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OREM, Utah — Of the many things that happen at a university, it seemed among the most mundane: the periodic task of coming up with those “core values” that flash from websites or are splashed on banners hung from campus light poles.

At Utah Valley University, or UVU, the process started smoothly. A committee of faculty and staff agreed with newly inaugurated President Astrid Tuminez that the institution should be about “exceptional care” for students. Another priority: “exceptional results.” 

Then Tuminez, a former Microsoft executive, proposed a third core value: “exceptional accountability.” And the conversation skidded to a halt.

“That was where I got the most pushback,” she said. Faculty leaders told her, she recounted, that “accountability” was “a terrible word that is used to bash academia. We cannot have that as our core value.” 

Tuminez wants to raise the graduation rate at UVU, where only 33 percent of students seeking a four-year bachelor’s degree earn one within six years. That’s about half the national average and makes the campus 499th out of the 593 public universities and colleges for which graduation rates are available from the U.S. Department of Education.

But many faculty interpret “accountability” as a corporate term and criticize such things as basing budgets on achieving performance goals and allowing student reviews to influence decisions on tenure and promotion — approaches they say are already dumbing down what and how they teach.

“I’ve seen a lot of corporate leaders come to higher ed and think they can run it like a bank. And you can’t. It’s not a bank. It’s not a retail company. There are complexities to it that are different on purpose.”

Dave Kieffer, principal analyst,Tambellini Group

It’s a revealing example of how people inside higher education often bristle at adopting strategies from the private sector, and why colleges and universities continue to be slow to change.

“I’ve seen a lot of corporate leaders come to higher ed and think they can run it like a bank. And you can’t. It’s not a bank. It’s not a retail company. There are complexities to it that are different on purpose,” said Dave Kieffer, principal analyst at the higher education research and advisory firmthe Tambellini Group. “Coming in guns blazing generally does not work very well.”

On the other hand, said Kieffer, faculty need to “look at the modern world and figure out how to adapt to that.” 

This clash of cultures is being waged against a backdrop of unprecedented financial and enrollment challenges and pressure to improve low productivity and poor success rates — and at a time when more nonacademics are being appointed college and university presidents.

Utah Valley University. A new president who came to the university from the corporate sector finds herself at odds with faculty as she tries to raise student success rates. Credit: Steven Vargo for The Hechinger Report

There are few campuses that better illustrate this clash than UVU.

Charges and countercharges have been flying at this public university that’s the largest in the state, with 43,000 students. Among other controversies, the suicide of a 73-year-old veteran faculty member was blamed by 16 of his colleagues on “completely unsubstantiated” allegations they said were aimed by the administration at “demoralizing and defaming” a professor known for teaching one of the toughest courses on the campus and who the university said graded in a way that was “arbitrary and capricious.” An appeals court in April dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university brought by his widow.

Related: As enrollment falls and public skepticism grows, some colleges are cutting their prices

Other faculty complain that the focus on improving graduation rates is giving too much weight to student ratings of instructors, or SRIs — anonymous, Yelp-like reviews — in decisions about granting tenure, promotions and raises. This, and what they perceive as a crackdown on the toughest teachers, they say, coerce them into trying to keep students happy by making courses less demanding and awarding higher grades that aren’t deserved.

“I know grades are inflating. I do it myself. I actually lower my standards,” John Hunt, who teaches history, told Tuminez at a contentious meeting of the faculty senate she attended in October, a video of the meeting shows. As a consequence, he said, “I’ve seen my students’ ability to learn, to write, to comprehend material plummet” — including the many, Hunt pointed out, who are destined to go on to work as history teachers. 

Only 33 percent of Utah Valley University students seeking four-year bachelor’s degrees earn one within six years.

UVU administrators discount this, and provided data showing that grades are up a modest two-tenths of a point over the last decade. What they’re pushing faculty to do, Tuminez said, is not make it easier for their students to pass, but to give them more support so they won’t fail. Admission to the university is open to anyone; 26 percent of those who enroll have incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants and 37 percent are the first in their families to pursue degrees. Students in both groups often need more help than their higher-income counterparts whose parents have experience with college. 

