October 27, 2003

If You Could Be University President for a Day

Better make that a week. No, a month. Well okay, a year.

In the comments to "A Renewal of the Academic Commons?" Timothy Burke proposes the following exercise:

Suppose you're the new president of a not so well-regarded research university and you're dissatisfied (probably legitimately) with the culture and outlook of your institution, and have a feeling that you're slipping even further. Suppose you have a lot of leeway and money to work with.

Suppose now you decide not to rebuild through pursuing stars, but instead by trying to build around the most mensch-like teaching faculty you can find, the people who do massive amounts of voluntary labor on behalf of their institutions, who care deeply about teaching, who are smart and productive but generalist intellectuals rather than specialists, who are supportive and giving in conversations with colleagues and students--basically the people who make the wheels turn round at most institutions.

Ok, good idea.

How are you going to find them?

This is an excellent question, to which I don't pretend to have an answer. I wonder if John Sexton (or anyone else, for that matter) does. Academic stars are of course identified by their publication records. But how to identify the mensch-like teachers? Though if the people to whom Burke refers are "basically the people who make the wheels turn round at most institutions," then presumably such people must already be found at most institutions? Or at least, would be found if anyone cared to look for them? Why, then, aren't they identified and valued as such?

Though I don't have the answer, I will -- somewhat tentatively -- suggest the following: to some extent, I suspect, this is not so much about individuals as it is about departmental and institutional cultures. Where research is valued, supported, and rewarded, at least some people will emerge as very good, and some few people as excellent, researchers. Likewise with teaching: offer the incentives and support, and at least some proportion of faculty will release their inner mensches.

But I guess that's not much of an answer. Anyone else?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 27, 2003 08:51 PM

The problem is that those people are bucklers-down rather than movers-on -- they already have a job and they're keeping it. They aren't on the market every (or every other) spring, so they're harder to find.

From what my father says some of those people do show up in searches for department chairs because they have figured out that they like that level of administrative work. Otherwise I doubt they're easy to find.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at October 27, 2003 10:38 PM

Hi IA,

I think I might have some small insight into this problem. Most of it has to do with how hyper-specialized academia is. It is hard to find generalists because the job market/graduate programs encourage hyper-specialization.

For example, last year was the first year I taught Harvard's basic Western Civ course. I'm an Americanist, by the way. Rumor eventually reached my ears that Europeanist graduate students were, well, let's just say they were upset that an Americanist was teaching what has come to be regarded as the province of Europeanists.

So, even when someone like myself tries to transcend traditional periodization and geographical location it is discouraged at the graduate level. How can one expect anything different among PhDs?

Posted by: Rebecca Goetz at October 27, 2003 11:06 PM

I agree that this is pretty tricky. Being a serious mensch (we have two in my department) is a much more institution-specific thing than being a researcher. All faculty exist in two worlds, that of the discipline and that of the school they are at. Researchers are almost entirely part of the discipline, and moving from school to school is not that hard. Menschen are much more tied to a particular place. They are also probably people who have made a conscious decision to go in that direction and you are now asking them to change their minds, probably at a point in their lives when moving is not as easy at is once was.

One thing that is important is lots of advertising. Researchers look for new jobs all the time. Plus, you are doing something new and you need to stress and explain this. You also need to woo these people. What are you offering? Better students? How are they better? More money? Money for what? Salary is always nice, of course, but freedom to design curriculum (in a very broad sense) without endless hassle/do what you want with students might be more appealing. The right to fire one administrator a year might be good. Probably the best thing would be to hire people like this, give them power, and then have them all write articles for the Chronicle about all the cool things they were able to do. Most of the money stuff that researchers get to do has to do with leaving the institution and its students behind and heading off to Gstaad. You will need concrete examples of what can be done at your institution to attract people.

Assuming you get a bunch of applications then how do you pick people? In part you leave it up to the people you have already hired. (I recommend Tim Burke and IA as the first two, both mensch from what I can tell.) This does create a problem however as you hire people and "tenure" them, however you define it. It requires a very close group of people who will assess each other's work. At least in History good non-dysfunctional departments tend to leave assessments of fellow faculty members' research up to the field. In fact they have to. At your school they can't and don't. People have to watch you teach and have real opinions about it rather than the current standard of Pass/Fail grading of teaching. This is a serious problem I think. When you hire a researcher you ask them to take a job, and they are always free to take another one. Here you are asking them to marry into a very close-knit group, and presumably to leave someone they are already married to. Bad metaphors abound here, but I suppose I should turn in for the night at this point.

