Hard Questions About Teaching at UW-Madison

May 7, 2013 | Blog

I received the following letter this morning from a colleague, and with her permission I am reprinting it because  the message it contains is a critical one for our community to hear and discuss.  
Dear Sara,
First, thank you sincerely for your courage to stand up for your convictions, and to air them at the Faculty Senate and in your blog.
Please allow me briefly to share my personal experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concerning attitudes toward undergraduate education and inequity in faculty salaries, and how, from my perspective, these affect the budget of the university, the future of our children, and the economics of our State/country.
I have been on the UW-Madison faculty of the School of Medicine and Public Health (Medical School) for twenty years.  The Medical School employs scientists with expertise found nowhere else on the campus (or even the world) and pays salaries that are considerably higher than those of faculty in many other schools here. 
Yet, amazingly, Medical School scientists, despite their unique expertise and high salaries, have minimal-to-no obligation to formally teach in the classroom and no obligation at all to teach undergraduates – in fact, we are discouraged from doing so.  Many of my colleagues earn in excess of $150K and carry out no classroom teaching (though, as suggested by our colleague at the Faculty Senate meeting yesterday, let’s formalize the data).
It is well known that undergraduate-level biology courses at the UW-Madison are bursting at the seams, and are often taught by non-tenured faculty who are outstanding educators. Nevertheless, is it my imagination, or is the university duplicating salaries to pay non-tenured faculty to teach undergraduate courses that salaried tenured faculty could teach, but do not? 
I do not understand the rationale for this. 
I feel that, were the public aware of this situation, they would embrace a solution in which every faculty member on this campus contributes something to undergraduate education, and in which every Department on this campus, whatever its School affiliation, allocates some portion of its budget to formal undergraduate classroom teaching. 
Why can’t we all roll up our sleeves and help undergraduates get more for their tuition dollars?  In the Medical School, a relatively small number of courses is taught to medical students- the hundreds of surplus science faculty within this School could contribute to the large undergraduate biology courses, bringing down class numbers from the hundreds to 20-30.  We can also carry out the jobs of teaching assistants, and/or offer tutorials to supplement lectures and labs.   I am not asking medical doctors to do this, but the scientists – we know this stuff.   
Unfortunately, there is great resistance in the Medical School to teaching undergraduates.  I spent two years chairing a task force within the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center (SCRMC) to develop an undergraduate Stem Cell Sciences (SCS) Certificate.  The SCRMC consists of a campus-wide faculty with expertise in various aspects of stem cell biology.  My committee decided that the most appropriate administrative home for the SCS Certificate would be my Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology within the Medical School. 
Our request for help to administer the Certificate was turned down by Deans Robert Golden and Rick Moss, on the basis that we do not have the resources to be involved in undergraduate education.  Yet, undergraduates work in our laboratories in the Medical School; their labor fuels our research programs and grants.
I then approached Interim Chancellor David Ward for help, who sent me to Provost Paul DeLuca who sent me to Dr. Aaron Brower.  Rather than support the Stem Cell Certificate for undergraduates, Dr. Brower’s suggestion was that we create a Capstone course, in which recent graduates would pay for a short-term course in Stem Cell Sciences. In essence, squeeze the recent graduates and their families out of more money post-graduation, having already diminished the value of their four years of tuition dollars by ignoring their need for a formal experience in Stem Cell Sciences as undergraduates.
Fifteen years after Dr. Jamie Thomson’s report of the isolation of human embryonic stem cells, there is neither a course in Stem Cell Biology for undergraduates at the UW-Madison nor a Certificate in Stem Cell Sciences.   It is not for want of trying; rather, it is because most of the stem cell expertise lies within a Medical School that does not support undergraduate teaching. Under the circumstances, my SCRMC Education Committee is offering the best we can to undergraduates in the hope that it will help them with job recruitment:  an unofficial letter from Dr. Tim Kamp, Director of the SCRMC, stating that a small number of courses was taken which included some reference to the concepts of stem cell biology.
As my daughter’s graduating class from West High School are about to enter college, neither she nor many of her friends will attend the UW-Madison, despite the counselors’ best efforts to direct them to the UW System schools. Rather, they will spread out to private LACs, most on the East coast, where teaching is a priority. Thus, the statistics that you presented at yesterday’s Faculty Senate meeting on the ~10% decline in the number of Wisconsin residents attending the UW-Madison over the past decade was striking – what is the reason for that decline? Does lack of access to teaching by expert faculty, and thus, providing less for more money, have anything to do with it?
Now, as I am daring publicly to reveal that many of our faculty do not teach or teach very little, despite their large salaries, I wonder what action the taxpayers and our State legislators will take?  Are undergraduate tuition dollars at this university, which keep increasing, providing the most bang for the buck?  From my perspective, the answer is a resounding “no”.   The State of Wisconsin can, and should, demand so much more from us.
Professor, Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health


