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Is a teaching award the academic kiss of death?

David Patterson, professor of computer science | April 21, 2010

The lore at some research universities is that teaching is held in such low regard that getting a teaching award is like getting a kiss from Don Corleone in The Godfather; both lead to short, unsuccessful careers.*

The winners of Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award disprove that myth.

For example, Berkeley lists a score of national and international research awards on its web site. One is election to the National Academy of Engineering. The College of Engineering is home to 32 DTA winners, and so far 13– more than 40% –have been elected to NAE**. (To put this into perspective, Yale has just 6 professors in NAE.)

Here are a few other research award winners with the year of their DTA.***

  • American Academy of the Arts and Sciences – Herbert Baker ‘91, Jesse Choper ’98, Fred Crews ’85, Hubert Dreyfus ’04, Robert Goldman ’74, Richard Karp ’86, Randy Katz ‘92, Anthony Newcomb ’89, David Patterson ‘82, Jasper Rine ’97, Richard Saykally ‘92
  • Fulbright Scholars – Steve Selvin ’59, Anthony Newcomb ’89
  • Guggenheim Fellows – John Clarke ’83, Fred Crews ’85, Sam Davis ‘73, Hubert Dreyfus ’04, Robert Goldman ’74, J. D. Jackson ’86, Jeffrey Knapp ’02, Mike Lieberman ’77, James Matisoff  ’81, Forrest Mozer ’77, Anthony Newcomb ’89, Andrew Stewart ‘09, Michael Watts ’96, Linda Williams ‘04
  • MacArthur Fellows – Leslie Kurke ‘02, Richard Muller ‘99
  • National Academy of Sciences – Howard Bern ‘72,  Robert Full ‘96, Alex Filippenko ‘91, J. D. Jackson ’86, Richard Karp ’86, David Patterson ‘82, James Patton ‘91, Jasper Rine ’97, Richard Saykally ‘92
  • National Medal of Science – Richard Karp ‘86
  • Pulitzer Prize – Leon Litwack ‘71
  • Sloan Fellows – John Clarke ’83, Stefano Dallvigna ’08, Bob Jacobsen ’04, David Wagner ‘06

DTA winners have also admirably served our campuses and our country:

  • UC Berkeley Chancellor ‘90-’97: Chang-lin Tien, ‘62
  • University of Maryland College Park President ‘98-present, Daniel Mote, Jr, ‘71
  • Chair, US President’s Council of Economic Advisors ‘93-’95: Laura Tyson,  ‘82
  • Chair, US President’s Council of Economic Advisors, ‘09-present: Christina Romer, ‘94
  • 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: Judge William Fletcher, ‘93
  • 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: Goodwin Liu (in confirmation process), ‘09

In case you were wondering, the DTA is good for untenured as well as tenured faculty. Since the DTA started in 1959, 12 assistant professors have won the award, and all received tenure and have had or are having great careers, including some mentioned already: John Ousterhout  (National Academy of Engineering), Laura Tyson (Chair of Council of Economic Advisors), and David Wagner (Sloan Fellow).

These examples suggest that outstanding teachers may simply be outstanding at everything they do, including research. Hence, Berkeley’s highest honor for teaching is certainly not the academic kiss of death. If anything, the Distinguished Teaching Award is more like an academic breath of life.

So let’s start a new academic proverb to replace the old inaccurate one:
If you want to find great researchers, start with the great teachers.

* Aucott, J.C., J. Como J, and D.C. Aron. “Teaching awards and departmental longevity: is award-winning teaching the ‘Kiss of Death’ in an academic department of medicine?” Perspectives Biological Medicine, 1999 Winter; 42(2):280-7.

** NAE members from the College of Engineering with year of their DTA:  Manuel Blum ‘77, Anil Chopra ‘99, Charles Desoer ‘71, Douglas Fuerstenau ‘74, Chenming Hu ‘97, Richard Karp ‘86, Randy Katz ‘92, John W. Morris, Jr. ‘88, Daniel Mote, Jr. ‘71, John Ousterhout ‘85, David Patterson ‘82, Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli ‘81, and Chang-Lin Tien ‘62. (Richard Muller ’99 is also in NAE but his home is the Physics department in the College of Letters and Science.)

*** This award list is surely incomplete since the names were collected haphazardly and there are important awards not found on the Berkeley web site.