Bytes -- February, 1999
In Defense of Research Universities
I would like to share with the visitors to
The Online Gadfly, a small unpublished document that has been sitting
in my files for the past three years. It is a letter that was prompted by
a segment of the hugely popular television "Magazine," Sixty Minutes.
In that feature, titled "Get Real!", Leslie Stahl visited the
University of Arizona, and used that occasion to dredge up the usual
complaints about large public universities: i.e., that they promote
research at the expense of education, that this research results in
cryptic papers published in obscure journals that nobody ever reads, and
that undergraduates generally encounter graduate teaching assistants
rather than professors in their classes. Most any ordinary faculty member
knows this drill. It is so familiar that the following commentary need assume no
direct acquaintance with the Sixty Minutes program in question.
Oh, by the way, our letter to
was never answered.
Dear Ms. Stahl,
As a professor in a small, independent college [at the
time, Northland College -- EP], I suppose that I should be pleased with your
attack, several weeks ago, on a large, research-oriented public university
-- the University of Arizona. That segment should serve to direct students
to such struggling teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges as the one I
serve. Yes, I should be pleased, but somehow, I am not.
It happens that I am also the product of a large state
University, and for the larger part of my career, I taught at such
institutions. But much more to the point, we proudly send many of our
graduates to such Universities -- if, that is, these students have proven
themselves willing and capable to meet the high standards they will face.
And finally, the most significant content of the courses that I teach is the
output of scholarly researchers, either now or recently at work. Even in
philosophy, scholarly research is active, alive, and in progress. Any
scholar knows this who has waited too long to complete a paper and sent it
out for publication while the "cutting edge" moved on, leaving his work
Your primary complaint, it seems, was that students
who go to college to gain an education, are cheated when they find that the
primary interest of the professors is research, and that the despised task
of teaching is left to the untenured and even to graduate students --
"consumer fraud," you called it.
But as Keith Lehrer reminded me in a recent
conversation, those university faculties -- including the awkward teaching
assistants -- routinely accomplish a small miracle. [Prof. Lehrer, a
philosopher at the University of Arizona was interviewed by Sixty Minutes].
As we know too well, the reading, writing and computational skills of our
high school graduates are a national disgrace. Yet in four years these
research-distracted institutions somehow manage to raise the knowledge and
skills of these students to a level sufficient for them to qualify for
graduate schools, where they successfully compete with the same foreign
students that so thoroughly outclassed them just four years earlier. And why
are so many foreign students at our graduate schools? Because they recognize
these institutions to be the finest in the world. (As we noticed, some of
the foreign students, though brilliant, arrive with language difficulties
that attract the attention of the editors and producers of Sixty Minutes).
"Consumer fraud?" Your piece supplied eloquent
refutation, which the careful viewer might have noticed. Early on you
pointed out that the University of Arizona takes in $250 million for funded
research. You might have added that from thirty to forty percent of that
amount (perhaps $100 million) is directed to "overhead," which is to say,
the general operating expenses of the University. Yet at the close you
suggested that someday, some parent may sue a university for "consumer
fraud," since the tuition intended for their child's education was being
used instead for research. It seems that you have the matter entirely
reversed. As any University Bursar will tell you, in a large graduate
university, the teachers do not support research; research supports teaching
-- from those aforementioned "overhead charges." Far more justified would be
a "consumer fraud" suit against the university from a funding organization,
on the grounds that the cash which they had intended for research, was being
"misappropriated" to support teaching. This isn't idle speculation on my
part. Just send your researchers back to Tucson, sans agenda, for
an objective look at the books.
Graduate students teaching undergraduates?
Shocking! Surely, no one should ever be allowed to teach for the first
time, just as no one should ever practice law or medicine for the first
time. Obviously, outstanding professors like Keith Lehrer never taught for
the first time: they simply walked down, fully formed, from Mount Olympus.
And should senior professors teach such entry classes as beginning Calculus
or freshman English? Wouldn't it make as much sense for a senior surgeon to
walk the wards, take temperatures and blood pressures and dispense
medications; or for a judge to act as his own clerk; or for a seasoned
television reporter to do all her research, and type her own copy and
correspondence. This is not a matter of caste or privilege -- just a
question of the optimum use of resources and talent.
