The difficulty arose out of the proudly and publicly held
position that the primary mission of this university was to
teach — and teach very well — undergraduate students (and
a modest number of graduate students). It was stated in our
hiring and promotion policies, and confirmed by the Board
of Trustees, that such teaching was to be done by established
scholars who were active participants in their academic fields.
This stance was not intended to make Bucknell into a research-intensive university, which would engage heavily in research
not connected to the education of students but rather to
distinguish us from the many colleges and universities that
placed little importance on faculty research or faculty-directed
Bucknell found itself in a challenging intermediate position,
for our mission stated clearly that education was our primary
purpose, while at the same time, those who would do the
teaching were required to be practitioners of their academic
disciplines, not merely expositors of concepts.
The matter came to a head when two popular young teachers
came up for tenure at the same time. Both were well versed in
their fields, and their students were happy with the instruction
they were receiving, but neither professor could demonstrate
active scholarship or involvement in research programs that
were highly regarded outside our own campus community.
Tenure was denied, unleashing a strong backlash from outspoken students who found it difficult to accept that these
popular teachers were somehow insufficiently performing
their required tasks.
What was most disheartening to me, as Bucknell’s president,
was that many faculty members felt that the tenure standards,
requiring both excellent teaching and solid scholarly activity,
were too demanding. Some professors even questioned
whether or not a teacher at a place such as Bucknell needed to
actively engage in scholarship beyond what was required for
the preparation of lectures, laboratories and seminar courses.
This crisis, which affected the very core of the teaching
enterprise as we had defined it, needed to be clearly addressed.
For me, the answer was relatively straightforward. I subscribed
to the old saw that “research is to teaching as sin is to the
confessional. If you are not doing the former, you have no
business in the latter.” In other words, only practicing scholars
or researchers had the outlook and perspective needed to
provide the kind of top-quality, exceptional instruction we
sought for Bucknell students.
To find our way forward, the academic administration and
a committee of faculty members looked to some of our most
respected and popular faculty members, who managed to be
first-rate teachers and scholars, and were credited with molding
the postgraduation careers and lives of legions of graduates.
Current and former students extolled the benefits of working
with these committed and caring teachers who were also
active practitioners of their disciplines. They didn’t just talk
about their fields of study; they lived in them. Two of these
model teacher-scholars were Professor Jack Wheatcroft ’49,
English, and Professor Harold Heine, chemistry. Despite
their disparate disciplines, they had a lot in common: They
were popular among the faculty, had a great ability to guide
the careers of students even after their graduation from
Bucknell and stood for high standards and rigor in their
courses. These active practitioners ushered able students
into their own professional worlds.
As I reflect on that challenging period in the early 1990s, I
am buoyed by the unmistakable signs that we not only made
the best decision for Bucknell, but we also avoided a disastrous
mistake. These are demanding times for residential colleges,
which face fierce competition from online providers offering
accredited degrees with more flexibility and convenience —
often at a markedly lower price. There also are many lower-
cost schools that offer respectable degrees to students while
employing primarily adjunct faculty and relying heavily on
“packaged” instruction programs. The nature and character
of our research-oriented, scholarly faculty sets Bucknell
apart, making us clearly distinctive and highly sought after
by the most able applicants.
As an institution it would appear that we have matured
beyond the point where faculty research can be thought of as
an ancillary activity, a separate hoop through which a faculty
member must jump in order to flourish here. Today’s professors
are attracted to Bucknell because they want to teach undergraduates from the perspective of an engaged researcher or
scholar, eager to invite talented students into their professional
world. Research and scholarship are not ancillary but integral
and essential to our faculty members’ roles as teachers of
undergraduates. Perhaps we could help those outside our
campus community better understand what we do here if
we replaced the confusing sobriquet “teacher-scholar” with
the more accurate descriptor “scholar-teacher” — a small
difference in language that makes all the difference in the
teaching and learning that occurs at Bucknell.
Professor Emeritus of Biology Gary Sojka served as Bucknell’s president
from 1984 to 1995.
It isn’t remembered much today, but roughly 25 years ago, Bucknell faced a crisis of enormous proportions — one that threatened to alter, perhaps permanently, the very ethos of the institution. It may even have derailed our current enviable position in the competitive residential college marketplace.