On teaching at Quinnipiac

This draws the close on my second teaching appointment, having taught in the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University from 2006 to 2012. I recently sat next to someone on a plane who was about to receive her Ph.D. in Communications, and she noted that it no longer seems like you take an academic job for life. That certainly seems to be the case for me, at least so far in my career. I suspect it’s true for more faculty members today than it was two decades ago, and that (particularly with post-tenure review) it will continue to be.

As I did with Buffalo, I feel moved to provide something of a post-mortem, a review of the university without feeling like I need to pull any punches. As I look over what comes below, I realize that it might be seen by some as a bit more bridge-burning than intended, but it’s nothing I didn’t say privately as a member of the community. I still hold the faculty in high esteem, and I still think there is great potential in Quinnipiac. Perhaps what is reflected below is my belief that such potential is not being effectively realized.

Ultimately, Quinnipiac was not the best fit for me. I am not an impartial observer, and what worked poorly for me might work very well for others. QU has a surprisingly large number of dedicated, bright teachers, and that it is a good fit for them speaks volumes about the university as a whole.

What’s Great About Quinnipiac

1. The Campus

Some of the architecture is a bit love-it-or-hate-it, though most (all?) of the buildings were built by the same firm, so you get fairly consistent design cues. The natural situation of the main campus at the foot of Sleeping Giant, and the York Hill campus, with a view over the foothills is breathtaking. Especially in the autumn, walking northward on the campus can be awe inspiring.

The grounds are kept neat and taken great care of. Many of the parents get the feeling of a country club, which no doubt is by design. It can feel a bit corporate, and perhaps because I am more accustomed to the scale of larger universities, when I first arrived it felt a lot like a private high school. The library is comfortable and attractive. The new Rocky Top student center feels like a comfortable lodge resort.

It falls a bit short when it comes to classrooms, which also are very reminiscent of high school classrooms, for the most part. On the new graduate campus, the similarity to a corporate campus is much more extreme: that’s what it was (Blue Cross) until just a few years ago, and the office suites and meeting rooms are much more comfortable and conducive to seminars. But on the main campus, the inside is rarely as pretty as the outside.

2. Student-Centered / Class Size

Although this is changing, I think, it was great to come from an impacted public university and undergraduate course sizes in the hundreds to a department with an average undergraduate course size of 16. It appears that isn’t sustainable, and there are pushes to change to way teaching load is calculated, but the largest room on campus couldn’t hold the smallest freshman lecture from a large state school. On the other hand, the graduate courses, particularly online, are too large.

There is also a real focus on teaching and improving teaching among most of the faculty. There are the star teachers you would get on any university campus, but the median teacher is also excited about teaching and supported in many ways by the administration in their teaching role. Likewise, I think that QU serves the average student better than most schools do, and provides not nearly as much for the exceptional student. I suspect just the opposite is true for many large state schools and elite private universities.

3. Collegiality

There is still the feeling that it is a small school, and faculty know one another and are genuinely friendly. I feel like I probably missed out on some of this, since I lived so far away. But the truth is a lot of faculty live far from the campus (if not as a far as I do). Actually, it may be that lack of proximity that promotes collegiality. It may also be that the School of Communications was more friendly than some of the other schools. (I get the feeling there was some strife in one College in particular), but I think, on the whole, the faculty got along well with one another and there was less plotting, scheming, and arguing that there is on many campuses. This extended also–for the most part–to administrators, though many faculty seemed to have a conflicted view of the president.

4. Resources

This is a hard one, but generally speaking, there was money to do things you wanted to do. Or, at the very least, you didn’t feel like you were working under the sword of Damocles the way you might at a school reliant on state funds. If you had an interesting project that appealed to the president, you didn’t have to jump through tons of hoops to make it happen.

5. Students

They were the best of students, they were the worst of students. I can’t comment too much on the undergrads, but we attracted some amazingly bright, articulate, and dedicated graduate students during my time at QU. I said it more than once–I would put the top 50% of our classes up against any grad program in the US–and maybe even up against any of their top 50%. In many cases, proximity or subject matter drew them to QU, but they could have thrived in any strong program.

What Isn’t

In the end, the things that are wrong outweighed the above advantages for me.

