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Can the U.S. Afford Universities Focusing on Research Over Teaching?

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Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

 I direct an effort, which is funded by the National Science Foundation's Broadening Participation in Computing program, called "Georgia Computes!" in which we are trying to improve and broaden computing education, across the pipeline, statewide. We spend a lot of effort offering professional development to high school teachers and undergraduate faculty. We are increasingly getting signals that the faculty in the University System of Georgia (USG) are turning more toward research, away from teaching.

  • Over the four years of the project, we have had fewer and fewer USG faculty attend our workshops. We have had many return visitors, and good coverage across the 29 institutions in the USG with computing departments.  But overall nowadays, we are lucky to get a half-dozen attendees.  Our external advisor did interviews with faculty around the state to help us understand the attendance issue.  The answer was pretty much the same from everyone, characterized by this interview quote, "In any department, only about 20% of the faculty care about undergraduate teaching. You got them all."
  • One of my Ph.D. students who is studying computing teachers interviewed USG faculty at institutions whose mission is primarily undergraduate teaching.  When asked, "What do you do to improve as a computing educator?" one faculty member told her, "I'm not a computing educator. I don't want to improve at it.  My tenure case depends on my research work. I'm not going to spend any time working at being a better teacher."

This tension has always existed in the American university system. In his book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers, Larry Cuban points out that the American land grant universities were designed in the late 1800's to merge the British focus on undergraduate education with the German research university. But nobody asked whether that was even possible, and he argues that the structure of the American university pretty much prevents the potential synergy of research and teaching from ever working.

The question I'm raising here is whether we can afford a shift toward research and away from teaching in the United States.  There is evidence suggesting that the increasing costs of higher education are not due to growth in instructional costs, but in costs associated with sponsored programs and graduate education. In his blog, Rich DeMillo points out that university research rarely pays for itself. Doing research is more expensive than doing education well.  

Of course, we need research in American universities. It's absolutely critical for graduate education. Do we need research in our undergraduate institutions? Rich also cites a new study showing that many of our undergraduate institutions that produce the most future Ph.D. students do not have (large, expensive) research programs. Number two on that list is Harvey Mudd College, which prides itself on having a "liberal arts engineering" focus, where undergraduate education is the top priority. If we can have high-quality undergraduate education without research programs, and research programs are so expensive, and higher education costs are growing too quickly for our nation's economy (and middle-class families' pocketbooks) to absorb, does it really make sense to steer away from teaching and into research?




As always, I enjoyed Mark Guzdial's insightful blog entry, and was happy to see Harvey Mudd College mentioned (since I am on faculty there). As Mark points out, there are many fine undergraduate institutions that, collectively, are disproportionate producers of students who go on to pursue Ph.D.'s in computer science.

It's worth noting that these colleges have small (by R1 standards) but healthy research programs - often externally funded - and those programs are critically important in providing undergraduates with opportunities to participate in real research year-round, publish with faculty mentors, attend research conferences, take small advanced topics courses, and generally have a "microcosm graduate experience."

At Harvey Mudd, every one of our nine faculty members is doing research, with undergraduates, supported by the National Science Foundation, HHMI, and DARPA. And, similar levels of activity are found at other strong liberal arts colleges, particularly those that are part of the graduate school pipeline.

So, in answer to Mark's good and provocative question "Do we need research in our undergraduate institutions?" my strong sense is that the answer is "Yes!" They need not (and cannot) be large research programs, but without active research this part of the pipeline will shrivel and dry.

Mark Guzdial

Excellent point -- research can be smaller scale, in support of undergraduate learning, without the extensive and expensive infrastructure necessary for large scale efforts. The smaller scale may have a large impact on PhD supply later.

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