Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good morning! I want to start by thanking you for being here today. With classes less than 48 hours away, I know this is a busy time of the year for all of you.
But you are here because you know that being an effective teacher requires a lifelong commitment to learning – the same sort of commitment we hope our students will acquire during their time at KU.
I also want to thank the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Provost’s Office and the KU Medical Center for organizing today’s event, and for the work they do throughout the year to promote the highest quality teaching at KU.
As I considered what to say today, I thought back on my own academic career. I have seen a fair amount of change in the student-teacher relationship over the years. I was a student when the teachers were in charge, then a teacher when the students were in charge.
Now I am an administrator and I am pretty sure we have never really been in charge – at least as far as many students and faculty are concerned.
But even with the change in the relationship, the essence of what makes a good teacher has not changed. You need both knowledge and caring.
Now, this may sound familiar to those of you from the Medical Center, because it was at the heart of my remarks a couple of weeks ago at the White Coat ceremony honoring incoming medical students.
And in thinking about our profession, and what we ask of you as teachers, it became clear to me that there are commonalities between education and medicine.
Doctors and teachers are in professions that are focused on people. For all the modern technology and miracle drugs of medicine, and for all the new classroom technology and approaches to teaching, both professions are fundamentally about working with and helping people.
And both professions require you to possess knowledge and caring in order to be truly successful. There is no substitute for either.
As instructors, you must have knowledge of your subject and be able to engage your students in the material. But you also need to care about your students as individuals, and be concerned about their academic progress. Otherwise you lose your connection with your students and teaching becomes just another job.
But teaching is not just another job – it is a calling, one that asks a lot of those who enter the profession. Professors and instructors shape the future. You do it by inspiring students, as well as by giving them the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in life.
I have spent much of the past year talking to KU alumni. Over and over again, at some point in the conversation someone tells me “This course I took from Professor so-and-so changed my life.”
A couple of months ago in New York I was at a reception for alumni and donors. KU graduate Michael Priddy told me about how taking a course on Japanese history from emeritus professor Grant Goodman inspired him and changed his life. Professor Goodman became a mentor, and as a result Michael went on to graduate school and began learning Japanese.
Michael then earned a fellowship to study in Japan. Professor Goodman was there as a visiting professor, and he introduced Michael to academic leaders and other luminaries. Not only does Michael credit Professor Goodman for starting his career in education, but also for helping Michael meet his wife! That one course and the mentorship that followed put his life on a dramatically different path.
That is not an uncommon story, either for me to hear or for you to hear directly. Professor Mike Hoeflich in the School of Law wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about how a former student contacted him on Facebook. The student, Eric Meyer, had been successful in the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and then in private practice. Eric sought out Professor Hoeflich simply to thank him for the influence he had on Eric’s life.
The change you create through your teaching may not even be in the field your students end up working in, and it often happens without the student knowing it at the time, but it enables students to do great things all the same.
And though we all aspire to excellence, and excellence in teaching is something KU rewards, you do not even have to be an award-winning teacher to have a positive effect.
I remember a teacher I had whom you could describe as a “tyrant.” It was a course in European History, which was outside of my psychology major. This professor ruled the classroom and he did not tolerate half-efforts.
But he did inspire me to learn and to teach myself. I would prepare for his tests by going to an empty classroom and seeing if I could deliver a lecture based on my reading and the notes I had taken in class. As it turned out, those practice lectures would come in very helpful in graduate school and beyond when it was my turn to teach.
Of course, at the same time we are using our teaching to inspire students, we also must be teaching them the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in the workplace and in life.
That involves teachers, but it also involves many other faculty and staff members at our university – librarians, advisors, tutors. They are a vital part of the learning environment and contribute much to the success of our students.
And while often times the knowledge and related skills you impart are directly linked to a student’s chosen academic field or expected profession, that is not all we offer.
One of the things that separates a university education from the education a student might receive when being trained solely for a trade is the way a university can broaden a student’s horizons.
Exposure to art, culture, and the big ideas that have shaped our civilization. Expansion of critical thinking abilities and an increased appreciation for the world around us, and the people who call it home.
These are all important parts of what good teachers provide to students, even if the results cannot always be judged with a letter grade. And even if it takes years for the students to fully appreciate what you have done for them.
When good teachers are in the classroom or holding office hours, they are not just teaching subject matter, they are encouraging students to realize what they are learning is important to their future.
We want our students to persist and excel. We are making a concerted effort to improve our retention and graduation rates, which currently lag behind our AAU peers. We have identified a number of strategies to address this gap, and Professor Chris Haufler will be leading our efforts to put those into place.
Provost Vitter will also include retention and graduation in the overall planning effort he will be leading that will help set our course for the future of KU.
Of course, the student-teacher relationship plays an important role in keeping students engaged in their education. One of the ways to build that relationship is to get students to think of you as more than just professors. We want them to think of you as guides and mentors.
That is why efforts like the College’s “Take a Professor to Lunch” program are so valuable, as is the time each of you spends individually with students. That helps you build the student-teacher relationship, making it possible for you to demonstrate both your knowledge and caring, and helping our students feel like they belong at KU.
Another way to build that relationship with students is to engage them in the research, scholarly or creative activities that you are involved in. This does not have to be as involved as co-authoring scholarly article with a student or hiring research assistants, though both are encouraged.
Engaging students in your scholarly work can be as simple as taking time in class to talk about your work. Sharing what inspires you about your academic discipline can serve to inspire your students.
Indeed, involvement of undergraduates in research has been described as one of 10 high impact practices universities can use to improve undergraduate education. So, while we are focusing primarily on classroom teaching in this summit, I encourage you to think about your role as teachers more broadly. Expanding KU’s research and creative endeavors will also be a priority for us going forward as we implement the recommendations of our research engagement task force.
Being active in scholarship and creative pursuits not only means your students can benefit from new knowledge, but it also provides an example for them to follow. Your passion for your scholarly work can help draw your students into the subject material, and can inspire them to do great things.
Ultimately, that is why we’re here. To prepare our students to do great things and contribute to our society. Most of them will not become Nobel Prize winners, world-renown musicians or titans of industry. But that is not all that we mean by great things.
Being successful in your career so that you can give back to your community. Passing on to your family what you learned at KU. Living a life that is enriching, and that enriches others. Adding to the sum of human knowledge, and of human kindness. All of those are also great things.
By demonstrating both knowledge and caring, and by teaching to inspire our students and to enable them to succeed, you help shape the future. You establish the foundation that our students build upon throughout their lives. And you provide the foundation for a strong, educated and vibrant society.
I want to thank you for your commitment to teaching, and for the many contributions you each make in your academic disciplines. As KU navigates the changing landscape of higher education, and as Provost Vitter leads a broad planning and implementation process that will chart the future of our university, I know that we can count on you to continue to inspire our students to greatness.
Thank you again for taking part in this summit, and if you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.