1. Mission Shift / Administrative Caprice

If you don’t like what the university is doing, wait a few years. In some ways, it feels like the president likes retail therapy. You know what we need? A medical school! How about a school of engineering! These are the most recent ventures, but they are at the expense of the core existing programs at the university. Better to be large and mediocre than small and excellent. No doubt, this has something to do with the need to collect tuition from a larger student base. It’s frustrating, of course, when the gaze and resources of the president’s office wanders, but more frustrating that you don’t know which way to look. By the time I left, I had mission fatigue, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

2. Teaching Load

Very simply said, the teaching load is unreasonable, compared to that at peer institutions, and it’s beginning to show. When I joined, it was less, and while it has shrunk on many competing campuses, at QU the teaching expectation seems to have no downward pressure. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a teaching load any longer–you are assigned some kind of teaching by your departments. There isn’t a clear expectation of the number of courses or FTEs you are expected to teach. Moreover, by devolving the decision for teaching loads to the department chairs, they have created a recipe for even distribution of teaching loads, and crowded out any time or incentive to do research.

3. Library

The library is a great space, but not useful for research. Every serious researcher on the campus had finagled access to a real research library somehow–many by buying a Yale card. I mentioned at a publishing conference that QU didn’t have a subscription to ACM’s Digital Library and someone from ACM noted that they would price things so that everyone could get access. But even after putting him in touch with our library, nothing. I recognize that underfunded libraries are a problem everywhere, and as I said, there are good things that the libraries do, but it isn’t a beacon on the campus. While it may serve some of the undergraduate mission, it isn’t big enough to support researchers.

4. Publicity / Tuition Dollars

This may be true of any private university, but there is always a tension between selling yourself and focusing on doing great work. A lot of time and effort is spent on recruiting and making the university look good to the outside, sometimes to the exclusion of improving the core educational experience. At least this is what I heard from students, who felt the campus tour (for example) was deliberately misleading. Efforts to “manage” some of the PR crises on campus (racist incidents, etc.) resulted in an administration willing to stifle both student and faculty comments in public. Sometimes, again, this feels like presidential hubris, as in the case of kicking the Society for Professional Journalism off campus for their critical remarks or taking a Title IX case to court rather than settling it.

Folks on the West Coast of the US generally have not heard of QU, and as you move east, in many cases they know us as a polling institute first, and college second.

As the relevance of universities are increasingly questioned, it’s also hard to establish the value of an undergraduate education at QU. That’s not to say it’s a poor education: I think the faculty serves students reasonably well. The question is whether it’s worth north of $200K. I suspect our tuition is slightly more than that of most private universities, though certainly not in the NYU/Sarah Lawrence range. (On the other hand, QU’s president is one of the 36 in the nation to receive a seven-figure compensation package–the only place where QU ranks in the top 36, I believe.) In many cases, parents are well able to pay the costs of QU, and perhaps because of location or some other determinant they feel the relative value of that money makes the tuition tenable. But I’ve talked to many students who leave our program with wholly unrealistic views of what they will be earning, and student loan debt that–without parental support–will be crippling.

In Sum

I guess what it really comes down to is that QU doesn’t allocate resources the way I would: money or institutional will. On the money side, I think they could do a lot more to support faculty, especially research. I suspect many faculty at many institution feel this way, but if you look at things like office space, teaching loads, and general support for research on some of QU’s peer campuses, it becomes clear that this is not a priority for QU.

And then there is the culture bit and the lack of a shared, consistent mission. It’s not about messaging, it’s about a real sense of purpose. I think many among the faculty and staff at QU are pretty happy about the way the university is already. And as I’ve said, I think there are many reasons for them to be happy with it. But that also provides a bit of a sense of complacency, and little real reason for change.

I still consider myself a friend of QU, and I see a great deal of potential, especially in the School of Communications. I suspect that in the long run it will continue to improve and will find its way toward a future than many at the university can get behind. In the shorter run, I’m off somewhere new, somewhere I get the feeling is already moving quickly. It’s a bit more risky in some ways, and moving is always hard, but I am eager to work in an institution that seems to share my interests and values more closely.

