McKissick’s departure underscores conflict

It is often said that students learn the most in college outside of class. As graduating seniors, some of our most lasting memories probably will not involve textbooks or course readers.

However, it is also true that some of the people who have touched our lives the most are our professors. We have all had at least one special instructor who sparked our interest, made trekking across the Hill in a blizzard worth it and changed the way we looked at a subject – or even at the world around us.

For many students, that professor was Gary McKissick. McKissick, who arrived at Walnut Hill seven years ago, originally taught in both the political science department and the Community Health Program. He earned a reputation as a stellar teacher who was passionate about his subject matter and genuinely cared about students, and his acclaimed teaching won him the Professor of the Year Award in 2006.

It may come as a shock to many students, then, that a professor of the year is being forced out of the university. McKissick’s lack of outside research prompted him to withdraw himself from the tenure review process the same year that he won his award. It may come as a further shock that tenure-track professors who are not approved for tenure are typically asked to leave the university – despite any teaching accolades they may have accrued.

To avoid being forced out of the teaching position he so loved, McKissick transferred to a full-time job in the Community Health Program, where he and other staffers had fashioned a position that combined teaching with administrative duties to relieve the program’s burden. While the program tried to have McKissick stay on at Tufts, recognizing the immense value he had as a teacher and as a staffer for the growing Community Health Program, others in the administration did not see eye-to-eye. McKissick said Dean of Arts and Sciences Robert Sternberg denied him permission to stay on in his new position, even though the program had a slot for him and had allotted money within its budget to pay his salary. According to McKissick, Sternberg essentially fired a man recognized as one of Tufts’ best instructors.

The policy of not keeping on tenure-track professors who are denied tenure is a common one, and it is, if not merciful, somewhat understandable: Tenure-track positions are intended to be comprised of both teaching and outside research. However, refusing to allow those professors who have demonstrated excellence in their teaching abilities to switch into non-tenure-track lecturer positions impedes what is ultimately the university’s most important goal: educating its students.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that Sternberg may have denied McKissick permission to remain at Tufts. Since arriving in 2005, Sternberg has mounted a campaign to change the face of Tufts into a top research institution, spearheading a successful initiative to allow junior faculty members two semesters of research leave instead of one. Over the last two years, an average of 30 professors have taken research leaves or sabbaticals, compared to an average of 22 over the four previous years.

Research is, of course, an extremely important part of remaining a top-tier university. Sadly, though, Sternberg seems to be willing to sacrifice the quality of teaching on the Hill in order to increase research. Sternberg’s focus seems to be placed on something other than the quality of undergraduate education at Tufts: “The purpose of a sabbatical is to enable faculty to have time off to advance their research, and thereby to increase the reputation of the university,” Sternberg once told the Daily in an e-mail. While maintaining a high reputation is undeniably important, the quality of education is far more so.

Both Sternberg and Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser have maintained in past interviews with the Daily that quality research and quality teaching go hand in hand. Sternberg said that “research and teaching are not a zero-sum game,” while Glaser said that “there is a strong correlation between research-active departments and excellent teaching departments.”

Perhaps it’s time for Sternberg to revisit an undergraduate classroom. While it is often exciting to see a professor’s name on a textbook cover, too many students have felt that excitement wane upon realizing that their professor would much rather be in his office conducting research or out doing fieldwork. A professor does not need to have personally discovered the information he’s teaching in order to convey it in a passionate and thought-provoking way. Teaching is a skill of its own, and it should be recognized as such at Tufts.

The Class of 2008 first came to the Hill at an exciting point in the university’s history: Tufts was growing by leaps and bounds and had been nationally recognized by Newsweek as a “New Ivy.” Part of what attracted many of us to Tufts – and what made the university so unique – was the balance struck between the environment of a small liberal arts college that emphasized quality teaching and the impressive Ivy League-level research the university was starting to produce.

With McKissick’s allegedly forced removal, the scales have tipped dangerously toward overvaluing research and undervaluing quality classroom performance. As Tufts continues to grow, it is vital that the administration not forget the balance that it once boasted.