The University… or the Professor?

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.

10 thoughts on “The University… or the Professor?”

  1. corwin says:

    It’s not just in Universities, it happens just as much in High Schools. Teachers there rarely get the recognition they deserve either, but for those who work there, we see what a difference changing one teacher can make. At least the students and sometimes the parents recognise those who have helped and inspired them.

  2. JM says:

    There is a gentleman who, durning my 3 years under his tutelage in the matters of mathematics, taught me not just about math but life itself. About how there are no true geniuses, rather instead there are those who put in the effort required to become a master of their chosen art/trade.

    He was a major influence on my life and many others. I’ll forever be thankful for meeting him.

  3. John Prigent says:

    Press releases and other forms of public praise are generated by management. So everything good that gets reported is of course due to management expertise, not to teachers at any level.

  4. darcherd says:

    Further examples of the influence of a single professor abound, including that of Fred Terman, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford in the 1930s and 40s who arguably was the font of all that eventually became Silicon Valley.

    But I do know that some colleges do have specific awards for teaching excellence, because those are often listed in the CVs of professors chosen as lecturers for The Great Courses, a highly-recommended commercial series of university-level courses (obviously, I’m a big fan). But it does indicate that recognition of teaching ability does occur in some places.

    1. In at least two of the examples I listed, the universities do have awards for teaching excellence, and neither of the professors cited were ever considered or ever received such awards. The awards, from what I’ve been able to determine, went to those who were better politicians.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Given that all hierarchies are political, and especially that most colleges and some high schools are also businesses, when it may take a decade or more for well taught students to reflect well on a teacher or professor (and thereby on the institution and/or the “enlightened” administrator that hopes to pad their own résumé), the hierarchical/institutional payoff (which has little to do with excellence in the nominal mission) is so delayed that it should sadly be no surprise that there’s little incentive for due recognition.

        (sorry, I think I get thirty lashes with a wet noodle for run-on-sentence now)

  5. John Prigent says:

    My school had an excellent headmaster. He taught us all to query everything; and seek the truth about things and events instead of accepting ‘common knowledge’. And his most frequent saying was ‘stand by your guns if you think you are right’.

    1. darcherd says:

      Standing by one’s guns when one thinks they’re right is all well and good provided one retains an open mind and is willing to accept new evidence. Otherwise, it’s simply justification for prejudice and pig-headedness.

      But it sounds like you were very fortunate to have experienced such a headmaster.

  6. Thomas says:

    To often the awards for great teachers are determined primarily by the students, either through end of term evaluations or word of mouth. The problem with this is simple, in the short term, students will (often subconsciously) equate good with easy. It isn’t until later that all but the really best students will appreciate the teacher/professor that pushed them to learn, and were therefore “hard”. There is ample reasearch to show that professors that get the best student evaluations are the easiest ones that least prepare the students for later classes and for their professional lives, so they don’t get the teaching awards.

    1. Thomas says:

      I mistyped that last part. It should read that they (easy professors) are the ones that get the awards.

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