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  1. Posted 6/7/2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    You bring up some really great points, Alex. I’d have to agree with you regarding the ever-shifting mission of the program. The first class I took at QU was your class (the only class I did take with you actually); the work I completed in that class has been some of my most vital, evidence-based, sustainable work I have completed in this field.

    I thank you for working so hard in that class, being so available to your students and inspiring me to excel beyond my expectations.
    Wishing you and your family the best in your new home :)
    ~Jessi Lee Mraz

  2. Posted 6/7/2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Sad to hear you’re leaving QU, Alex. You were my first professor in grad school, and your lessons are still shaping my day to day in the digital field. Good luck to you wherever you’re headed next.

    I do have to agree with the notes about Publicity/Tuition Dollars. My main outstanding complaint was that every effing Saturday the campus tours would create a constant stream of interruptions and distractions right outside our classrooms, clogging the hallways, making it impossible to move, and really becoming quite annoying. It wasn’t just one tour on a Saturday, it was dozens of serial tours offered back to back, every other weekend or so.

    In short, it felt like the administration was far more interested in showing off their classrooms than they were about using them. The tuition they had already grabbed was worth far less to them than the potential tuition walking through the halls on a Saturday.

    Other than that, I really liked the program of ICM… it launched a new chapter in my career, and only cost me the equivalent of buying a brand new tricked out Escalade and driving it off a cliff. Not too bad considering today’s higher education costs.

    Thanks again for everything, and best of luck in the future!


  3. alex
    Posted 6/7/2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jessi & Adam!

    I doubt we’ll be able to save enough to pay for an undergraduate education for our two boys. At current rates of tuition inflation (about 8% a year on average, or double the CPI), we will need to save a bit more than $650,000 for Jasper, and nearly $800,000 for Kai. Somehow, I just don’t see us putting away a spare $1.5 million for tuition. If we do, I think I’ll just say “Do you want to go to Harvard or a Gallardo (or modern equivalent).” I know which I’d pick.

    Alternatively, that money well invested could certainly sweeten whatever income they get without a diploma… Yes, higher education is about more than job training, but by then, that idea (like the idea of “state universities”) will likely be a quaint anachronism, if it isn’t already.

  4. Phillip Simon
    Posted 6/9/2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Good luck, Alex. I appreciate the advice and wisdom you provided as I got started as interactive media program director. BTW: The new capstone portfolio course is going great, and the project ideas for the summer and fall look very good. Giving the students a portfolio/project option is letting each students’s best effort emerge. Thanks for suggesting the portfolio option.

  5. Posted 6/28/2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Here in the UK Universities are going through a lot of turmoil; and there are many similar pressures to the ones you describe; not least selling/promoting/increasing fees. Your line “In some ways, it feels like the president likes retail therapy” has made my week – no, probably my month. Seriously. Thanks for a wise and inspiring post! Nice to see someone brave enough to write about such campus experiences in an honest but measured way. :-)

  6. Posted 7/25/2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I’m late to the party, but I also wanted to say thanks for your online courses at QU. You were not my lead teacher for 501 introductory, but we read all of your assignments and work. As Adam so eloquently said, your ideas and resources have formed and are continuing to form my views on the world – especially my religious perspectives. I appreciate the guidance and format of our coding class – working through the badge system instead of traditional methods.

    As a former elementary education teacher, who left the field because I couldn’t continue to contribute to a system I didn’t believe in, I am watching the education field with fascination and concern – now as a parent, as much as a citizen.

    Best wishes to you on your new journey. I look forward to your continued input through this blogsite.

    • alex
      Posted 7/25/2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone has ever considered my courses a religious experience before ;). I won’t press, but I am intrigued. As far as I can recall, there was no explicitly religious content, was there? (I have included religious-related discourse in theory courses before, because it ends up being a big part about how people theorize the social world, but I don’t remember any in 501.)

      In any case, I appreciate your comments. I’ve just been reading a post by a faculty member who left higher ed because most of the fun of being a professor has been ground out of a lot of institutions, leaving just the less-than-phenomenal pay and long hours. What’s worse, I worry that we are not serving students very well. My hope is that my new institution–which has problems of its own–at least has a set of priorities I can live with, and my hope has always been that I can effect change from within.

      Best of luck moving forward, and thanks again for “hanging out” earlier this year.

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