Research universities

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.

University Innovation Alliance kicks off with big completion goals

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A new group of 11 public research universities says it can set aside competition and prestige-chasing to work together to graduate more low-income students.

Temple U. professors accused of not sufficiently reporting funding source of their research on private prisons

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Two Temple U. professors are under fire for allegedly not disclosing in a working paper and in newspaper op-eds that their private prison-friendly research findings were funded in part by the private prison industry.

Leaders urge research universities to look beyond U.S. government for support

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Some research university leaders say it's time to look beyond the federal government to states and businesses, given Congress's dysfunction.

USC-based initiative releases new tools for adjuncts and their advocates

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New information from the Delphi Project is designed to help adjuncts make their case for reform.

Wick Sloane's application for the presidency of Yale (essay)

With this column, I apply for president of Yale.  With my Yale degree, an M.P.P.M. that became an M.B.A., how could I fail?

Vacant presidencies are everywhere, and I need to apply quickly. The MIT presidency went vacant and filled before I could even click on "new document." Princeton I’ll leave to CIA Director and Princeton Ph.D. General David Petraeus. He has a prayer of waking the place up on admitting veterans.

My own Bunker Hill Community College is looking. A friend offered to be my campaign manager. Tossing myself under the next MBTA train arriving at the Community College stop would be a cleaner death.  State politics will be the death of public higher education yet.  Federal action or bust.

When Yale alum and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picks Yale as her Ike/Columbia staging area for the U.S. presidency, I’ll withdraw my candidacy, of course, In the meantime, let’s begin the discussion.

(1) My first act as Yale President will be to apologize to the nation and to the world for the Iraq war.  Too many Elis were present at the creation. George W. Bush. Seated but not confirmed U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Most troubling, U.S.-Iraq Pro-Consul L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer, who thought disbanding the Iraqi army without pay was a good idea. Dick Cheney, too.

As Yale President, I will order an audit -- why not from Bain Consulting? – course by course, class by class, assignment by assignment of this sad trio to determine how a Yale education went so wrong. Next, I’ll ensure that all courses, graduate and undergraduate, train students to evaluate evidence and sources to know whether a country does/does not have weapons of mass destruction. “Evaluating Sources” is the start of even elementary research guides. Graduation requirements will include ability to do a cost/benefit analysis for decisions such as when to spend a few more weeks or months or years looking for facts versus launching a three-trillion dollar war by mistake.

All Yale dining halls will be open, free, to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Homeless veterans will be welcome this winter in all Yale buildings. And we’ll find you a home by spring.

I’ll commission Yale graduate Maya Lin to put up a wall listing the dead, Yale or not, from Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ll withhold paychecks and transcripts for faculty and students failing pop quizzes on battles listed on the Commons end of Woolsey Hall -- Cambrai, Argonne, Somme Chateau-Thierry, Ypres, St. Mihiel, and Marne. I can’t be the last Yale student who read the names of the 1,020 dead and wondered about these battles walking by every day. Has anyone in this 21st century stopped to read the cenotaph inscription: “In Memory of the Men of Yale who True to Her Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not Perish from the Earth. 1914 Anno Domini 1918.”

(2) Effective at once, Yale will enroll 250 undergraduate veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars per class.  Do these men and women all yet have the skills of a Yale freshman?  Probably not.  We’ll start with a summer school for catch-up.  If these men and women need to be at Yale for five or six years instead of four, so what? Their presence in the classrooms will enlighten discussions of wars started by people in climate-controlled Washington, D.C., office buildings.

Yale reports that nine undergraduates there are part of the Yellow Ribbon program in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is open to veterans and their dependents. By contrast, Bunker Hill Community College, where I work, has nearly 500 veterans. The trouble with Yale's dodge is that all nine could be veterans or none could be veterans. I'm waiting for clarification.

{3} Turning to Yale and Wall Street: one day at a soup kitchen does not atone for another 364 of hedge-funding. Come on. I will eliminate the annual Yale alumni “Day of Service.” Crazy me. During my elite education, I bought the line from the Gospel of Luke: “And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.” The only justification for a federally subsidized elite education is that its graduates leave the world in better shape than they found it. We baby boom alumni, entering the late chapters of our lives, may be the first to leave the world in worse shape.

Let’s begin repairs with public education. Until such time as the poorest K-12 students in the U.S. have the highest literacy rates in the world, Yale degrees will expire every five years unless graduates have run for school board in their towns.  Notarized ballots mailed to the registrar will suffice as proof.

(4) I will excoriate, scarify, hang by the thumbs the reporters and editors of the Yale Daily News. For years, these would-be journalists have agreed not to contact the trustees, known as Fellows of the Yale Corporation, as long as the Yale president and administration returns calls promptly. Our republic, I will explain, cannot stand for the gerbilization of the press. Yale Daily News alumni my age think I must be making this up.

