Why We Need Research Universities

Currently, research universities are under attack from all sides. States are decreasing their funding for public universities, and due to the global financial meltdown, private universities have seen their endowments reduced. More importantly, the general public is questioning the value of these institutions; in fact, a recent poll found that the public feels that universities and colleges are being run like businesses, and the result is that the costs are going up, but the quality is going down. Yet, I will argue here that research universities are essential to our economy and our democracy; unfortunately, these schools have done a very poor job telling the general public why they should be supported.

The Cause for Public Distrust
Many people still believe that universities are a key to economic mobility and the goal of a more just society; however, the public has lost confidence in the way these schools are run. One of the driving forces for this popular distrust is the fact that tuitions continue to increase as the quality seems to suffer. While I have written about this combination of increased costs and decreased quality, I have also proposed a way of correcting this problem. The first part of my proposal is to create three types of professors: researchers, teachers, and hybrids. By not forcing researchers who do not want to teach into the classroom, teaching can be improved, and by giving teachers tenure, instruction can become a priority. Moreover, by retaining a category of professors who are evaluated on both their teaching and their research, universities can show how research informs teaching and how teaching is shaped by cutting edge research.

In many ways, the model I am proposing is only a slight adjustment to what is already going on at research universities, but I am suggesting three major changes: 1) people whose main responsibility is undergraduate instruction will get tenure; 2) researchers who do not want to teach will be allowed to concentrate on what they do best; and 3) universities will be able for the first time to clarify how money is spent in their systems. This last factor is so important because one of the leading reasons why the public does not trust research universities is that these institutions tend to misrepresent how they spend their money. Since schools do not want to admit that state funds and student tuition dollars are often being used to pay for research and related infrastructure costs, research universities are forced to present inaccurate and misleading budgetary information. For example, schools pool together their expenses under the heading of the I & R (instruction and research) budget because they do not feel the public will support research in the humanities and the social sciences.

The Vital Role of Non-Scientific Research
While it is often clear why research universities support and promote new scientific discoveries, the public is often in the dark when it comes to why research in non-science fields is essential. Instead of publicizing the important studies and findings in psychology, sociology, and literary studies, professors and university administrators tend to concentrate on the direct economic benefits of professional training and the application of scientific innovations. One reason for this lack of self-promotion is that professors feel that the general public will never understand the meaning and value of their work. Yet, itt is clear that this isolating attitude has to change, and the fact of the matter is that psychologists and literary scholars have made important contributions to how we live our lives and how we understand the world around us.

One of the most vital ways to advertise what research universities actually do is to bring new ideas and theories into the classroom, and this is why it is necessary to have faculty who are judged on both their teaching and research; however, ineffective teaching only undermines the ability of universities to promote what they do best. The simple truth is that at many research universities, some research professors cannot be understood by their students. Sometimes the problem is that the professor does not speak English in a clear manner, but often the problem stems from a lack of interest and training in effective teaching. Even when professors have a long history of students complaining that they are incomprehensible, they remain in the classroom because they have tenure, and they perform important research.

When I talk to professors about this problem, their first reaction is to say that students just need to try harder and that the situation is not as bad as I am representing. However, I have studied online student reviews at several research universities, and the same pattern of ineffective teaching is evident. In the sciences, math, and computer science, but also in may other fields of study, students are so frustrated with the low quality of their teachers that they have simply stopped going to class. Someone must be held responsible for this state of affairs, and it does not help things for professors and administrators to simply say that research and teaching always inform each other. Universities should face the fact that some researchers cannot teach, and some teachers cannot do research.

Eliminating Large Classes
Once we reward teachers for their instructional skills, and we stop placing ineffective researchers in the classroom, we can begin to make undergraduate instruction a priority at research universities. However, another major change has to take place: universities need to stop relying on large lecture classes to teach the majority of their undergraduate courses. One of the reasons why this change is so important is that in many large classes, the students never have the chance to ask questions or involve themselves in the course material. Not only do these classes lack interactivity and the opportunity of students to practice their communication skills, but these courses often rely on standardized multiple choice tests, and studies have shown that this type of testing not only dumbs down the subject matter but also motivates students to simply memorize and then forget fragments of information.

While administrators will tell you that universities simply do not have the money to teach students in small classes, a study I did at the University of California shows that in many instances, large lecture classes are more expensive on a per student basis than small seminars. The reason for this counter-intuitive finding is that lecture classes are usually coupled with small sections taught by graduate students, and these sections drive up the cost and can also lower the quality of instruction.

If we had small classes taught by expert professors who were being evaluated and rewarded for their instructional skills, the quality of undergraduate instruction would be markedly improved. In fact, when research universities advertise the greatness of their honors programs, they always stress the same thing: students in the honor college are taught by expert professors in small, interactive classes. In other words, universities know what makes a good education, but they just choose to offer it to only a small percentage of the students.

The Graduate Student Problem
When I recently pushed this proposal of moving from large lecture classes to small seminars, one professor responded that I would destroy graduate education because there would be no way of funding the graduate students. What this professor was referring to was the fact that research universities support their graduate students by paying them to teach undergraduate sections and courses. While this placement of grad students into the classroom is supposed to train them for their future careers, there are several problems with this common practice. First of all, many graduate students do not have the expertise, degrees, or experience to teach, and it is unfair to make undergraduates pay the cost for finding funding for graduate students. Another major issue is that being a graduate assistant may not train a person to be a professor; it often trains one to be an assistant, and this role is very different than being a teacher. Moreover, many graduate students spend so much time staffing sections that they do not have time to work on their own degrees, and the result is that after ten years of study, more than half of the grad students in doctoral programs never get their PhD.

The use of grad student to teach undergraduate sections and courses also helps to undermine the ability of grad students to get jobs when they graduate. Since so many classes at research universities are now being taught by graduate students and non-tenured faculty, there is no reason for universities to hire professors to teach undergraduate courses. The result of this structure is that a majority of students who do get their PhDs cannot find a tenure-track position when they graduate.

The Failure of the Academic Job Market
The question now moves to why do universities produce so many people with PhDs, when these people cannot get jobs when they graduate. The main answer to this vital question appears to be that research universities are ranked and rated by the quality of their graduate students and not whether these grad students get jobs when they graduate. Also, graduate students help to alleviate the need for research professors to grade exams or answer students' questions.

Perhaps the greatest problem of employing grad students to teach so many classes is that it sends the message to the students and the administration than anyone can teach these courses, and so you do not need to hire people with degrees and expertise. In other terms, universities participate in their own devaluation; after all, a central function of research institutions is to train and credential people with PhDs, but when a grad student without a degree is placed in the classroom, the same schools that produce the degrees say that the degrees are not necessary.

The simple solution to this problem is to fund grad students like undergrads and to only let them teach when they are near the end of their training. If research universities reduced the number of grad students and funded them all through fellowships, it would be much easier for them to get jobs when they graduate.

Clarifying the Mission
By creating three classes of professors and using small, interactive classes staffed by expert professors, research universities would not only improve the quality of their educational product, but they would also clarify their missions to the general public. People want universities to educate students to be critical thinkers and productive workers, and they want to know that schools are spending money on essential tasks. Universities can help clarify these issues if they stop holding to the fiction that all researchers are teachers and all teachers are researchers.