Posted by: Ssuma at October 27, 2003 11:39 PM

I'm not sure why this is a difficult proposition. I know several of these menschs that Tim is talking about, and these qualities helped them get jobs. A CV and recommendations can convey this information easily.

A CV often contains a section on classes that applicant can teach or has taught. It also contains information about service (membership on committees, organizing events, etc...).

Student recommendations give clues about the applicant's ability to relate to students.

Faculty recommendations can give all that information.

The menschs exist, but are universities hiring them? Yes, in some cases. But will they get tenure? I'll let you know.

Posted by: Laura at October 27, 2003 11:46 PM

Actually such qualities are very hard to measure. Simply looking at the CV wont yield much information. There is no common yardstick to measure how well someone is at teaching simply by looking at the classes they have taught before or their services to the university. These things differ too much from college to college, even from department to department to be meaningful.

Student evaluations are also inaccurate measure. Classes often have too few students to get anything statistically useful. Say you teach a class that has 30 students. If just 3 students think you are a bad lecturer, there's 10% who thinks you are lousy. Is it a fair measure? People who teach large classes will thus have an edge since more people will have to think that you are lousy to have a significant impact.

How about observing people in action in the classroom? Now thats a good idea, but I am not sure how feasible it is to do so on a large scale. To ensure we get accurate measures,(since we want to base hiring decisions on this), that will mean that more than 1 person evaluates every single junior/recent hire and do so over a period of time.

There are no perfect yardsticks. But there are ones with less flaws. Now this is why I think college continue using research as a primary criterior. It is better than the alternatives. Furthurmore, it is proberbly easier to learn to be a better teacher than it is to be a better researcher. Extra training sessions and marginally more effort will make someone a better teacher. The same cannot be said for research.

Universities should not be just an extention of high school. In high school the teachers are primariy in the business of teaching and mentoring. They do not push the boundaries of human knowledge. College professors do.

Posted by: Passing_through at October 28, 2003 01:59 AM

I think about the landscape of my own institution, where there are a lot of good people that I am happy to work alongside, but then I think about the golden thread of people who really add extra value and who I would want to poach if I were trying to pack my own institution with mensch-faculty rather than conventional research stars.

Then I think about what their c.v.s would look like. A few of them would be evident on paper somehow, but most wouldn't. Everyone here serves on committees every year; that's not going to distinguish you. A list of courses taught might help you identify who has some snazzy titles and some general interests, I suppose, but not much beyond that. One or two of the most mensch-like have published very little; a couple of others have published, but stuff that is more conventional than the teaching and collegial outlook they bring to the college.

I think if you were really committed to this approach, you'd actually have to use some variation on a headhunting approach, and avoid the conventional open search.

The other problem enters in when you've built your institution. What good is it going to do you? Ok, so you've got the best teaching faculty, with a lot of giving, wonderful, unusually flexible generalists. You can put that in the brochure if you want, but there is no external way to confirm that you're telling the truth. To read the brochures, every college and university has that already. US News and World Report doesn't measure anything that this sort of faculty will show up on. Universities that do the exact opposite, privilege a faculty that could care less about teaching and reward obstructionist, narrow-gauge specialist assholes, suffer no hits at all to their prestige or success.

I think this explains why hiring peripaetic research stars looks like a smart move if you're trying to change your position on the food chain or revitalize a demoralized, struggling university. Most of the people embarking on that strategy aren't dummies: they know it's rent-the-name-of-a-famous-prof.

I don't like it better than anyone else--I remember one institution I was briefly associated with hiring a famous asshole (who I also think is an idiot whose fame is undeserved) who got a mammoth salary completely out of proportion to everyone else in his department and who avoids both his colleagues and his students. I don't know what the point of that was exactly: the university's general reputation hasn't improved overall in the decade or so since they hired him. But I can well see why the alternative road, hiring menschy faculty in profusion, wouldn't recommend itself.

