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KENNEDY: Rethink research to save higher ed

May 4, 2013

Sheila Suess KennedyIt’s no secret that higher education is in a state of turmoil—one might even use the word “crisis.”

College costs have risen more rapidly than the pace of inflation. Student debt is identified by some economists as the next economic “bubble”; whether the bubble bursts or not, the trillions of dollars owed are a huge drag on the economy. Universities increasingly rely on (poorly paid) adjuncts to deliver basic courses. Legislators demand higher four-year graduation rates and at the same time reduce state support. Studies suggest that too many undergraduates leave school having learned very little.

Those of us who teach at the university level are painfully aware of these challenges, but I recently read a closely reasoned essay published by David Stocum, a former dean of the School of Science at IUPUI, that connected these problems in a way I had not previously considered. The article, “Killing Public Higher Education: The Arms Race for Research Prestige,” is well worth reading in its entirety; column space doesn’t allow me to do it justice.

The title should not mislead; the author’s basic critique is not that research is unimportant, but that—like college athletics—its purpose has been distorted.

“[T]he quest for research prestige and the quest for athletic prestige share many of the same features and values. They are both expensive, the subject of enormous hype, driven by rankings, and the star players are treated deferentially.”

This “arms race” for rank and prestige is part and parcel of the central element that Slocum identifies as problematic: the privileging of so-called flagship campuses to the detriment of other public educational institutions. Flagship campuses “bias their student population toward more economically advantaged students. Such bias is leading to ever-increasing social and economic polarization throughout the higher education system.”

Slocum points to a variety of consequences of this privileging of flagships: a lack of autonomy and financial support for the “lesser” campuses, and an increasingly bloated administrative structure among them. But his most significant concern is that the flagship focus on research dollars devalues and discourages undergraduate teaching.

Slocum considers a number of proposed fixes, ranging from those he labels tweaks to spinning off research and graduate education into independent think tanks. But he favors a restructuring that would, in his words, eliminate the “caste system,” and allow each public institution to decide for itself what its research emphasis should be—something “mission differentiation” dictated by the flagships doesn’t currently allow.

Most important, undergraduate education must once again become the core mission for all higher education.

It is important to emphasize that Slocum is not advocating abandonment of the university’s research mission. (He directs the Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine, a research center.) As he says, “a university that emphasizes the synergy between research and teaching gives the best service to its constituents.”

Instead, he emphasizes the need to differentiate between research excellence and research prestige. But he insists that excellence in undergraduate education must be the core purpose of higher education, which “today appears to be progressively more consumerist and vocational.”

This latter point deserves an article of its own. If we are to restore the promise of higher education, we need to understand the importance of learning for its own sake—learning that includes history and science and literature and the arts, that includes teaching students what the best minds have thought about human existence.

Job training is important, but it is not the same thing as education.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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