Editor’s note: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly classified Lehigh University as an R1 institution. It is an R2 institution. This does not change the editorial board’s stance on the matter.
When nearly 85 students registered for a section of organic chemistry last spring, they did not think the professor standing at the front of the room for the fall semester would change. They thought they would spend one-eighth of their college careers learning everything about organic chemistry from the same professor in the same room every week.
About a month into the semester, their section was combined with another. A new professor was now standing at the front of the room. Their previous professor, Ned Heindel, was removed from teaching a section of organic chemistry after numerous complaints about his teaching abilities. Before his section of the class was officially assigned to another professor, students attended their now official professor’s lectures to learn the material.
This drastic situation led to the removal of the professor, but this is rare. It is common, however, for students to attend lectures for professors other than their assigned section. When the instructor is inept at teaching, students often attend lectures given by professors for a different section of the same class.
When these students do well, they succeed in spite of the professor. Too often students are forced to learn material without the help of their instructor because the professor cannot convey the information to the large group of students in the classroom. Students should not be collateral damage when professors cannot effectively teach.
According to his website, Heindel typically teaches classes in his “research expertise,” which seems more complex than the organic chemistry class he was teaching. His research abilities are not in question, but his teaching ability was not up to that same level. This conflict led to a group of students who felt he was not good in a “large classroom setting.”
Professors are hired for a combination of their research abilities and teaching abilities. Lehigh University is classified as an R2: Doctoral Universities: Higher Research Activity. R1 universities tend to put more emphasis on research, while R3 universities tend to place more emphasis on professor’s teaching than their research. R2 universities fall in the middle of those two. While both teaching and research are important at both R1, R2 and R3 universities, professors at R2 universities such as Lehigh are expected to research more than those at R3 institutions. The “publish or perish” mentality is present at Lehigh and these other universities, Afshan Jafar argued on Inside Higher Ed that this leads to a lack of emphasis on teaching by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, meaning professors conduct more research than their counterparts at R3 universities.
Lehigh touts itself as a place for research and collaboration. It’s inspiring to attend a school where breakthroughs in research are routine and cutting-edge technology is available for student use. The R2 classification means there is enough funding for projects, and students have the opportunity to conduct research with professors. This drive to conduct groundbreaking research, however, should not take away from classroom learning.
A professor’s research should not detract from teaching. As students, our primary goal is to learn in the classroom. That learning cannot occur without the effective instruction of professors. Just as the university expects excellence in research, we as students should expect excellence in instructors’ teaching abilities.
At an institution of higher education, education in the classroom should be paramount. Research abilities are not synonymous with teaching abilities, and this is painfully evident when brilliant professors can’t convey basic ideas to large groups of students.
Sometimes, world-renowned researchers are teaching intro level courses to students who can barely grasp the basics of something an expert is teaching them. Professors are tasked with the sometimes undesirable challenge of reaching students with only basic knowledge of a subject. Even then, it is their job as teachers to teach the material.
Education should be the chief priority of universities, and this education cannot occur without professors to educate students. Professors are teachers, and teaching should be as important as research.