The stakes have gotten higher now that Utah legislators are tying millions of dollars in funding for UVU the state’s other public higher education institutions to meeting goals including raising graduation rates and the number of degrees conferred. 

That comes as universities and colleges nationwide are confronting not only poor success rates but enrollment declines and other crises and competition from fast-growing online providers such as Utah-based Western Governors University. 

Related: How higher education lost its shine

“It’s almost, you are in your world of academia, and you have not looked out to see what else is going on in the world,” Tuminez said of some of her critics on the faculty. “When you see that over 500 colleges have closed in America, I can’t even begin to emphasize how important that is.” 

Meanwhile, she said of students, “if you paid in money, if you paid in time, you expect a certain impact for yourself” — namely, a degree or some other useful credential.

But students aren’t customers, faculty shoot back, and faculty are not employees who can be managed; under long-held tradition, they share responsibility for governing the universities and colleges where they work.

Utah Valley University. A new president who came to the university from the corporate sector finds herself at odds with faculty as she tries to raise student success rates. Credit: Steven Vargo for The Hechinger Report

“Corporations are different. To them, the customer is the whole thing,” said Masood Amin, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who was turned down for a promotion — in part, he suspects, because he teaches tough subjects, including thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, and got lower-than-average SRIs in some of his courses. 

“The students are important for us, but our program [is] also,” Amin said. It “needs to have some rigor. If we were to hand out degrees and grades very easily to students, we would lose our credibility.” 

Administrators who treat faculty as employees have it backward, said Scott Abbott, a professor of philosophy and integrated studies. 

“Our version of things is the administrators are the employees,” Abbott said. Universities need experts in the disciplines they teach, “and then you hire some people to make sure there’s housing for the students and maybe insurance for the students and whatever else you need, who can get some buildings built for the students and faculty.”

“The tensions we’re feeling right now are because it feels like administrators are trying to run parts of our university that are better left to the faculty.”

Scott Abbott, a professor of philosophy and integrated studies at Utah Valley University.

Those two groups can’t exist without each other, Abbott said. “And the fact that we need each other means that we have to respect each other and respect each other’s competence. The tensions we’re feeling right now are because it feels like administrators are trying to run parts of our university that are better left to the faculty.” 

More than one in four university and college faculty nationwide are dissatisfied with their jobs; 70 percent of those have considered a career change, according to a September survey by the course materials provider Cengage, and 29 percent cite what they say is a lack of support from their institutions or a sense of pressure from administrators.

Related:After the pandemic disrupted their high school educations, students are arriving at college unprepared 

Those administrators increasingly include presidents who did not come up through the traditional faculty ranks. More than 40 percent of presidents now serving never held a tenured or tenure-track position, research at Virginia Commonwealth University has estimated.

Tuminez became president of UVU in 2018. After having run corporate and legal affairs in southeast Asia for Microsoft, she was surprised, at an early university budget meeting, to find department heads and academic chairs lined up to ask for money, but “nobody report[ing] what they did with the money last year or two years ago or three years ago, or how much money they’re sitting on that they haven’t spent.” 

That has changed. Among other shifts, nonfaculty staff now also undergo what Tuminez said is the “very corporate practice” of performance reviews on which merit pay increases are determined. “It creates a lot of clear, good conversation and feedback.” 

When faculty and staff proposed a symbolic acknowledgment of the Native American tribes that originally lived where the campus is now, she asked why enrollment and graduation rates for Native American students weren’t higher, and directed work to begin to address that. As for graduation rates that weren’t increasing, and dropout rates that didn’t decline, she said, “you have to ask why.”

Tuminez paused. “So that’s what I mean by accountability.” 

She cited the Buddhist idea that two seemingly opposite things can coexist — in this case, academic purity and corporate-style accountability. 

“If by ‘corporate’ you mean hardworking, results-oriented, accountable about resources,” Tuminez said, “then ‘corporate’ is a great word.” 