  1. Reply


    May 7, 2013

    I don't know where the figures on UW Madison attendance came from but according to the latest UW Data Digest attendance by undergrads whose residence was WI decreased by 7.2% but this was partially offset by the number of of MN residents attending UW under the reciprocity plan and an even larger number that attend UMinn from WI. With that group included the total is down by less than 5%. Many WI resident students now see UMinn as an equal choice to Madison with some attractive differences such as direct admission to most majors whereas many at UW have to apply again to their major after a year or two. Many don't get accepted and have to find another major or transfer. This is very disruptive.
    Is it the policy of most medical schools around the US to have faculty also teach undergrads? How is the Med School funded? My understanding is that it gets relatively little public funding and most funding comes out or patient fees and other revenues through the UW Medical Foundation.

    Frank Rojas

  2. Reply

    John Hawks

    May 7, 2013

    I applaud Karen Downs for her post, and for her efforts to establish a certificate program in Stem Cell Sciences.

    I am a tenured faculty member in Letters and Science, and have a deep familiarity with undergraduate biology education at UW-Madison. I have been in the classroom teaching a 100-level course in biological anthropology every semester for the past five academic years. My course is the most common way for BA students in the College of L&S to fulfill their biological sciences breadth requirement in L&S; I have taught more than 5000 undergraduate students during my time at UW-Madison.

    I'm a little worried about Karen's demand that the state expect more of me. She doesn't seem to have looked very deeply into how our undergraduate biology curriculum is already taught. Most of us over here have already "rolled up our sleeves".

    The most common introductory biology courses in L&S, including Bio 151/152, Zoo 101, and Botany 130, are taught by teams of tenured and tenure-track faculty, with dedicated instructional staff administering laboratories and coordinating assignments and grading. The faculty in L&S have substantial teaching loads, and are in the classroom and laboratory with undergraduate students from freshmen to seniors. These courses do have very high demand, and are a target of the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. But they are not alone: A very high fraction of undergraduate students who are not headed to biology-focused majors take introductory biological science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, particularly in Food and Nutritional Sciences. And my course in anthropology enrolls more than 300 students per semester.

    Should we expect School of Medicine faculty to "shoulder the load" and teach more of these introductory biology courses? I would suggest that it would be more sensible to reallocate resources toward those faculty who are already experts at this undergraduate curriculum. Some of that is already happening, through the MIU, and through university investment in online and distance education. The most important way to improve faculty contact for students in biological science majors must be to add and retain faculty in biology teaching departments. There are more than 35 undergraduate majors and programs in the biological sciences at UW-Madison, but all of those majors -- really all undergraduates -- are served by our array of introductory courses. The best faculty teaching these courses are those who can integrate undergraduate education seamlessly with world-class research.

    I agree with Karen that we want to see many more ways to get students involved in research experiences, and to get recognition for those efforts as part of advanced certificate programs. This is one of the true strengths of our research university. Particularly in the biological sciences, we should wisely invest our resources to pair students with effective programs that teach them science by doing science. A Stem Cell Sciences program seems like a natural. More collaboration between L&S, CALS and School of Medicine departments and faculty would also help in serving undergraduate students in biology majors.

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