Research universities

Former association president muses on research universities today (essay)

Several weeks ago, I completed five bracing years in Washington, D.C., as president of the Association of American Universities. What have I learned about research universities and their place in American life? Three things stand out: undergraduate education, crucial to liberal democracy, is showing signs of getting better; federal regulation of universities, an issue to which I had previously paid little attention, is stifling and out of date; and big-time intercollegiate athletics, incredibly popular, are also incredibly perilous for universities, as their moral and physical hazards multiply rapidly.

If anything exhibits the essentiality of education to the maintenance of democracy, it is the current presidential campaign. Some candidates have succeeded with appeals to fear and base instincts, with misleading claims based on passion instead of evidence, with repudiation of reason and rationality, and with autocratic overtones. America needs citizens educated to think critically and independently, and trained to weigh arguments about complex subjects like energy and climate and tax policy against one another with some degree of sophistication.

What prepares citizens to carry out these essential tasks? A liberal education -- that is, in its original meaning, an education suited to produce free people. That is a far more important outcome for our country than the (very large) difference in career earnings between those who earn a college degree and those who don’t, the figure generally cited as the primary benefit offered by a degree.

It is encouraging, after years of neglect, to see many of our nation’s leading research universities giving high priority once more to the quality of education they offer to undergraduate students. Motivated partly by faculty ingenuity and concern, partly by parents’ complaints about shortcomings in their children’s education, public and private universities are spending a great deal of time, effort and money on freshman seminars; undergraduate research programs; curricular enhancement, including smart use of online materials; and learning analytics designed to produce more individualized teaching methods.

At AAU, for example, our five-year-old undergraduate STEM education initiative has built considerable momentum, thanks to the active participation of dozens of member universities. The project aims to improve the teaching of gateway courses in science and math -- precisely the freshman and sophomore classes that have traditionally turned off many would-be science majors before they really get started. Professors use evidence-based methods of teaching, such as group learning, problem solving, clickers, online tools and other means of increasing student engagement in the classroom. Good courses in chemistry, physics, math, computer science and the life sciences are crucial for students who will confront tough policy choices as adults in numerous domains calling for scientific literacy.

Science is just one part of a strong liberal education. Humanities and social sciences are also vital to enabling students to develop critical thinking, the ability to speak and write effectively, and the kind of collaborative skills needed in the workplace and in the public sector. Employers increasingly cite these skills as essential to their hiring needs, and life studies clearly reveal their contribution to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Much more needs to be done to promote courses in the humanities, in particular, because the current zeitgeist heavily favors careerism: students are flocking to business and other practical majors in an effort to appeal to the job market. A longer view demonstrates the value of a broad education, as many studies have noted.

A Burdensome Regulatory Regime

Universities continue to put a premium on research, which has made American institutions the best in the world. But lagging federal investment over the past decade has threatened our pre-eminent position, as has a regulatory regime plagued by overlapping, duplicative, burdensome requirements that stifle faculty members and cost universities millions of dollars in unproductive legal and audit fees. The past five years have been remarkably frustrating for those of us trying to cut through this thicket: after taking initial steps to reduce and harmonize regulations early in its tenure, the Obama administration has made no further progress.

Research universities are subject to regulation from more federal departments and agencies than practically any other recipient of federal funds. It is essential to protect against fraud and abuse of government funding, but researchers now spend some 40 percent of their time writing proposals and coping with the administration of their grants. That is ridiculous and damaging to our nation’s basic research enterprise.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) have developed legislation to address these issues. And the administration continues to discuss the possibility of further actions by the end of the year. We hope for progress, if not by January 2017 then in the next administration and Congress.

Another key regulatory domain for universities is accreditation, which not only is outmoded but threatens to taint our entire enterprise. Accreditation, which is intended to ensure the credibility of colleges and universities, fails to provide accountability for institutions that abuse students and government funds. Moreover, it subjects institutions to the same unproductive requirements whether they have superb or mediocre track records.

The process of accreditation rarely results in serious action of any kind. Recent cases of shockingly ineffective schools (mostly proprietary institutions) gaining reaccreditation in spite of glaring, even fraudulent practices, have drawn negative attention to our entire sector. They have fed the public perception that universities in general are unregulated, when in fact we are among the most regulated industries in America.

What can be done? At the least, the regional accrediting agencies need to institute differential accreditation based on past performance. They should not treat the Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame the same way they treat institutions that leave most of their students with exceedingly high debt and no degree. And accreditors need to set a few indicators -- like graduation rates, student debt and default rates -- such that institutions falling below certain thresholds will be subject to greater scrutiny. If those institutions are found to be failing the interests of students and abusing taxpayer support, they should be put out of business.