Let's also suppose, by the way, that you hired some primo headhunters and they found you a bunch of the best people, and you were able to lure them. Well, you're going to be placing them one or two at a time in departments that you've already judged are fading, disconnected, etc. What do you think is going to happen when you bring in people with a lot of energy, good spirits, generosity and a generalist orientation into dispirited, burned-out, overly specialized departments full of "dour machiavels" (to quote Turbulent Velvet's phrase)? You can't hold back the tide all by yourself.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 28, 2003 06:11 AM

CVs maybe don't tell the whole story, but faculty recommendations fill out the picture. The menschs that I know were so valued that their advisors and co-workers got on the phone and twisted arms to get them jobs. One was written up in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago for organizing a special class at Pace University that sat in at a presidential candidate debate. He was well known as an excellent professor and got the job at Pace right out of graduate school. Too bad that bigger name universities didn't snap him up.

The real reason that menschs aren't hired isn't because they're hard to identify. Make a few phone calls, and you'll get the names. Tim is right in saying that hiring menschs doesn't add to the reputation of a university. Can't put it on the brochure. That's why it's not done.

Posted by: at October 28, 2003 07:57 AM

I don't understand why everyone assumes that the set of top-flight researchers and the set of "menschen" are mutually exclusive. I know plenty of research "stars" who serve diligently on important committees, work hard to inspire students, and contribute significantly to the collegial environment of their departments.

Of course, I know some dysfunctional prima donnas, too, but that group also includes some unproductive (in the research sense) faculty members who are revered by their students as giants in the classroom.

But the main point I want to raise is this: in a research university (even a "not-so-well regarded" one), faculty members are paid to engage in teaching, research, and service. So anyone who shirks on his or her research responsibilities is NOT a mensch, no matter how many committees s/he serves on and no matter how much s/he excels in the classroom. (And yes, I would--and do--say the same thing about outstanding researchers who blow off their teaching duties.)

Posted by: No name at October 28, 2003 08:00 AM

"I don't understand why everyone assumes that the set of top-flight researchers and the set of "menschen" are mutually exclusive....
But the main point I want to raise is this: in a research university (even a "not-so-well regarded" one), faculty members are paid to engage in teaching, research, and service."

Again, I would stress that this is partly about pressures and expectations. The superstars are not paid to teach undergraduates (indeed, I know of two such luminaries who had it in their contracts that they would never have to teach an undergraduate course; no doubt there are many more). They may be wonderful people, and they may be people who would do a fabulous job teaching undergrads if that was what was required of them (and perhaps they did do a fabulous job earlier in their careers). But once they inhabit the superstar galaxy, undergraduate teaching is not what they are paid to do. And they are under significant pressure to not devote much time to teaching: ie, to maintain their star status through publishing.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 28, 2003 09:13 AM

It's also a matter of time. There are only so many hours in the day and it's too much to ask of anybody to publish a pile of peer review articles and to be available to students/serve on committees/teach big undergraduate sections.

Posted by: Laura at October 28, 2003 09:21 AM

It is very difficult to change the culture of an existing organization...generally, it's possible only when the majority of the organization realizes that it is in serious trouble...and often, not even then. Far easier to establish a different culture by establishing a new organization. (This can sometimes be done by establishing an autonomous division within an existing organization, but this will usually be under constant attack by the older elements of the parent organization and will have to spend much of its energy repelling such attacks)

So, it seems that the best way to realize Tim's vision would be via the creation of new universities. I'm under the impression that there isn't much of this going on (except in the for-profit sector)...is this a correct impression? If so, what factors are at work in maintaining an oligopoly of existing institutions rather than providing for the creation of new ones?

Posted by: David Foster at October 28, 2003 10:01 AM


I've come to the same conclusion: I think this would take a new institution that starts with a fundamentally different social contract and with a conscious sense of trying to partially secede from academia as it is presently constituted across a broad span of norms. I even have a few ideas about what that might look like that I've been messing with for years. Somebody wants to give me $500 million, I might try to make it happen...

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 28, 2003 10:58 AM

Q. "If so, what factors are at work in maintaining an oligopoly of existing institutions rather than providing for the creation of new ones?" (David Foster)

A. "Somebody wants to give me $500 million, I might try to make it happen..." (Timothy Burke)

Universities are expensive and require hefty subsidies and endowments. Sure, the U of Phoenix turns a tidy profit. But in so doing, I suspect they are not realizing Timothy Burke's vision of an alternative university.