College presidents don’t raise tuition.Trustees do. I’ll remind them all of the press and the Iraq war. (As of press time, no reply from The Yale Daily News on whether this policy continues.) Margaret Warner, distinguished correspondent on the PBS News Hour, you were a recent member of the Yale Corporation. Whose idea was this?

(5) The Yale undergraduate admissions staff will grow up. A true horror story. It happened to me a few years ago. Ignoring protestations that “It’s just not done,” I prevailed on extracting a visit by Yale to Bunker Hill Community College, not a regular stop. I had set the schedule for the day in collaborative, written emails with the two admissions officers who were to visit. The two arrived an hour late, leaving me to call the admissions office in New Haven, fearing an accident. “We couldn’t call because the phone was in the trunk,” one said on arrival.   

The two, dressed for an evening at the laundromat, knew from the e-mails that the first 30-minute appointment was with students who had to go to work. The second was with the vice president of academic affairs and the deans. The students who hadn’t left were late for work. I apologized to the vice president and the deans, skipped that meeting, and hustled the two through the other appointments as fast as I could. These two Yale admissions officers had brought no business cards, brochures, catalogs, or any material whatsoever about Yale.

MIT visits Bunker Hill Community College to inspire students about education and to honor the teachers of students who excel in science and math, often without having eaten that day. Two BHCC students are at MIT this fall.

(6) With sorrow and regret, I will close my long-inert Yale School of Management. I was in the sixth class of this school, founded on the idea that everyone must from time to time to apply management and leadership skills beyond just business.  A few of us found work such as bringing clean water to rural Pakistan. Or public education.

What’s followed is more than 30 years of whimpering by the school that the school fails to land at the top of the plain-vanilla business-school rankings. Why would a nontraditional, innovative program expect to be on the same list as Harvard, Stanford or Wharton? I thought the Yale brand was about leading, not following.That build-a-better-world dream gave up the ghost with the appointment of a new dean, certainly a fine man, whose prior assignments were pushing other business schools to the top of the standard rankings chart.

The School of Management faculty and students can disperse to Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, where they all want to be anyway. I’m taking the dive for Iraq. Let those universities take the blame for the knuckleheads on Wall Street. Under my presidency, Yale will return to setting the standards to inspire others.

Oh, what about the Yale School of Managment’s under-construction Norman Foster, kazillion-dollar new campus? I’ll tip my hat to Poets and Quants, the web zine trying to make sense of business schools today. In and around this unfinished Xanadu, I’ll dump truckloads of lone and level sand. Steel and marble signs around the site, lit at night, with a poem will warn all who would take a Yale education and follow.

Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.

Business group ranks states on effectiveness of public colleges

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks public higher education in state-by-state report card that measures "return on investment." Good data and transparency are lacking among public colleges, group says.

Essay: Research universities must pay more attention to student learning

It is my view that most of us engaged in education at our nation’s leading research universities focus our attention upon the wrong issues.  These universities are wondrously complex institutions that defy easy analysis or understanding.  We therefore tend to concentrate upon their most visible components, such as scientific research, star professors, state-of-the-art facilities and technology, economic development, international impact, and football and basketball teams. 

It has become a cliché that American universities are the best in the world. This claim, while valid in important dimensions, can lead to complacency and neglect of serious problems.

Much of our international reputation is based upon two outstanding features of American universities: unrelenting commitment to an atmosphere of free and open inquiry, and excellence in scientific research. These twin advantages attract the best talent from around the world to American universities, not only to our graduate programs but increasingly to our undergraduate colleges as well.

In other aspects of our enterprise, however, we find ourselves hard-pressed. Our funding model, first of all, is under severe duress. States have repeatedly reduced their support of public universities, most severely in the past five years, a disinvestment that now threatens to erode their quality and competitiveness. 

Some public universities have understandably attempted to make up the deficit in state support by raising undergraduate tuition aggressively and increasing the proportion of out-of-state students. But this strategy undermines the public mission of providing access, creates anger in the state, meets resistance in the legislature, and has now attracted the attention of the White House. As states have shifted the burden of paying for college from their general funds to students and their families, the perception has grown that higher education, once seen as a public good, has become a private interest. And these coping mechanisms, if continued, will lead to general deterioration in the quality of undergraduate education, the very part of our universities that depends most upon state support.

At private universities, tuition and fees plus room and board have, in some cases, reached $55,000 per year. Although most students do not pay that full cost, and though generous financial aid policies and endowment spending have actually brought down the real costs for the average student over the past five years, a degree carrying a price tag of well over $200,000 creates automatic sticker shock in the public.  It also raises real questions about whether we have been paying enough attention to holding down expenses. 

The airwaves are rife with predictions of disruptive change coming to the economic model of higher education.  It is no wonder that parents paying and borrowing for a college education steer their children toward practical majors that seem to promise instant employment, and discourage them from studying the liberal arts and sciences in pursuit of a well-balanced education. A private interest in education today means a purely economic one.

