Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly 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I would like to share with the visitors to The Online Gadfly, a small unpublished document that has been sitting in my files for the past three years.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 Sixty Minutes 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 behind.

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 the taxpayers?

  • "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 economy

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 acclaimed institutions.

But I'll bet Rush Limbaugh and the Dittoheads just loved it!

Copyright, 1999 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .