A&M System Nixes Controversial Teaching Awards Program

Texas A&M University
Texas A&M University

Today, in one of his first acts as the new Texas A&M University System interim chancellor, Jay Kimbrough discontinued a controversial Teaching Excellence Awards program.

The decision was made following a conference call yesterday with university presidents and agency chiefs within the system. This afternoon, in an email to administrators, Kimbrough indicated that his thinking was two-fold. "First and foremost," he wrote, "I have received a considerable amount of feedback regarding the program from many of you and your faculty. Secondly, we have determined that the A&M System does not have an adequate funding mechanism to ensure the long-term viability of the program."

The program will conclude at the end of fiscal year 2012. Universities will be allowed to opt in to the program's final years as they see fit. "The decision to discontinue the Teaching Excellence Awards program does not diminish the A&M System's commitment to teaching excellence in any way," wrote Kimbrough, who encouraged institutions to continue recognize excellent teaching.

The award program, which provides cash rewards to professors with highly favorable student evaluations, was inspired by one of the controversial "seven breakthrough solutions," written by Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer and promoted by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. The implementation of the proposals, and specifically the teaching award program was a hot topic at a meeting of the A&M System Board of Regents in May.

At that meeting, Jaime Grunlan, an associate professor of engineering at Texas A&M University, gave a passionate speech in opposition to changes such groups have proposed. He asked that the teaching awards program, which he said offends the faculty and fails to serve the students, be discontinued.

He received no commitment from the regents at the time, though a side comment from regent Phil Adams, a TPPF board member, was caught on a microphone during the meeting telling a colleague that the regents would be willing to "throw that out," though with a nod to the faculty, he cautioned, "We don't want them to think they did it."

Richard Box, the chairman of the board of regents, told reporters, "We’ll take a look at the metrics of these programs and see what’s working and what’s not. If we feel like it’s beneficial for the university, then we’ll refine it or it will be something else.”

Box offered to meet personally with Grunlan to discuss his concerns, though Grunlan indicated today that his efforts to set up such a meeting have been met with silence.

Grunlan, who has received one of the awards, told the Tribune he was glad to hear about the discontinuation of the program, though he didn't know if it was significant. He said the teaching award itself was not particularly important and that it did not necessarily indicate a change in direction.

"It's a superficial symbol of bigger, badder things that are happening right now," he said, adding, "It's an isolated thing. I've only seen negative things. This is the first positive thing. One positive thing doesn't make a trend."

Grunlan said his fellow faculty members are willing to work with the regents to find policies that have more faculty support. He said he would even apologize for his speech at the last board meeting if that's what it took — though he didn't believe he did anything wrong. "We are all in favor of good teaching, good research, good anything at the university," he said.

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