ACADEMICS – Professorial Proving Grounds

University of Puget Sound

college ups
Image: Lara Swimmer

Harned Hall, a 51,000-square-foot interactive laboratory space that’s part of University of Puget Sound’s Science Center

Tacoma, Washington

When University of Puget Sound physics professor Bernard Bates learned that copyright issues barred him from screening a science-fiction film on the campus itself, he did something many university professors would never consider: He invited his entire class to watch it at his home. Of course, the fact that the class had only about 20 students made doing so a little more manageable. Small classes (the student-to-faculty ratio is 11 to 1) are a point of pride for the Tacoma liberal arts college—and a likely reason that the school ranks No. 17 on the Princeton Review’s list of schools with the most accessible professors.

“The small classes allow your relationship with the professor to grow,” says Sam Kussin-Shoptaw, a senior politics and government major whose largest class in four years had 31 students. Those relationships can have big payoffs. In 2006, one of Kussin-Shoptaw’s professors, who’d noticed his interest in politics, told him about an opportunity to work on Democrat Darcy Burner’s US Congressional campaign. The then-sophomore parlayed his volunteer position into a more permanent role with the Democratic Party, and this summer he attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Kussin-Shoptaw also commends faculty members for their willingness to take time from their own research projects to help students. “Even outside of office hours, they’ll spend time with me,” he says. “I mean, they do what all professors do—they do their research and write their books—but mostly they’re here to teach first. They make us their No. 1 priority.” Which, after all, is how a university should be.

Lewis & Clark College

Portland

Most colleges boast a few rock-star professors whose research has thrust them into the national spotlight, but few higher-ed institutions actually let undergraduates get in on the action. At Lewis & Clark, researchers like Kellar Autumn—a biology professor whose discovery of how geckos cling to vertical walls has not only helped advance medicine, but also improved car brakes and even climbing shoes—and fellow biology professor Greta Binford, whose research on spider venom landed her a lengthy profile in the New Yorker, have invited students into the labs. There, students have done everything from measuring geckos’ steps as they crawl up a wall to “milking” spiders for their venom—a task that, understandably, isn’t for everyone.

University of Portland

Portland

“Our institution’s emphasis is on teaching first,” says John Furey, associate director of media relations at the University of Portland. That could well be why the faculty members at this North Portland school have collected so many awards for their instruction. Three professors have earned the Oregon Professor of the Year Award from the Carnegie Foundation since 1997. And in 2000, Spanish professor Kate Regan brought home the Carnegie Foundation’s US Professor of the Year award, which cited her contagious passion for the field (there were 5 Spanish majors when Regan arrived at the university in 1995; by 2000, there were 52) as one of the reasons for choosing her.