An Interview with President Theobald - Part Two
By Steve Newman
On January 16th, I sat down with President Theobald for an hour to talk about his view of the issues facing the university, with an emphasis on the faculty’s role. The following is the second part of a transcript that I’ve redacted for clarity, with President Theobald’s approval. The first part, which takes up Pres. Theobald’s sense of the key issues facing Temple, the philosophy behind de-centralized budgeting, faculty review of deans, and other topics, can be found here.
My thanks again to Pres. Theobald for taking the time to speak with me.
How to measure good teaching and how to approach general education and writing-intensive courses
SN: I want to change tacks to talk about our students, who are the heart of the enterprise.
SN: Let’s start with this: How do we know that good teaching is going on? There are some things that feel easier to quantify and even give good qualitative answers to and others that are more elusive? I wonder if you have thoughts about how we properly reward good teaching and how we know that it’s good.
NT: I think this is one of the advantages to quickly go back to the last topic of decentralizing these judgments. Where I sit, it’s almost impossible for me to evaluate an individual faculty member’s teaching. For a dean and department chairs and the other faculty within the school, we have each other’s students... it was always quite clear to me which of my colleagues were particularly effective by comparing the knowledge that the students who had had their class versus having someone else. The knowledge is so much greater at a more local level.
Research, clearly, funded research is going to be a big part of what we reward. That’s the world we operate in. And I think service is another one that is easier to understand; you can read something and you don’t really know the area and gee that sounds like a good idea or why would you do that, whereas if you are in the area, you can more easily make decisions in terms of quality on a local level.
Clearly there needs to be in research some peers you are comparing yourself to. It isn’t simply: “We say this is what it is.” What if none of our peer universities are saying that? On the research side, it is a little clearer that there are objective outside standards and for the other they are more subjective and it’s much more known at the local level and not known at the central.
SN: Perhaps pulling against the decentralizing force of RCM is the centralizing force of gen ed. I remember being in the Faculty Senate as an assistant professor, one of my few service activities before tenure, and we were debating whether something like 65 or 70% of the gen ed classes should be taught by tenure stream faculty. And even then I knew we weren’t going to get anywhere near that. As we’ve casualized the labor force here--
NT: --and everywhere else.
SN: Yes. Our valuable colleagues not on the tenure track, whether full- or part-time, tend not to have the same degree of institutional memory and some of those who are part-time are teaching at 3 and 4 different schools. If we have a commitment to gen ed, how do we put our resources where our commitment is? Especially in a model where the money starts outside of any university-wide educational initiative? We’re already concerned about how gen ed is being staffed and administered. Recently, for instance, the deans have been given authority to set caps on both gen ed and writing intensive courses, which had historically not been the case.
NT: Caps on enrollment?
SN: Yes. It’s already had effects and worries us. We understand efficiencies, but some things are not pedagogically doable with certain numbers with for, example, writing-intensive courses.
NT: You mean minimum caps?
SN: No, for instance, the W/I courses used to be capped at 20 maximum but they have now floated up.
NT: They’ve gotten rid of the caps. I thought you meant they put in caps.
SN: No, no. I would have no trouble there. [Laughs.] One of the questions about how we are serving our undergraduates has to do with gen ed and what we can do to strengthen a sense of predictability and security in staffing them so that they’re getting teachers who have been here a while and are properly compensated. You see what I’m asking.
NT: I would say, not to keep going back to decentralized budgeting, but so many of these things flow through it in that we are in a resource-constrained environment and so money almost always matters in these things. I’d say if that there was one change I saw at IU over the 20 years is the number of high-profile faculty teaching entry-level courses went up dramatically with decentralized budgeting. Why? Because under the IU structure, the tuition revenue that had the faculty member teach the course. And so you had obvious incentive to want people to like your courses. So 100-level courses, the gate-keeper courses, if you wanted to end up with majors, if you have those schools that previously with lower quality entry-level courses didn’t end up with people in their 200- and 300-level courses.
SN: People would vote with their feet.
NT: Right. So you saw The College of Arts and Sciences was particularly effective at this, and so was the business school at making those 100-level courses some of the best we had ever seen. You provide disincentive for providing poor-quality courses. But it isn’t all finances. This has to be something that we have decided is important and we’re going to put resources behind it. It isn’t all driven by budget...That’s why I talked about earlier about a conversation about our higher and lower and priorities.
SN: And I’m wondering what you think about the rise of MOOCs, the Massive Open Online Courses. Reading the PA post-secondary ed report, which I don’t know if you have had a chance to read it.
NT: Yes, I did.
SN: The appendix observes that the PASSHE system has now farmed out the decision on whether the MOOCs will get credit to the CAEL, the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning. I am dubious about that. I don’t want to throw anything out the window, but...
NT: Well, the decision on credit is made by the university.
SN: And the faculty have to have a role in the decision.
NT: Faculty are in charge of the curriculum. Clearly. We’re not part of PASSHE, though.
SN: But insofar as PASSHE is also held up in that report as a model for performance-based funding, I wonder what sort of pressure there will be on the state-relateds to follow suit there.
