My previous post stirred some people's emotions. Reading the comments, it seems part of that came from the tension between teaching and research in modern American universities.
In most countries, the role of universities is solely to educate their students. That's true of many colleges in the United States, but not of Research I universities. The majority of American universities you've heard of belong to this category: Harvard, Yale, UCLA, Stanford, MIT, CMU, Princeton, etc. In addition to teaching, these institutions have another equally important role, which is to produce high-quality research that benefits society. Indeed, many of the game-changing discoveries or inventions in the last century have been entirely or partly developed at American Research I universities: The Internet, Google, the cure for polio, vitamin D milk, even Gatorade. To a large extent, this is where Nobel prizes are won, and where the future is invented.
American Research I universities are also mostly responsible for educating the smartest people in the country (or even the world), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. This includes most doctors, lawyers, politicians, US presidents, dot com billionaires, and yes, even Lady GaGa.
Combining these two very important roles may have benefits, but it also causes an unspoken tension. Is the job of a professor primarily to educate or to do research?
The interesting thing is that everybody seems to have a different opinion about this. Students and their paying parents, of course, think professors are there solely to educate; Professors mostly think they are there to do research; and university administrators seem to change their tune depending on whom they’re talking to.
As usual with me, I have more questions than answers. Should research and education be combined in this manner? Should professors primarily concentrate on research or teaching?
Regardless of what should happen, I can tell you that at least from a tenure-track professor’s point of view, the system at the vast majority of Research I universities is extremely biased towards the research side. Most of my friends at other universities chose to be professors because they want to do research without being pressed by economic outcomes like they would in a company, and consider teaching a bearable chore that they must do to get the freedom and prestige of being a professor. The hiring of faculty (at least at the ~15 Research I universities that have offered me a job) pays almost no attention to the potential quality of the candidates as teachers. The tenure process also puts teaching in the back seat. So in essence, professors are largely not selected, evaluated, or rewarded based on teaching.
This is not to say that there are no good teachers among the faculty at Research I universities. Many of the faculty both here at CMU and elsewhere are outstanding instructors and work very hard on their teaching. However, they do so out of pure love (and possibly a misconceived sense of duty), because the system is not set up for this.
Since I don’t want to get in trouble again with the commenters, I will end with a few disclaimers. First, I do spend a significant amount of time on my teaching (as evidenced by having won the teaching award). Second, there are very good institutions that educate smart people in the US that are not Research I universities and that concentrate solely on teaching.