Clock ticking for UA

"60 Minutes" was not kind to the University of Arizona.

In an expos‚ about teaching versus research, CBS used our dear university as an illustration.

And the points hit home.

This is not the first time the UA has been approached about the quality of undergraduate education. In August, ABC called the Wildcat, asking questions for a possible piece about student dissatisfaction with undergraduate education.

The administration blasted the Wildcat for mentioning the ABC inquiry, and purported that we made it up, or at least put a spin on the story to serve our own ends. Sorry, but if two different networks put the UA under the magnifying glass at two different times, it's hard to posit that the Wildcat is mastermind behind the scenes.

It appears UA's national reputation is rather tarnished, and we weren't the only ones who noticed. And it's time the university bigwigs pay attention.

For those who missed our 15 minutes of national fame, at least outside of a sports arena, here is a synopsis:

The UA is a research institution, first and foremost. The academic giants listed in the college catalog and brochures have little, if any, contact with students. Many courses are taught by teaching assistants, some of whom have problems speaking English clearly, thereby hampering the students' education. Tenure is evil. Tenure is good.

Everything worsens exponentially if you're a freshman.

And students would rather read the Wildcat than pay attention in boring, overstuffed classes.

That last point may be an ego-booster to the Wildcat staff, but it's not right. I would love to think that my words are more compelling than a lecture, but I realize that reading the Wildcat in class is not necessarily a comment on our greatness, but rather a negative comment on teaching quality.

To be fair, the educational turmoil is not isolated to the UA campus. Large universities everywhere are scrounging for dollars, which often come in the form of research grants.

Grants are a scholastic, and often economic, necessity in the world of academe. Research, and therefore research money, keeps this often out-of-touch world spinning.

However, when a university uses graduate students to teach its undergraduates and mold kids' education, it falls short of its mission. Teaching assistants should be just that Ä assistants to professors. I've suffered through too many T.A.'s painful first days to endorse letting fellow students single-handedly take on a class.

The flip side of the T.A. practice is that many good students learn, through practice, to become good teachers. Plus the teaching assistant program helps graduate students get through school. It's not a worthless idea, it just needs refining to benefit the students and the student/teachers.

Once those assistants get teaching jobs, they face an entirely new ballgame, which "60 Minutes" also outlined. The question of tenure, and "publish or perish."

People hired to teach students are pressured to publish their research, if they want to keep their jobs (a.k.a. get tenure). A university instructor should do research and keep current in her field, but must also focus on students' education. The research vs. teaching balance is perilous and almost impossible to maintain.

Trying to get tenure is like grabbing at the gold ring Ä you try and try, and once you get it, you're set. You've got academic gold. Tenure is essentially having a job for life, a rare gift also shared with being a Supreme Court Justice.

Justification for tenure is an open educational atmosphere, where brilliant scholars are able to conduct their research and teach free from administrative politics. They can create controversies with their work, and not have to worry about playing the brown-nosing game.

This concept is good in theory, except it doesn't work. At least not in full. Tenure may attract and keep excellent academic minds, but students are the ones who suffer in some cases because research and publication weighs too heavily in deciding who gets tenure.

Or which departments survive. For instance, the journalism department is facing elimination, and one of the administration's main arguments is lack of research. Dedication to good teaching should never be punished.

I've had some wonderful teachers who have been burned by tenure, and then suffered through classes with professors who should have been taken off the roster years ago. I've also had professors who clearly did not want to be teaching, and appeared to think of teaching as a mandated bother.

For instance, last year I took a history class with one of the best teachers I've had at the UA. He was passionate about his subject and passionate about teaching. You can judge a teacher by the number of students who take a class just because he's teaching it.

Needless to say, the UA lost this teacher to another institution, and students are still talking about it.

A university with a huge undergraduate population, like the UA, needs to find good teachers, and keep them.

While undergraduate education is not as sexy as millions in research dollars, it is necessary. Maybe the core curriculum idea, if planned correctly, can help bring up the level of quality. But, while the concept of having big-time professors teach freshmen is attractive, we must make sure the emphasis is on quality, but quantity.

Sarah Garrecht is Wildcat editor in chief and a journalism senior.

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