An Out-of-Control Model

Finally, intercollegiate athletics. I played four years of college baseball and basketball (at the Division III level), and I am a fervent fan of college sports and the cohesiveness and community they engender among students, alumni, faculties and administrations. For excitement and aesthetic pleasure, they are unparalleled in American life. The public therefore wants more and more of them.

But big-time college sports are now out of institutional control, whether of the universities themselves or of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Recent scandals and court decisions make it clear that the model we know so well is cracking, probably irreparably.

What have university leaders done about this? Overwhelmed by the demands of millions of alumni and other fans, very little. Instead, they watch as “student-athletes” strike and appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, former players sue, wealthy lawyers go to court to argue that the NCAA violates antitrust laws, and judges are left to determine the future of intercollegiate athletics.

Looming over these legal exposures is the sheer scale of the money implicated in the enterprise. Some universities’ athletic programs bring in so much revenue they don’t know how to spend it. Recent competition for building the largest scoreboard at football stadiums is almost -- almost -- humorous in its lunacy. Other institutions can’t balance their athletic budgets in spite of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Coaches’ salaries are an embarrassment: in most of the 50 states a university basketball or football coach is the most highly paid public employee -- by a wide margin. The vast amounts of money pouring into the National Basketball Association and National Football League can be condoned because they are professional businesses. But the hoards of cash falling into the laps of universities for completely nonacademic purposes compromise the extraordinary work they do in carrying out their academic missions.

What can be done about the tremendous vulnerabilities inherent in intercollegiate athletics? It is late in the day, perhaps too late, to stave off such developments as paying players or drastic solutions imposed by the courts. Only very serious internal reforms might save the enterprise. Universities need to consider downsizing across the board: the length of the season, coaches’ pay, skyboxes and scoreboards, athletic dorms, and the other monstrosities of the enterprise that now tarnishes campuses otherwise devoted to learning.

Will universities get off the tiger’s back on their own? I am not optimistic.

Hunter R. Rawlings III served as president of the Association of American Universities, an association of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, from 2011 until April 25 of this year, when he became interim president of Cornell University. He is a former president of Cornell and of the University of Iowa.

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Essay: Finding great teaching at an expensive university and a community college

As a student at a private university I had a sneaking suspicion that the magic between the pages of our great books had nothing to do with the cost of tuition, but had much to do with the generous heart of the instructor -- no matter the setting. I think I was right.

I spent the fall of 2013 enrolled at a community college in Texas trying to discover what you really get when you pay the most in the world of higher education -- and what you get when you pay the least.

By day, I was a junior English major at Southern Methodist University, one of the nation’s most expensive private universities. By night, I was a commuter student in an American literature class at Richland College, a nearby community college. An English class at my university cost over $5,100, while at Richland it was only $153. While at SMU, after a few false starts, the liberal arts had come alive through accessible professors and vibrant class discussions, something near the fantasy of "Dead Poets Society" but with textbooks too expensive to be able to justify tearing out any pages. As the semesters passed, I began to wonder about the extent to which this experience was tied to the amount I paid for it -- what do the liberal arts look like on a budget? What does a literature class feel like at our most accessible institutions? I went to find out.

***

The most important thing I had done at SMU was to go to my English 2312 professor’s office on a Friday afternoon and tell the truth. The truth was not that I was unprepared for college, but that I simply didn’t like college. It’s a different world up there, my mother had warned. I must have misplaced the map. And I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at SMU. I wondered how I would I ever begin to come to terms with this whole college thing -- what it was for and how it could ever be worth the cost. These are hard questions to ask during the best years of your life, which is what they called college in the movies I had watched. But I couldn’t recall a scene where the freshman pulled doubts like rabbits from a hat and turned them into answers for his soul.

The teacher was there, door open and waiting, just as the syllabus had promised under the heading of “Office Hours.” My purpose was to discuss my second paper -- a postmortem. Tim Cassedy, a young assistant professor recently arrived from New York, observed that it seemed my high school had prepared me well for college writing -- an innocuous compliment to most students. But for me it was an invitation. The proper response is to say "thank you" and indicate how happy you are to be at college now instead of that dreadfully confining high school that taught you how to form simple paragraphs. I hesitated for a second, half-inclined just to agree, give the correct answer, and continue with the conversation. But another part of me, the honest part, wanted badly to tell the truth.

