Year in and year out, I see colleges and universities touting their expertise in given “fields” or departments, and I also see those same universities also honoring distinguished faculty, but what amazes me the most is how seldom those universities recognize the professors who are actually the best and most influential teachers.
Over roughly a fifteen year period from 1961 to 1976 the college from which I graduated produced perhaps the most remarkable group of art experts ever to come from one college, especially one that wasn’t noted for being an art school. Graduates from those years went on to hold the following positions, among others – president of the Rhode Island School of Design, deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, head of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Director of the National Gallery of Art, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, president of the New Art Trust, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, director of the Museum of Modern Art, Curator of Northern Baroque Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, and director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Those are the ones I could track down, and I suspect there are more that I couldn’t. They were all inspired by one remarkable professor and two of his colleagues. Yet during the time I was an undergraduate, and even in the years following, there was little mention of those three men, except by their students, and recognition came to them, for the most part, long after they’d retired. The college, of course, now basks in the reputation of those graduates.
At another institution, during a four year period, before leaving for a better paying position at a much more prestigious university, a charismatic choral director and voice professor mentored individuals who went on to head various noted musical groups, including one who founded a successful regional opera company and another who went on to direct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This large university never before nor never since has produced graduates who went on to achieve anything close to what that small group did.
In yet another state university, a single professor revitalized a voice program that had failed to graduate a student in years and within five years was graduating students who went on to graduate schools. In the following ten years, those efforts resulted in the creation and accreditation of professional music degrees and more graduates reaching professional success, both academically and occasionally on Broadway and in regional opera. That professor’s productions occasionally receive national awards, and while the students who have graduated sometimes credit that professor, the university never has.
In the previous examples, as well, the noted graduates have organized tributes to their mentors, but recognition by the institutions has been belated, at best.
Now… I know that there have to be scores of similar examples from across the nation, possibly across the world, but the point is simple. It’s not the college or university that makes the difference; it’s the people who teach there, and all too often the best of them go unrecognized by the institutions because institutions have a nasty habit of trying to build a generic brand through publicity and athletics, and by rewarding instant celebrity, often from a single prestigious award or event, and emphasizing single event achievements over painstaking hard work year after year by professors who bring out the best in their students. It’s not what’s taught, or where it’s taught, but who teaches it and how effectively. And very few colleges and universities, even those with great reputations, seem to acknowledge this by recognizing such professors.