Universities have two missions: 1) advancing knowledge, i.e., research; and 2) teaching. These missions are not unrelated as, research feeds into teaching. A professor who is actively researching is going to be abreast of the latest developments in her field and can pass on that knowledge to her students. Plus, a top-notch researcher, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, will bring in grant money sufficient to pay her salary and that of her grad students and to equip lab space. (Grants in the humanities aren’t so lucrative, but often can pay a portion of the professor’s salary so she gets some relief from teaching in order to do more research and put some money into the pocket of graduate students research assistants who badly need it to eat and for rent.)
[And from my personal experience as a grad student at two R1 universities, Berkeley and Toronto, the great researchers also tend to be very good teachers. The two go hand in hand. It is possible to be a great researcher and a lousy teacher, but from my limited experience, that doesn’t happen very often. It may be that at schools that have to be less picky about who they hire and who they grant tenure, that situation may obtain more often. But the academic job market is so tight that most schools can find people who are good at both.]
The question is what is the proper mix of research and teaching. The system at most universities pays only lip service to teaching ability, partly because teaching ability is very hard to measure. Research is quantifiable, although some of the metrics can be misunderstood or abused. Journals are rated with “impact factors” that measure the relative prestige of one journal to another, and you can trace how often a particular article or book is cited in the literature. (You can go to Google Scholar to see how often something has been cited.) Where you get published matters. A book published by Oxford UP or Harvard UP will count a lot more than a book from something more akin to a vanity press. The standards will vary from school to school. The top “R1” research universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, or Toronto, will expect more of its professors than a small state university. Although, with the academic job market the way it is, even the podunk universities can afford to be very demanding.
Another problem is that every school models itself on the R1 institutions; they want to be the “Harvard of the South” or the “Harvard of Eastern Mariposa County.” So schools whose primary function is churning out undergraduate degrees, place an inordinate emphasis on research. The mix of research and teaching needs to be aligned with the individual school’s mission.
There have been various attempts to address the problem of teaching being ignored, none terribly successful. Some schools have instituted “teaching stream” tenure tracks, where research is supposedly de-emphasized in favor of teaching ability. But the problem is that tenure committees are so used to evaluating research, they don’t understand how to evaluate teaching. (Not to mention that it’s much, much more difficult.) Some schools have implemented teaching stream appointments successfully, but many have not.
Bear in mind that this applies just to tenure-track positions. Only about a third of university teaching positions in North America are tenured or tenure-track. Two thirds of the teachers work on a contingent basis, often with no job security from semester to semester. These professors get no support for their research from the school, and if they want to make enough to eat, have to take on teaching loads that preclude research. So they become rather desperate to publish so they can get onto the tenure track, and this feeds the lower tier of academic publishing. Doonesbury this past Sunday lampooned the academic job market rather brilliantly.