Many faculty at universities and colleges are open to accountability, said Kieffer. But “I have encountered institutions where there are very knee-jerk reactions to anything the administration wants to do. And they basically say, ‘Leave me alone and let me do my thing.’ ” There are also faculty, he said, “who want to engage in the conversation and figure out how to get it right.”

UVU has an Innovation Academy that’s working to improve student success rates by, among other things, connecting general education courses in subjects such as composition or ethics with real-world projects. One botany class developed signage for a local national park so visitors could identify the plants and animals, for instance. A university analysis shows that this approach has sharply reduced dropout rates. 

Related: Struggling small colleges are joining the ‘sharing economy’ — teaming up to share courses and majors

Students “have to see something tangible” from the classes they’re required to take, said Tammy Clark, UVU’s associate provost for academic innovation.“Especially in these times where higher education is getting a hit for ‘Are you relevant?,’ I think this is our chance to say, ‘Yes, we are.’ ”

Even these efforts to show students how they might use their educations has gone slower than anticipated, however, said Clark, a chemist by training who previously worked in drug development at a pharmaceutical company before moving into higher education — a shift she said “was a little shocking. It was a different culture.” 

Tammy Clark, associate provost for academic innovation at Utah Valley University. At colleges and universities, “there’s a lot of fear” of taking risks, Clark says. Credit: Steven Vargo for The Hechinger Report

Some faculty have been reluctant to innovate out of fear it could affect their SRIs, Clark said, and, in turn, their chances at promotion or tenure. 

In industry, “you can push the envelope,” but the expectation is that you will “learn from it if you fail. So if something goes wrong, that’s completely fine.” At colleges and universities, “there’s a lot of fear of doing that.”

It’s no wonder, Abbott said. “If I had a new colleague just coming in on the tenure track, and I knew that that person was going to be judged the way people are being judged now by deans and the provost and president, I would say, ‘The most important thing you can do is to get good SRI scores and comments. So teach an easy class and make your students happy.’ ” 

He paused, reflective. 

“Look how old I am,” said Abbott, who is 73. “So maybe all I’m talking about is my own resistance to change. I worry about that every day.” 

Inside the engineering building at Utah Valley University. A third of students seeking four-year bachelor’s degrees here graduate within six years, significantly lower than the national average. Credit: Steven Vargo for The Hechinger Report

On the other side of the campus, Tuminez, too, reflected about why higher education finds it so hard to change. One reason, she said, is because it hasn’t often had to. Since World War II, the number of students had kept growing and tuition revenue kept coming in.

Those days are over, she said, sitting at a conference table in her office, which is dominated by a statue of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, wisdom and learning.

“We are operating today in an America where higher education in some quarters, it’s hated, it’s being devalued, it’s being disparaged. And it takes a long time for the human mind to say, ‘Wow, my landscape has completely changed.’ ” 

This story about change in higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Additional reporting by Jon Reed. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon MarcusHIGHER EDUCATION EDITOR

Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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  1. “Let no one day saying, ‘Had I the training. ‘”. This poster was a daily reminder to us in my Army days about the accountability of teaching others.

    I have also been a student for 12 years in higher education. I took my current job, which was $30,000 less than other job offers, to work at a university just to get free classes. While my degree is in business, I currently take whatever class interests me for the last 3 years.

    It’s a long story, but I started off as an Environmental Science major, my last semester I had to leave the school, restart elsewhere from the beginning to get a Buisness degree, now I am graduated and working on a Bachelor’s of Fine Art. I also have various certificates from engineering and mechanic courses I’ve taken. I’ve been employed in engineering positions, research, and in IT.

    These professors, it’s not that their courses are rigorous. These are smart intelligent students. These professors tend to be bad at their primary job. To
    teach. They don’t seem to care about their students, just that they are seen as right. Maybe my experience in the Army taught me different, but if you can’t teach, why are you being allowed to continue teaching? The ability to teach is a huge factor in whether or not someone becomes an instructor in the Army. These people are the best in their field and held to extremely rigorous standards. And they teach people of all backgrounds how to do the job, and do it right, even people who can’t read.