So Tim, maybe you could add one of those Paypal donation buttons to your blog?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 28, 2003 11:10 AM

One way to think about the people you're looking for would be in terms of the category public intellectuals. Look for people who are publishing not only in the specialized journals but in larger circulation quarterlies, newspapers, magazines. And notice in particular the people who write about a range of topics. And who write well!

By the way, your new college already exists and it's very old - St. John's in Annapolis and Santa Fe. Help them open more campuses - that'd be cheaper than starting a whole new place.

Posted by: constance at October 28, 2003 01:18 PM

As an aspiring mensch, I'd say to be specific about the needs you want. If you want someone to come in and design summer courses involving work in the field, say that. That assures applicants they will be judged by their mensching as well as their research, and might be of interest to those fed up with the culture of their current institutions, if a mensch is trapped somewhere with an ossified cynical culture. And as these times of non-classroom opportunities spread, they can be placed in publicity materials and everything.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at October 28, 2003 01:19 PM

I'm the chair of a science department at a medium sized public institution (typically rated in the top five research institutions in my discipline).

I have to strongly agree with "No name" above: the idea that mensches and superstars are non-intersecting sets is naive. Sure, we've got some great department citizens who may carry more than their teaching load while not being among our most outstanding researchers. But nearly all of our National Academies members teach undergraduates to outstanding reviews, and sit on curriculum committees, and devote countless hours to departmental and University service. Conversely, some of our (very few) poor teachers are amoung our least productive researchers, and are the most evasive when approached to help with service work.

I'm not saying that the alignment of high quality teaching and service with high quality research happened by accident. Our department has a long history of being very careful with appointments, and my university takes service and teaching very seriously when considering promotions and merit raises (our campus personnel committee reads every teaching evaluation!). But I know we aren't unique -- I spent years in another top five department in a different discipline, working closely with a Nobel prize winner who taught the big intro courses every year.

Talent for teaching and talent for research may differ somewhat from person to person. But most top researchers are clever enough to realize that building their department, not just their own career, is the best way to long term success -- what is better for an academic than being surrounded by interesting colleagues and students? And the same work-a-holic intensity and attention to detail that leads to research success can be just the recipe for great classroom teaching.

Posted by: a dept chair at October 28, 2003 01:53 PM

When I was at Reed College faculty were hired on the expectation that they would teach first and do research second. (My guess is that many of the elite "small liberal arts colleges" are like that, though I think there've been some changes). Few of the faculty seemed to be publsihing much, and some of the older ones seemed to have lost touch with their fields. However, Reed students got very solid foundations in their fields because the programs were all demanding. The cost was not getting in touch with the cutting edge until they were 22 (instead of at 18). But since most 18-22 year olds are just deciding on a major and screwing around anyway, it probably does hurt anyone except the rare student who chose his discipline at age 16.

I have heard several first-person stories about star professors who slacked on teaching. And some schools seem to cater to them. I don't think that the problem is an imaginary one.

Posted by: Zizka at October 28, 2003 02:21 PM

constance...I think St John's is a fine institution, and would welcome their opening of more campuses. But the pure "great books" approach isn't going to be for everyone, even for everyone who is seriously committed to getting a real liberal arts education. It would also be a problematic environment for many of those who do not have family money and must prepare for a career straight out of college.

I'm thinking out loud here, but envisaging a school that would combine a broad liberal arts education with serious, hard-nosed career programs for those that want them. No reason why you can't study Plato and accounting, too...

Posted by: David Foster at October 28, 2003 02:26 PM

A couple of empirical data points from George Mason University.

1. There was a big push a decade or so back to hire stars, one or two per department. One of them got an Economics Nobel a year or two ago. As far as I can tell, this did the university no good whatsoever and has now been discontinued.

2. The Law School has followed a different strategy. It has taken a somewhat unpopular intellectual stance and sought out good, but not star, people with that stance. The last few years it has been climbing in the law school ratings.

If I were in Tim Burke's hypothetical president's shoes, I'd look to see if I could get several departments ("strategic" ones) to follow the GMU Law School example.

Posted by: jam at October 28, 2003 02:57 PM

I guess there are a few things that bother me about some of the comments that have been made on this thread.

