ability to attract good students and the later achievements of those students in their fields. The failure to attract good students, particularly for advanced degrees; avoidance of instructional opportunities; and the long-term failure to publish teaching materials (textbooks, etc.) are negative attributes.


I should note that excellence in academia is a fragile flower. For all but the most exceptional individual faculty members to flourish and achieve their potential in a university setting, the institutional conditions must be appropriate and must be stable over long periods of time.


Positive institutional conditions (which encourage excellence) are: directed recruitment of high potential students; a "quality" faculty peer group; adequate physical provisions for research, writing and teaching; continuing institutional financial support (combined with a reward system to encourage acquisition of external peer-reviewed support); adequate travel and staff support policies; and significant reduction in teaching and service activities for the first 3-4 years of service.


Negative institutional conditions are erratic, dictatorial Departmental and College management; short-term planning with rapid changes in budgeting and policy; favoritism and secretism; inadequate physical and financial support; excessive teaching and service assignments; and high student/faculty ratios.


Evaluation of changes in quality are extremely difficult and cannot be done meaningfully over the short term. The long time constants inherent in academic activities make it necessary to select minimum comparative evaluation periods of three years for individuals and five years for departments. Evaluation is best carried out by a process combining self-study (by students, faculty and Departmental Chairs) and external peer review. Note that quality, by definition, is non-parametric so that significant dependence upon numeric scores, even those derived from non-parametric scales, is necessarily misleading. In measuring change, the appropriate parameters are, as an example (comparing previous period to present period): significantly increased, increased, remained the same, decreased, significantly decreased. The overall evaluation of quality and its change must, necessarily, be qualitative.


On the positive side, quality is the necessary consequence of the long-term pursuit of excellence.







A thing is worth what it's worth when it's worth it.