NT: I come from a state that performance-based funding as long as, again, we’re clear about what it is we’ve prioritized and what we’re supposed to produce. In general, the MOOCs... I think there is definitely a role for online education. I’m not quite clear that an extremely large group of students taking a course online has much of a future... simply not in the business we’re in. There may be, and I don’t know the PASSHE schools, but I can imagine that someone picking up a course here and a course there that isn’t part of a degree program. I could see something like, I don’t know, strategic marketing. A student could say to himself, “I can sit at home and do that.” But that’s not going to be part of a Fox School of Business Degree.
SN: There was an article in The Chronicle today about San Jose State. They’re looking at Gen Ed and Intro level courses. One of the questions many have had is how the MOOCs would be monetized. These courses are free and costs enormous amounts of money to mount. How is this going to be even a break-even proposition let alone a profit-making one? The suggestion made by the recent move to grant credit to them is that you pay a fee for an intro level course at a cut rate compared even to what you’d pay a community college and that would then take out some of the credits. This would encourage students to then enroll at your school. This is where a group like CAEL comes in. But from where I sit, my concern is that then Gen Ed is getting even more and more removed from the core of the university.
NT: If we say Gen Ed are the courses everyone needs to have and then to follow that up by saying that those aren’t the courses that our faculty need to teach, well, then...
SN: That seems like a disconnect.
The president’s course in leadership
SN: One other topic has to do with funding graduate students. And I also want to spend at least a little time on Temple’s mission as an urban university in the community around it. I also have some final questions such as what would you do if you had more time to research or teach a class.
NT: I am going to teach next year.
SN: I thought I read you were going to teach.
NT: I’m going to do a course on leadership for incoming freshmen. There are two sides to this transaction. I’ve done something similar in my previous employment, and the students find the class useful, worthwhile, they learn something. But from my end, it keeps me in contact with students. I’ve worked for five presidents, and what has happened in five cases is they are all committed to being involved with students, but the pace of this schedule is such that something has to go. And I hate to say, it's just... Well, if you’re teaching a class, as you know...
SN: They’re right there in front of you.
NT: You can’t not be there, right? You can’t check out and sit there and be looking at your email when it’s going on. It’s just a discipline that’s built in. I’m going to do that with incoming freshmen. In the past, I’ve done something similar to identify something just like what you’re asking: What should we be at Temple? What are the problems here? I’ve found that isn’t simply that’s a good exercise for students, but the quality of the information you get in return. Now, I’ve always done this with seniors at IU, so this is going to the other end of the spectrum, but I think the same thing will be true. Better work than I could get form a consultant, because they’re people who really care about Temple. They really know a lot about undergraduates. They’re one of them. They’ll put a ton of work into it. They’ll talk with people. The answers I’ve gotten and the projects I’ve gotten in return’s been great.
SN: That sounds fantastic.
Funding Graduate and Undergraduate Students
SN: Thinking about funding graduate students, the easy answer is we just raise more money for it. But that’s not easy to do. It’s just the answer. I know it’s not easy to do.
NT: No, it’s not easy to do.
SN: I wonder how we go about it. You’ve run a successful capital campaign of which this is a part. What are the keys to that, specifically having to do first with funding undergraduate education? I think this speaks to mission because for example one initiative that Interim Provost Dai discussed at a recent Senate meeting is tying aid to SAT scores. That’s great, but one also worries about that if we’re also working to help educate under-represented groups, which is at the core of Temple and what it’s supposed to be doing, that can’t be our only strategy that way, and I imagine that Interim Provost Dai might agree...
NT: That’s exactly right. We spent about half of the last cabinet meeting talking about that very issue.
SN: That’s really interesting. So what’s your sense how we build in the well-being of our graduate and undergraduate students into a strategy for fundraising?
NT: I think they really are separable and different. Starting with graduate students. Part of that is fundraising, you’re right, having fellowships that are competitive. But that has to be something internally we value and say, we’re going to have Teaching Assistants, we’re going to have RAs, this is how these people afford to be here, to afford school. And we’re not going to bring in a large number of unsupported graduate students.
SN: Which is what we’re doing now.
NT: That is a model, to go back to the very first thing we talked about, that cannot work in the long term. We really have to look at how we use our graduate students and put them in situations where they can succeed. I’ve had TAs for 25 years, I’ve had Research Assistants—I ran a research center. If graduate education is really important to us, this is going to be one of those things where we have to generate more money somewhere else, whether it’s fundraising, but even if it’s not, from other sources that we’re going to use on this.
Raising money for undergraduates is a lot different. First of all, in my experience, it’s a whole lot easier to raise funds for undergraduates than it is for graduate students. That’s just reality. People our age, you and I, look at an 18 year-old differently than a 28 year-old. It’s just different, especially for those who didn’t go to graduate school themselves. They’re going to see them as widely different. I think that we raised five times as much for undergraduate scholarships as we raised for graduate fellowships, and we spent a lot more time working on the fellowships. It’s just a harder sell.