    It’s a huge contrast to what I’ve experienced in 12 years of taking classes. I’ve often had professors who don’t even seem to read the $600 textbooks they require. Their assignments, principles, and subject matter aren’t even contained in the book. I’ve even received outdated information especially in my science subjects. It’s not about having a rigorous professor, but how do you study if all the material they provide covers none of what they teach, let alone TEST? And most of the time, trying to meet the professor is a joke and waste of time. When they kick you out of the office and tell you to spend time in the library, you walk away with not only a sense they don’t care, but also wondering why they are a teacher if they don’t well… Teach. It’s their subject, and if they can’t teach it, why am I here? If they can’t be bothered to create or have course materials related to what they teach, do they even care or spend time to create a course? Or are they more concerned about their research? Why is the TA teaching me, if they don’t even know how to teach or can even answer my questions about the subject matter?

    You can make the argument that part of being a student, is researching out of class, but that brings up the some of the following:
    Why am I in this class if I am teaching myself with non-class materials? Why am I paying for this professor if I am learning BETTER from YouTube, Wikipedia, and the Library (besides a piece of paper)? Where do I even start, if I don’t have any reference material because the expensive paperweight book that apparently is inapplicable to the class and therefore, useless? Why is this professor having me take LinkedIn courses and YouTube videos that others created and then the tests are different from even that? Lazy professor, know the material you require please. Did you professor, even subscribe to someone else’s lesson plan and not even bother to learn what was being taught in said course? I could have googled these courses myself! Could you professor, at least pick related material, and why am I paying you if I am learning off of YouTube? Also, if what I am learning from other sources, is a better instructor then you, why am I here? Besides the obvious part, I need this degree for a better job. Again, you are a teacher, and if aren’t capable or willing or to stubborn to improve your teaching, I as a student don’t care how smart you are, because you are useless too me. Go find a corporate job, you’re not a teacher.

    If a professor can’t be held accountable, just because that’s what they want to do, or tradition, or whatever crap reason they throw out, then how do you get good teachers? Sure, you may be an expert, at the top of the field, but your job isn’t to be the best, it’s to teach. If a professor can’t learn how to teach, they shouldn’t. It’s not practical anymore to have crap instructors teach me or anyone for that matter. I absolutely hate it when I go into a course and know more then the professor, or worse, when their information is out of date. Especially in science courses, out of date information can be detrimental because all that time you research out of class is wasted. A good student is going to be able to find current research and information. If the professor hasn’t updated the lesson plan since they got tenure 15 years ago, that good student is screwed. Ever pay $1500 for an out of print book because the professor hasn’t updated a course in decades? I have, for a science course (I also know this course is still taught, by the same guy, and if he hasn’t been corrected, that would make this course around 20 years out of date, wth). And that was after I spent $400 for the latest edition of said book. I found out from a review site that was the only way to pass, because the information and the field had changed so much, the latest text was too different, but the professor hadn’t been bothered to update anything (microbiology, climate, soil, and farming have just changed so much in research, information, and techniques).

    Bottom line, if a professor teaches like junk, their courses are junk, then their quality of education is junk. Ive taken tons of classes from military, higher Ed, and corporate teachers. By far, higher education has the most lopsided quality.

    Some professors are great, about 1/3 of them are junk, and of course, everything in between. But one thing I’ll never forget, is how bad most of my science and history professors were (terrible teachers and many used outdated information, most never even used the textbook that’s the backbone of the courses education) and how YouTube channels like Extra Credits, SciShow, Baz Battles, and many others were where I got my education. My professors, ultimately, in those classes, were tenured jokes.

    I bet you this professor who lost his promotions lost it because students pointed out his instruction, testing, and homework don’t line up with the class material, and often, with such a granular subject, can’t be found or easily explained if your instructor is bad, like the field of hysteresis in engineering. That isn’t about rigor, it’s about poor instruction. Overall, professors (usually, science and history) are the worst teachers.

    Students aren’t concerning themselves as much as you think about rigor, they lament “Had I the training,” because their teacher doesn’t know how to teach let alone write out a course. I’m glad I already have a degree. Now Im here just take Art classes for my lunch break. Worth it.

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