What defines a great professor?

One of the things that really makes a student's academic life at college is having great professors. The best professors treat students like people, not numbers; they go beyond their call of duty in terms of helping students and holding office hours; they not only know their material, but they also know how to teach it well. They understand the student and concerns the class may have.

It is true that a great professor must also be defined in terms of quality of research done, involvement in the campus community, quality of teaching, and other important criteria. Indeed, if a professor doesn't do any of this, then he is not fulfilling his role as a professor. However, there are professors which do maintain all of their academic and community responsibilities while still encouraging and challenging students.

The Mechanical Engineering department recently had four tenure-track faculty denied tenure. The community, concerned at the possible loss of some great professors, promptly responded: students circulated petitions, alumni sent letters of concern, other faculty were puzzled. The question on almost everyone's mind was, "Why?" Why had these professors, who were well liked and who seemed to fulfill the tenure requirements of quality teaching, quality scholarship, and service, denied tenure?

Expressing his concern at the faculty meeting on March 21, Professor Douglas Walcerz gave an excellent speech on the tenure decisions; specifically, he addressed the question of quantity of scholarly research done versus quality of research, as it had been the thought of many faculty members that these faculty were denied tenure because of scholarship. Prof. Walcerz's speech was very well received by the faculty.

There's something wrong when a professor is denied tenure and the community reacts badly to the decision. Even more puzzling is why four professors were denied tenure when the tenure committee suggested to the provost to grant tenure to all but one of the candidates.

There are efforts underway, including a letter-writing campaign and petitions, to help keep some of the great professors in the ME department: those who care about the students, those who focus on quality of work rather than quantity; those who help define the role of an excellent professor at WPI.


Criteria for tenure

From the WPI Faculty Handbook, pp V-3.

A. High quality teaching, undergraduate and/or graduate, is an essential (but not sufficient) requirement for obtaining tenure at WPI.

High quality teaching can be evidenced in many ways, including course evaluations, faculty peer evaluations, evaluations by alumni, the quality of the Major Qualifying Projects, Interactive Qualifying Projects, and the Humanities Sufficiency, freshman advising, academic advising and graduate theses advised by the candidate, teaching innovations, new course introductions, redesign of existing courses, etc.

B. High-quality scholarship is an essential (but not sufficient) requirement for obtaining tenure at WPI.

High-quality scholarship can be evidenced in many ways, including publication of peer-reviewed journal articles and books, professional awards, citations in the professional literature, presentations at professional meetings, grant proposals and grants awarded, offices held in professional societies, journal editorships, reviews of papers and proposals, patents, etc.

C. Service is highly valued and considered in the tenure deliberations at WPI.

Service can be evidenced in many ways, including service to WPI (faculty governance and ad-hoc committees, IQP area coordinators, assistance to the Office of Admissions, the Office of Graduate and Career Plans, the Alumni Office, University Relations, etc.), service to the candidate's department (curriculum committees, MQP area coordinators, faculty recruitment, seminar series participation and coordination, etc), service to the local community (board and committee membership in social service and cultural institutions, local government participation, etc.), and service to the profession (participation in national and international committees and panels, in local chapters of professional societies, in conference organizations, etc).
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