First, there seems to be a general disapproval of the idea of a research university. (Mandatory disclosure statement: I am the chair of a social science department at a large state-funded research institution.) People seem to be saying that the "good" faculty members (or "menschen") are those who spend long hours teaching and mentoring undergraduates, while the "bad" ones are those who choose to concentrate on writing and publication, sometimes even negotiating course reductions. Many of you seem to be suggesting, intentionally or not, that teaching is the only worthwhile academic endeavor.

I have never argued that those of us at research universities are any better, smarter, or more important than our colleagues who teach at liberal arts colleges, comprehensive state universities, or jucos. We just have a different job, one that is, in my view, equally legitimate. (After all, someone has to produce the cutting edge knowledge that all those fine student-centered professors at Reed College are presenting in their classrooms.) In the context of a research university, it makes sense to provide as much time as possible for the very best researchers to do their work, even if it means that they only occasionally appear in front of undergraduates.

Below the Harvard/Berkeley/Stanford level, most of us who teach at research institutions are not "superstars". We write books and articles, we serve on committees, and we teach large introductory courses to freshman who would rather be somewhere else. We do not devote nearly the same amount of time to our students that faculty members at liberal arts colleges do, and we make no apology for that fact. But we do serve as the research university equivalent of the "menschen", albeit with 2/2 course loads.

But let me say a word in defense of the "superstars". These are not people who simply fill library shelves with meaningless books and articles. These are people whose work has been judged by their peers to be reshaping the way we look at the world. To be sure, not all "superstars" will stand the test of time, and some of their work may well prove to be unimportant or even wrong, but that's OK, too. There are lot of medical researchers out there, but nobody's cured cancer yet. That doesn't mean we shouldn't stop trying.

At this point, I am sure that a number of you are ready to pounce on me, saying, "Hey, Mr. Social Science Chair, nobody in your department is curing cancer!" And you would be right. I hear that criticism from non-academics all the time. Such criticism misses the whole point of a research university, which is that the development of knowledge is a good and necessary thing even when that knowledge has no obvious "real world" value.

So the way I see it, you either buy into the idea of a research institution, or you don't (and if you don't, then what on earth are you doing in academia?). And if you buy into the idea of a research university, then it should be clear that it is right and proper to nurture and provide time and resources for the very best researchers (the "superstars") among us. While these "superstars" may never set foot in an undergraduate classroom, that doesn't mean they are not teaching. They attract and work with outstanding graduate students (a vital function at any research university) and the rest of us convey their insights in our own undergraduate classes.

In any event, the rise of "superstar" academics has relatively little to do with the adjunctification of the academy because there are, below the Harvard/Berkeley/Stanford level, relatively few of them. To put it another way, the problem is not that UC-San Diego uses adjuncts, it's that UC-San Diego AND Cal State-San Marcos AND Grossmont (Community) College use adjuncts. (I picked these schools at random, so I don't know for sure how much they actually rely on adjuncts, but you get the idea.) Truth be told, a lot of the "adjuncting" work at research institutions is done by Ph.D. students rather than "real" adjuncts. So I'm not sure why we're picking on research universities and academic "superstars" and blaming them for a problem which appears at every level of the academic world.

Posted by: No name at October 28, 2003 10:51 PM

One way to identify the "teaching menchen" is to look at the annual "best teacher" awards. These are typically voted on by a departments undergraduate and grad students (although some institutions have seperate awards for undergrad and grad teaching), and are usually a good way of identifying great teachers. This is very different from student evaluations, and, from empirical experience, much more likely to identify those who really reach out to students, rather than just going through the motions. The "superstars" are rarely the best teachers, IMHO.

Posted by: Daniel Golding at October 29, 2003 09:08 AM

Separate questions:

How does one identify menschen from among the graduate students hitting the market for the first time?

How does one identify junior/ early-mid-career menschen?

How does one identify senior menschen?