I began to unpack my situation, my confusion, my questions, my longing for something more from my college experience than just velvet green lawns and affluent classmates. And Professor Cassedy listened. He didn’t dismiss or diagnose. He didn’t tell me that everything would be O.K. I was surprised to find that he seemed just as interested as I was in finding the answers to my questions and wishful thinkings. He understood. I got better. And I became an English major.

That moment saved college for me. If I had decided not to tell the truth that afternoon, I could have continued to accrue credits and eventually a degree, but I wouldn’t have been to college. Something significant would have been missed and valuable time wasted. I went back to his office another time and again I was reassured and challenged. I went back again and again and the door was always open. All of my big and important realizations were tested there; made sharper through discussion, questioning and that ancient practice most simply known as “teaching.”

***

Three semesters later I was at Richland, looking again for a way to understand college. My search led me to a green armchair. You nearly trip over it when you walk into Crockett Hall 292, but its importance there has more to do with symbolism than functionality. Near the halfway point of the semester, I decided to go to the office of my English 2326 professor, Mary Northcut, and try to tell her the truth about why I was taking her class and the answers I was seeking. I say “try to” because I didn’t know whether it was even possible to experience this part of the professor-student relationship in the way I had at SMU. There were office hours listed on the syllabus, but how could my professor, who was teaching six classes that semester, possibly have the time or energy to engage meaningfully with her students one-on-one? I was mistaken in questioning her availability and commitment to her students, and along the way I found that I was wrong about many other things as well. Important, life-changing conversations are happening at community colleges too, and I was lucky to have found myself in the middle of one that afternoon.

Professor Northcut has been teaching at Richland College for nearly 40 years. After completing a doctorate at Texas Christian University, she immediately devoted herself to teaching outside the spotlight but inside a social mission. She first taught at Bishop College, a historically black college that later closed its doors in 1988, and then at El Centro College before transferring across the Dallas County Community College District to Richland. At some point during her decades-long stay she must have acquired this green padded chair, the arm of which served as my seat during our hourlong talk. She was a fascinating conversation partner, possessing the tendency toward eccentricity that marks college professors everywhere. Between exchanges on the nature and purpose of higher education we discussed her love for horses, East Asian cinema and collecting Ancient Grecian coins. (In fact, it seemed I had walked into her office at a crucial moment in an eBay bidding war over a coin bearing the image of Phillip II of Macedon.)

But what deeply moved me, largely because I had foolishly believed that it couldn’t possibly be true, was this important truth: Professor Northcut wants to be at Richland and she is there on purpose. She is convinced that community colleges serve a vital purpose in aiding the best and brightest students who lack the resources to attend four-year schools right out of high school, or perhaps got sidetracked along the way. By her description, Richland exists explicitly to help those students find their way to universities and brighter futures. She is not at Richland because she never found a better job, or to collect a few extra paychecks before retirement. And she certainly does not see her students as the caricatures they often become in our higher-education debates -- representatives of broken systems; too unprepared to make it at a “real college.”

She knows them to be just as capable of academic success as any other students. And she has an astounding track record of helping her students take the next step. Professor Northcut is full of stories of her students, many of whom she describes as being like her own children, going on to schools like TCU, SMU and even Columbia University. To her, Richland College is a serious place with serious goals, and despite decades of changes and challenges, she is no less committed to its mission now than she was as a newly minted Ph.D. joining the ranks of socially conscious community college faculties in the 1970s. She told me she plans to keep teaching full-time for the foreseeable future and to retire later, reducing her teaching load to only “one or two classes” per semester. Two classes per semester is the ordinary teaching load for professors at SMU and most other elite colleges.

As I sat listening to all this on the arm of the green chair, worn threadbare by the pants of many students before me, I was overwhelmed with an awareness that the ancient art of teaching had found a home in this small office also. And the stakes in this office were much higher, the problems more pressing and the margin for error more perilously thin than perhaps in most of the offices at SMU. Futures were forged here not from an abundance of advantages but out of a struggle for a fighting chance. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that lives were saved in that office, in addition to the moments of intellectual growth we expect from any college experience. And most important for me, I left with that same feeling I had found my freshman year in Professor Cassedy’s office -- that the world is full of complexity and college is here to help you recognize and make sense of it. The best professors show you how. The best professors are everywhere.

***

I can no longer assume that office hours and compelling professors are the exclusive property of private universities. But of course, I cannot guarantee that they exist at every single college either. I can only claim this: I am a product of office hours and great teachers and truth-telling, and I would not pay for a class, be the cost $150 or $5,000, that doesn’t include the chance to find an open door and welcoming ear whenever the questions become too large to face alone. This is the difference between a degree and an education.

Preston Hutcherson is an undergraduate English major at Southern Methodist University.

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