And when professors do teach, just what is the content
of their teaching? Quite simply, it is the results of research. Moreover,
this will be research done recently, and most likely at a university -- the
more advanced the course, the more recent the research. (Even courses in
"the history of ideas" reflect ungoing historical research). End the
research, and soon there will be nothing to teach but aging content and
stale ideas, accumulated up to that dreadful moment when the research, and
thus all progress, ended.
It is equally true, of course, that research to the
exclusion of teaching would also bring progress to a stop. Surely, there
must be a balance. Unfortunately, that balance was missing from your report.
To be fair, perhaps the brunt of your complaint was
not "research" per se, but frivolous and pointless research. There
is some merit to this complaint. I would guess that if half of the scholarly
journals were abolished, the reduction of significant thought and
information would be about two-percent as quality material was rerouted to
the remaining publications. Even so, I dare say that you over-reached. My
former Senator, Bill Proxmire, used to give "Golden Fleece Awards" to what
he regarded as useless government-supported research. (From time to time,
Sixty Minutes featured these "Awards"). As I recall, he took special
pleasure at pointing out studies of "the sex lives of insects" as paradigms
of federal boondoggling. However, this research has led to the most
effective, and at the same time ecologically benign, method of controlling
the medfly and other pests. But one need not be an agronomist or an
entomologist to figure out a connection between sex and reproduction, though
apparently this evaded Proxmire's notice.
To support your complaint about the alleged frivolity
of scholarly research, you took special delight at grabbing a (presumably)
random journal off the shelf of the UA library, and reading a cryptic title
therein. In response thereto, I have a pop quiz for you: Which of the
following papers is worthy of anyone's attention, far less the subsidy of
"Regarding the Development and Alteration of Light
from a Heuristic Perspective."
"The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies."
"On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia
Mathematica and Related Systems."
"Who," to pose your question, "would read this stuff?"
Fortunately, someone did. The first (published in 1905) earned Einstein the
Nobel Prize, and the second (also 1905) was his first statement of the
special theory of relativity. The third, by Kurt Godel (1931) is arguably
the most important mathematical paper of the twentieth century. Just
possibly the title that you read may prove to be of comparable worth, though
the chance of that is vanishingly remote. I can't tell from that title, nor
can you. For that matter, neither of us could make that judgment from the
content of that article (though presumably the editors and referees
could). It will take an ongoing cadre of scholars and researchers to assess
the value of such publications and to build on them. How are these
researchers to be supported, if not by our universities?
The Sixty Minutes segment, "Get Real!," does us all a
great disservice. The US economy imports energy, consumer electronics and
automobiles, all of which we once produced domestically. What do we export
in return? Municipal garbage, unprocessed National Forest products (i.e.,
our remaining wilderness), and Midwestern grain. Among our imports are
foreign professionals who come to our shores to gain, in those universities
that you disparage, a quality of higher education that is unsurpassed
anywhere in the world. Many of those foreign students, drawn to our
universities, remain to become the scholars, scientists and engineers that
enrich our intellectual, technical and cultural life, not to mention our
But now these research universities, our national
treasures, are under attack by opportunistic politicians, by taxpayers
alliances, and by Sixty Minutes. The research therein, we are told,
is "an extravagance that we can't afford." American industry in general, and
CBS in particular, which has had no qualms about prospering from the talents
of our university graduates or from the results of their research, now sees
fit to attack those institutions which have rewarded them so lavishly. The
American economy, which has flourished on golden eggs, is now looking
hungrily at the goose.
In this blessed land, our cities and infrastructure
are in decay, our governments are collapsing under mountains of debt, our
foreign rivals out compete us with technologies first developed in our
universities, and now civility has left our politics. But there remain a few
things at which we still excel, and foremost among them is scientific,
technical and scholarly research, and the higher education which supports
and produces this research.
Sixty Minutes serves us poorly, by its reckless
attack upon one of our most successful, productive and internationally
But I'll bet Rush Limbaugh and the Dittoheads just
Copyright, 1999 by Ernest Partridge