The last isn't that hard, I would guess. Yes, there are people who are institutionally wonderful and are hidden away on their liberal arts campuses and unknown to the discipline at large (in a way I had one such as one of my most-treasured undergrad profs-- Brown had enough of the liberal-arts feel about the place then to have a few). But, as has been noted, they're probably deeply committed to their home universities anyways. But among senior folks who are known to the profession, reputations on this count are easy to come by. Easy or difficult to get along with as a colleague, good departmental citizen, etc-- there are rumor-mill-based consensuses about this stuff for most senior people in the field. There are also things that show up on the CV: institution-building (which means more than founding a vanity research center one can be the director of), and service-above-and-beyond. Someone who's done time as a Dean of Student Affairs or Dean of the College, someone who has had several intermittent terms in administration, apparently not because he or she wants an admin path but because he or she responds to the call of service, etc. One public-record example: Sheila Blumstein, neuroscientist at Brown, served as Dean of the Faculty for a number of years, chaired a curriculum review committee, and returned to teaching/researching. When Gordon Gee left Brown's presidency unexpectedly, she was chosen interim president by a kind of trustee-faculty acclamation, took the position, made clear she didn't want the permanent job, returned to the faculty a year later. The jobs and terms are there on her CV, and the way she was received in the jobs is fairly well-known in academia. There are other people with intermittent terms as department chair, or one term as department chair, followed a few years later by a term as an assistant dean or assistant provost, etc. This pattern shows a determination to help out rather than an admin-careerist track.

Grad students: my guess is that most grad students are ready and eager to be menschen. For that matter, most first-year tenure track faculty are-- they're happy and grateful to have gotten a job. They get talked out of it, for their own good, or they figure out on their own that it's not the path to tenure. And the exceptions can often be weeded out by the letters. There's a certain style of letter that says "This person is a brilliant pain in the ass." That letter's fine for getting some research jobs, but can also signal to Mensch U that they don't want him.

I think junior/ early-midcareer may be hardest. At least, when I think about my own field I find it hardest to decide about the menschenness of my age cohort and that five-to-ten years older-- not enough time to build the kind of record I talked about at the senior level; thin service records could be evidence of being protected by one's department rather than evidence of shirking; etc.

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy at October 29, 2003 09:18 AM

Responding to no name, perhaps the problem isn't the research university - it's that becoming a top-flight research university is seen as the only legitimate aspiration of so many mid-sized and large state schools.

When I was on the job market (in the hard sciences), every large public university I interviewed at, investigated, or talked to friends at (as well as my alma mater) had a problem with too many research faculty and too few good teachers.

One interview was particularly telling: the acting chair said "We have to be Research I to get support, we can't fulfill all our obligations and reach Research I, so we're concentrating on research: undergraduates get lecturers, and two of the older faculty have taken on the job of supervising all the adjuncts."

A friend took a postdoc in that department two years later and tells me the new chair cleaned up that attitude. However, the two other big-name public schools in that state still have the problem. A plurality of their faculty in my field are poor teachers who don't want to teach and who in many cases do have arrangements that prevent them from ever seeing undergraduates. Most of these people are not superstars: they've got good grant-getting records, or helped found the field 20 years ago and haven't contributed much since.

Perhaps because I'm in the "hard" sciences I've a very different outlook, but for me the deciding criterion for finding a job was: if you don't actively want to teach, and to become a better teacher, you don't belong in academia. Go do research with some company or some thinktank. I know that isn't as viable a route in less commercially-applicable fields, but it's the standard I hold any science department up to.

Posted by: ABD Instructor at October 29, 2003 10:21 AM

In response to No Name's comment abt academics re-shaping the way we view the world. I am not sure this is true---increasingly academics are using jargon and failing to communicate with the larger world. As discussed in the Lamb to the Slaughter blog, there is a huge disconnect between the intellectual world of the academic and the world of policy makers, analysts, legislators, and even people who work at foundations. I've become a little cynical abt all this (I left academia) and by academics' confident assertion that they should be funded by taxpayers to pursue research which often winds up being irrelevant to the population at large. Very few academics, at middling or even major research universities, create research which influences and shapes the lives of ordinary people. I wish that this were not so but as it is true, I think that more universities need to question their prioritizing research over teaching.

Posted by: Hana at October 29, 2003 04:41 PM

In response to Hana's comments, there has always been a significant disconnect between academic researchers and policy makers, as least in the humanities and social sciences. State legislators were no more interested in Chaucer and Cromwell and cognitive dissonance theory fifty years ago than they are today. What is different today is the sense that somehow academic research is only justified if someone can explain in a thirty-second sound bite on the Fox News Network exactly how it will improve the "real lives" of "real people", preferably by next Thursday at the latest.

