The Trouble with Research

While apparently the idea of improving the undergraduate experience though research is very popular, at least at some community colleges, elsewhere universities have wondered if maybe research prestige actually acts to the detriment of high-quality undergraduate education. According to an article by Eric Kelderman in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Some higher-education experts [believe] that many large research universities are placing too much priority on activities that raise the profile and prestige of their institutions but do little to improve undergraduate education. Such activities include contracts for private research and public-private partnerships to market new patents.

The issue is whether the increasing amount of support coming from sources outside state tax dollars “is causing these institutions … to move away from their public mission,” [said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs]. “The answer in too many cases is, unfortunately, yes.”

When universities focus on serious research that can result in greater prestige and also higher funding. It doesn’t generally help undergraduate education at all, however. Indeed, many argue it just causes universities to shift funding away from the actual education of students.

At the University of Vermont, for instance, president Daniel Mark Fogel announced in 2009 that in the future UVM would focus on three research areas: food systems, complex systems and neuroscience, and behavior and health. Called the “Spires of Excellence” plan (or sometimes the “Transdisciplinary Research Initiative”), this new emphasis would essentially determine all hiring and investment decisions UVM made in the future.

In response, the college’s Student Government Association promptly announced its opposition to the plan, saying it “will have a negative impact on the quality of undergraduate education.”

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer