Teaching has been undervalued at HKS, but change may be on its way


By Alexi White, Opinions Editor, MPP ’13

One of the John F. Kennedy School’s greatest assets is the star-power of its faculty. Whether they come from an academic or professional background, our professors are at the forefront of their fields, and that adds to the prestige of both the individual and the school.

Unfortunately, possession of knowledge and experience does not always mean you are proficient at imparting it to others or guiding others through their own learning experience. That’s why teachers are required to get teaching degrees, at least in the primary and secondary school systems.

But at the university level, accolades come from publishing your research, and teaching experience is often recommended but not required. As a result, the balance between teaching and research can become skewed.

Professor John Donahue is the faculty chair of the MPP program and the Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) Initiative. He acknowledges that there are gains from research, but believes HKS professors value their teaching as well.

“People are here because they want to be—because they care about practice,” said Donahue. “If all you want to do is sit in your office and write papers, you have better options than the Kennedy School.”

Donahue added that applicants for faculty positions must do well on five criteria, including teaching, and said a world-class researcher was turned down for tenure at the Kennedy School because he did not take his teaching seriously.

Advertisements for open faculty positions provide a glimpse at how the school communicates professional requirements to prospective candidates. The Minos A. Zombanakis Professor of the International Financial System advertised on the HKS website requires “an outstanding publication record” and “a commitment to teaching in professional degree programs.” While both teaching and research are clearly considered, it is hard to imagine an equivalent advertisement asking for the reverse—an outstanding teaching record and a commitment to publishing.

Ben Rankin, MPP ’12, has had some great and not-so-great professors over the past two years. He says when a professor is serious about their teaching, students can tell.

“Some professors are willing to put in hour after hour to allow students to thrive,” said Rankin. “It’s that passion for teaching that’s as important as the slides they are presenting.“

Rankin added that professors should be striving to improve every year and that they should be required to undergo periodic reviews of their teaching skills.

While there is currently no mandatory periodic training for tenured professors, the School has recently created a New Faculty Institute spanning two-and-a-half days in the summer.

Professor Donahue believes this initiative and the many others now offered through SLATE will result in long-term improvements in teaching quality. In the past four years, SLATE has grown from one staff member to eight, and what was once a dying case program has been revitalized.

“Four years ago, if you weren’t happy with your teaching there was nowhere to go,” added Donahue. “It takes a while to turn around a big faculty. Don’t underestimate the significance of what we’ve got.”

Professor Dan Levy, one of the top teachers at HKS, is also involved with SLATE. He praised the support the program has received from the Dean and other top administrators, and highlighted the new opportunities for training and for celebrating teaching excellence. For instance, SLATE has recently hired Allison Pingree, the former director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University, in the new position of director of professional pedagogy.

Both Levy and SLATE Director Carolyn Wood also stressed the role that students can play in promoting effective teaching.

“If students thoughtfully reflected and gave more feedback via the course evaluations, we would have a lot more to use to work with the faculty,” said Wood.

“Have high expectations about the faculty, about each other, and about yourself,” added Levy. “I think this translates into a learning environment with the same high professional standards as the environment we are training our students to excel in after they graduate from the Kennedy School.”

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