Stanford to Focus on Undergraduates : Education: Cash bonuses will be offered to outstanding teachers. More emphasis will be put on the classroom instead of research.


Nearly a year ago, Stanford University President Donald Kennedy provoked a national debate with his declaration that too much emphasis on scholarly research was hurting classroom teaching. Today, Kennedy is following up with what experts say may be the most comprehensive plan in the nation to put undergraduate learning back at the center of big university life.

Kennedy is unveiling a $7-million program to, among other things, give cash bonuses to outstanding teachers and to have professors conduct seminars with small clusters of sophomores. He also seeks to ease the “publish or perish” syndrome by limiting the number of scholarly articles professors can submit for promotion reviews and by giving textbook writing, sometimes sneered at by academics, equal footing with research.

“The challenge before us, as I have come to see it, is to make some significant improvements in the quality of undergraduate education at Stanford without undermining the excellence that our attention to scholarly work has brought us,” Kennedy said in a written statement to the faculty.


Kennedy’s proposals about faculty promotion face controversy at Stanford, professors say. Some critics say he is offering vague plans while, purposefully or not, demeaning their longtime efforts to be both good teachers and researchers.

Education leaders elsewhere generally cheered Kennedy’s ideas and said imitation was likely. Such support undoubtedly is welcome for Kennedy, who faces a tough time later this month at congressional hearings into allegations that Stanford overcharged the federal government by millions of dollars in research costs and billed taxpayers for faculty parties and a yacht.

Stanford is not the only institution trying to respond to complaints that undergraduates rarely see professors except in large lecture halls while faculty members advance their careers through arcane research. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who wrote an influential study on the subject last year, described Kennedy’s proposals as “more comprehensive and more sharply focused” than any others.

Likewise, Peter Smith, spokesman for the Assn. of American Universities, which includes the nation’s most prestigious research campuses, said: “I am not aware of anyone else who has moved quite so aggressively” as Kennedy has in trying to improve teaching of undergraduates. The Stanford plan, Smith said, “will tend to embolden other universities to take similar steps.”

According to Kennedy, much of the Stanford initiative will be funded by a $5-million donation from Los Angeles investor and philanthropist Peter Bing, a Stanford alumnus and trustee, and Bing’s wife, Helen. The money will be used to provide permanent salary increases of $1,000 to 20 excellent teachers each year in the School of Humanities and Sciences, where most undergraduates are enrolled, and to give onetime grants of $5,000 each year to as many as 10 teachers in that school.

Donations from others will provide stipends to graduate students for course preparation and teaching, help create seminars and tutorials matching a professor with as few as one to three sophomores, and purchase computer equipment for undergraduates.

Those will be popular reforms. More controversial will be Kennedy’s call to limit the number of scholarly works that a candidate for tenure or raises can submit to the university and that those works for the first time include textbooks and instructional computer softwares.

“I’m really surprised at the number of faculty members in the world who not only believe that their deans think that quantity is more important than quality but think that themselves,” Kennedy said in an interview. The number of scholarly articles expected of professors would differ among departments and guidelines will be set by the faculty itself.

However, Kenneth Arrow, a Stanford professor who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1972, said some professors resent Kennedy’s announcement because it may give the public an inaccurate picture. Arrow said that the quality of research is valued much more than quantity. “What (Kennedy) is saying is right but it’s not all that different from what is happening now,” Arrow said.

Kennedy said he wants to encourage better textbook writing because those books directly benefit undergraduates. James P. Collman, a Stanford chemistry professor, said many professors consider writing textbooks “not a real scholarly thing” or as important as basic research. Besides, he added, because textbook writers often get hefty contracts from publishing firms, why reward them more?

The Stanford president insists that his call for reform should not suggest that teaching is bad at Stanford or that professors are not conscientious. He said he is simply trying to make the incentives for teaching as great as those for research. “It’s just a start,” he said.

Asked about the timing of his announcement in the midst of the controversy over Stanford’s research bills to the government, Kennedy said he considered waiting until after the congressional hearings, which are scheduled to start March 15, but decided not to because of the Bings’ donation.

Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Research, which oversees federal research monies at Stanford, last week launched an internal investigation into why its employees failed to audit the university’s books during the 1980s. A separate Navy study released last month concluded that Stanford probably overbilled the government in the last decade, but the report could not support a whistle-blower’s contention that the overcharge was as much as $200 million.