For undergraduates, the internships are crucial… graduate students are so specialized, getting them off campus much is more difficult. With undergraduates, providing them with internships, especially paid internships—that was one of the issues I was speaking with a donor this morning about. Even if they are not leaving campus for internships, capstone experiences that make them more ready to get a job when they’re done. That’s what you’re doing. Fundraising, getting them internships, making them world ready when they leave here, by having some kind of ending experience, whether it’s a thesis or some kind of leaving exam, so that they have some kind of portfolio to show future employers.
Temple, Philadelphia, and the Community: Admissions and the Example of Early College High Schools
NT: As far as Temple’s role in the neighborhood, that speaks to a topic we’ve already talked about, the role of the medical school and hospital. It’s part of our mission, but the costs have gotten to a point where we have to discuss what’s really viable here.
Two days ago, I had a wonderful conversation two days ago with the new superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, William Hite. I like him a lot. He and I talked about this very thing. What can the school district work with Temple on and vice versa? His view is that our teacher preparation program is fabulous. The people they are hiring out of the School of Education as teachers, they say: “You’re doing everything we would want you to do.”
The leadership role, though, has really changed in school districts. It has gotten to be a very political role. You have to be someone who can communicate with business interests, the city council.
SN: And in Philadelphia, to the state.
NT: Right. It’s less administration than it is being a change agent who can communicate, who can strategize. We need to be sure that we’re preparing people for those roles going up. We have a huge educational role.
As far as admissions, I mentioned we probably spent half of the last cabinet meeting talking about this. There are future physicians, business leaders, and authors in every neighborhood. Our mission is to find them and make sure they succeed at Temple. Now, the SAT may or may not be the right predictor, I’m not an expert in this area. We simply have to look at the results. They’ll tell you whether you are doing this or not. If you have very few from this zip code and a whole bunch of people from that zip code, that may suggest you’re not using the right criteria. But it isn’t clear what that criteria is. That’s something that Superintendent Hite and I discussed.
SN: One of the issues I’ve been tangentially involved with when I was Director of Undergraduate Studies in English was the idea of an Early College High Schools.
NT: Yes, I’m familiar with them.
SN: I’m not surprised given your deep knowledge of the K-12 system. I read an article of yours about what role universities should play in charter schools. The Early College High Schools are a somewhat different animal, but it’s in the same family.
There are two initiatives I’ve been involved with. One is the Community-Based Learning Network, and I’ve done a service-based learning course, as it’s sometimes called. Another is a more concentrated commitment that comes with both high-risk and high-reward. I’m not sure if you know the history of this at Temple. We’ve actually been approached now twice on this by foundations. Since I’ve worked on it, I suppose I’d like to see it happen, though I know it is not my decision to make. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.
NT: I have lots of thoughts and no conclusions. The reality of running a K-12 school is the dailyness of it. Research faculty have commitments that make it very difficult to mesh their work life with the dailyness of those requirements. However, there are roles we can play in those schools. So as far as actually operating a school, I would have to be convinced, just because faculty have so many commitments elsewhere. The teaching is going to require for me to be there. Same thing for a K-12 school, you’ve got to be there for parent conferences. But does that really fit with the context we’re in.
I had a meeting with Rev Johnson from Bright Hope Baptist Church; he and his family came to my house for dinner. We spent a lot of the time talking about how kids learn. This university is one of the world leaders in how the brain works, about new ways of knowing how kids learn. Gee, why don’t we try bringing that knowledge more into our neighborhood? High school may be a little late, actually, if you’re looking at changing a kid’s pathway. Might be in elementary. But it could be either one. We’re really the expertise providers, rather than the day-to-day operators. That’s a model that makes more sense to me.
SN: We got as far with the previous School Reform Commission leadership, and of course, when you have a change in leadership that makes a difference. I think they were going to give us an academy inside a pre-existing school, so the day-to-day operations that would be beyond the time and capacities of the average faculty member we wouldn’t be doing... We would be there to teach the courses and we would have designed the curriculum. Of course, the question is what how the person who runs it day-to-day is going to be compensated.
NT: All of that can be worked out, though. The real question is who is going to be there day to day, 6 hours a day for 180 days. I’m open to those ideas, it’s just...
SN: It’s a serious question.
NT: Exactly. We have to realize that we are a research institution, and the expectations of faculty make it very hard for them to commit to being somewhere else an hour a day 180 days a year. We can’t just say to them, do everything you’re doing now, Steve, but also now do this. It won’t work. We have to be realistic.
Conclusion: Temple as a Public Urban University
SN: I’m thrilled that you’ve already met with the superintendent. Temple has had to pivot somewhat in thinking about where it is going to get students from, out of state tuition brings money into the coffers, so I’m not blithe or indifferent to those pressures, but...
NT: We’re a public university.
SN: And we’re an urban university, and for a lot of us that really matters.
NT: It does. To me, too. To me, too. In fact, that’s an issue we’re tracking weekly. What is the diversity of our applicant pool, our admit pool, our in-state/out-of-state, all of those things matter. We are a public university of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that’s where we start the discussion.
NT: Well, thank you. Let’s do this again, and in six months I’ll be able to answer the rest of your questions.
SN: I would love to do this again, and you’ve certainly answered a great many of my questions already.
NT: Sign up for a lunch.
SN: I plan to. And thanks again for your time. I really appreciate it. •