My alma mater, Northeastern University, has totally revamped its look, feel and delivery in recent years. The transformation has been so complete that visiting alumni are astonished to see what’s been done.
As a result of its renaissance, Northeastern has become a smaller, better school. It has attracted better administrators and faculty, and now accepts less than 2,000 applicants from a pool well in excess of 20,000. It has also skyrocketed in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and is now a top 100 school with aims to go even higher.
All of this makes me proud. But, in the process of getting better, NU has also made what, in my mind, is a classic image mistake. They’ve fired or re-assigned some of their best teachers and lecturers simply because they don’t possess a Ph.D. The degree, says, NU, is a critical component in its quest to becoming a truly great academic institution, attracting grant money and endowments, and continuing its inexorable rise to the top.
One key customer constituency, however, is up in arms about the mass firings: the students. Some believe the very best faculty is being pushed out, simply because they lack that extra credential. Others have told me the soon-to-be-dismissed profs made a huge difference in their academic lives and eased their transition from high school to college. Speaking directly to some and reading the e-mails of others, I can see how much the school’s decision is affecting them.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of credentials, since they exist to assure us the individual in question is properly trained and adheres to a certain ethical standard (note: one exception to the credentials rule is the APR in public relations which, in my mind, is truly worthless).
The powers-that-be at NU need to re-think their Ph.D-only dictum. Credentials do not make a great teacher. And, it seems to me that more than one great teacher is being given the heave-ho in this pell-mell rush to the top of the charts. A Ph.D.-only faculty may present an impressive image to the greater world of higher education, but what does it say to the student body?
In thinking through the situation, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quote about the RAF fighter pilots who defended their country against tremendous odds in the Battle of Britain. It certainly holds true for the unfortunate NU faculty and the countless students whose lives they’ve impacted: ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.’