As I said before, either you buy into the idea that pure research is important or you don't. But it seems to me that the legitimacy of the entire academic enterprise is ultimately dependent on buying into that idea. After all, if conducting research on, say, ancient philosophy is not worth the taxpayer's dollar, then what value can there be in teaching the subject?

Sure, there a lot of people who look at public universities as places where their kids go to get their tickets punched so they can join the middle class. Most of these people value neither research nor teaching, and would probably be delighted to see tenure eliminated and all full-time faculty members replaced by adjuncts. (For the record, I am not accusing Hana of holding these views; I am simply speaking to the general point.)

On the other hand, in a sense, maybe taxpayers actually do buy into the idea of research universities. There's a reason why a Harvard degree is held in such high esteem, and it has little to do with the relative quality of Harvard's teachers. Most parents, given a choice, would rather send their kids to UT-Austin than UT-Tyler, and I have no doubt that Tyler has some outstanding classroom instructors. (And please understand that this is not a knock on Tyler, it is simply an acknowledgment of the way many of today's parents assess colleges and universities.)

My guess is that if a "middling" state research university (let's say, just to pick a school out of the hat, the University of Tennessee) gave up research and started hiring "menschen", the results would be disastrous. The university's reputation would drop sharply and the institution would see a significant decline in applications (especially applications from top-notch students).

Posted by: No name at October 29, 2003 09:53 PM

Research universities bring benefits to the communities around them. I dont think this is something that has been pointed out. Even if a lot of research is incomprehensible to the average person, they still reaps the benefits from it. Thus even not so famous state schools still need to have strong research, usually at the flagship campus.

For example, the high-tech industry in Austin TX is in most part due to the strong research done in UT-Austin. These companies are a source of jobs and more importantly a source of money for the local schools and communities. (guys who work there need to send their kids somewhere)
Similar things can be said about UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Washington,etc. The strong research done at these places attract companies like Microsoft and IBM to these places, which in turn benefits the residents even though most of the research doesnt "releate to them".

While it may appear that schools outside of say Berkeley,MIT,CMU range should do more teaching over research, the top few state schools in every state still need to be research oriented to attract business to set up shop.

Posted by: Passing_through at October 30, 2003 10:09 AM

I have no problem with "pure" research (on the contrary) but I do have some problems with the failure of most academics to speak to the general public at large (even if only to explain why "pure" research is important). I am concerned b/c most academics are taught to aspire to a research career (as opposed to a career of teaching or public service). I am very cynical here and I would say that a lot of the research which is done is not necessarily great work or deeply insightful work which will change the way we view the world. In my field, there has been a growing tendency to produce monographs on extraordinarily narrow topics and to fail to contextualize these works. This is troubling to me as I think it is often shoddy work and I don't really think it contributes much to the intellectual life of the nation. In my current position, I straddle the academic world and the non-academic world. I have to say that some of the most innovative thinkers I have found have not been the so-called research professors but rather the policy analyst who weaves together many facts to develop a larger understanding of the world.

As someone who attended a small elite liberal arts college which emphasized the role of menschen and scholars, I want to say that I am not that impressed with middling research universities (I used to teach at one). I think these schools give the worst of both worlds: weak teaching and mediocre research. I think the schools whose professors best combine the role of research and teachers would be schools like Williams, Amherst, Vassar, Wesleyan etc.

And finally, altho' the American taxpayer indirectly funds reseach at Harvard, Yale etc., he/she is not aware of doing so (while Harvard rec'es a lot of federal money, very few Americans understand this) and so I don't think you can say that the average taxpayer is aware of funding and supporting Harvard research. Moreover, I'd like to point out that a lot of Americans do not buy into the Harvard mystique when thinking about where to send their kids (and that those who do only rarely make a connection between the research done by Harvard professors and the quality of the education---in fact, I would say that the people who are most apt to make this connection are researchers [in private industry or in academia]). While I do feel that there is a connection between being a good researcher and a good teacher (I was always most excited and enthusiastic when I could teach material directly relevant to my own reseach), I do not think most Americans understand that connection (and I do fault academics for failing to explain why this connection is important---I just looked at my alma mater's website a few weeks ago and while they provided lots of information on the research professors were doing, they did not explain why this research made the school a great place for learning).

Posted by: Hana at October 30, 2003 10:10 AM