From this inversion of values flows our second problem: a redefinition of the purpose of undergraduate education. Fifty years ago, when I started college, there was a widely shared view in America that the purpose of a college education was to prepare students to become educated citizens capable of contributing to society.  College was in the public interest because it gave graduates an understanding of the world and developed their critical faculties.

Today, many Americans believe that the sole purpose of going to college is to get a job -- any job. The governors of Texas and Florida are quite clear on this point, and draw the corollaries that college should be cheap and vocational, even when delivered at major research universities like the Universities of Texas and Florida.  A university education is more than ever seen as strictly utilitarian.  The reasons are clear: a) as more students and families pay a large share of the costs, they naturally want a ready return on their investment; b) the most desirable jobs in this highly competitive job market require a college degree; and c) the gap in lifetime earnings between college and high school degree holders is huge. 

Today, as many Americans hold a purely instrumentalist view of undergraduate education, they want a detailed accounting of its value. Hence our third problem: close public scrutiny and political accountability.  Parents want to know, what did my daughter learn, and how does it contribute to her career? State legislatures want to know: what is the graduation rate at our university? How many undergraduate students do faculty members teach? And much more.

These questions put us in an uncomfortable position, because in some cases we do not know the answers, and in others we know them but do not like them. Many of us have eschewed the use of instruments assessing the value of general education, particularly at our major universities. We have, often for good reason, lacked confidence that such instruments are reliable measures of the value of a research university education, particularly if they are based on a one-size-fits-all approach. 

However, given the level of scrutiny and skepticism in the public and in state houses, research universities need to take this issue seriously. 

The professionalization of the professoriate has been crucially beneficial for research and graduate training at many institutions, but at most large universities, it has been problematic for undergraduate education. Several recent studies, some flawed but still indicative, have revealed that a significant percentage of students do not improve their critical thinking and writing much at all in the first two years of college. This should come as no surprise, given the dearth of small classes requiring active participation and intellectual interaction.

Too many students are adrift in a sea of courses having little to do with one another.  Many courses, even at the upper division level, have no prerequisites, and many require no debate or public speaking or the writing of papers that receive close attention and correction.  A student’s curriculum is a mélange of courses drawn almost haphazardly from dozens of discrete academic departments.  And there is substantial evidence that students are fleeing demanding majors in favor of easier ones that have the added lure of appearing to promise immediate access to jobs.

The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country. To take one significant example, we now know that more than 50 percent of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating.  

We can no longer blame this problem entirely on the nation’s high schools. A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. Students are consigned to large lecture courses that offer almost no engagement, no monitoring, and little support and personal attention.  The combination of poor high school preparation and uninspiring freshman and sophomore pedagogy has produced a stunning dearth of science and engineering majors in the U.S.  Our country now falls well behind countries like China and India in turning out graduates with strong quantitative skills. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. in 2009 ranked 27th among developed nations (ahead of only Brazil) in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.  As a result, American students are a dwindling proportion of our graduate enrollments in science and engineering. An administration report not only states that foreign students are earning more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics but also estimates that the United States, under current assumptions, will in the next decade under produce college graduates in STEM fields by one million.

I fear the practical as well as intellectual consequences of these trends. However, I am not a pessimist; I am a realist. In this, the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act, I think we can do something to reverse these trends, if we muster our collective will to do so. The anticipated report of the National Research Council on the state of our research universities will, I hope, focus national attention on the problems and opportunities confronting these vital institutions.

But over time, the renewed public investment in higher education that our country needs is unlikely if we do not acknowledge our own shortcomings and begin to address them. First, we need to say loudly and clearly that improving undergraduate education will receive our closest attention and best efforts. We need to alter faculty incentives by making undergraduate teaching at least equal to research and graduate teaching in prestige, evaluation, and reward. And we need to do research-based teaching that takes account and advantage of the latest findings of cognitive science, which are extensive, on how students learn. In brief, they learn by doing, not by just listening to someone else; they learn by solving problems, not by passively absorbing concepts; they learn best in groups of peers working things out together.

Fortunately, some of our best universities are leading the way. Initiatives at such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Stony Brook University, the University of Michigan, Stanford, Yale, and others offer great encouragement. The remarkable thing about them is the acknowledgment by faculty that we need to focus much more attention on undergraduate education, and that we need to deliver it more effectively than we have been doing. I find these examples exhilarating and promising.

At the Association of American Universities, we hope to disseminate the findings of such research across our universities, both public and private, and thus to stimulate more students to persist in their study of math and science and engineering. We have embarked on a five-year project led by top scientists and experts in science pedagogy designed to help science departments implement these new teaching methods. One of my hopes for the future of research universities is that student learning will be at the center of faculty concern, research will inform teaching, undergraduate classrooms will be places of engaged, participatory learning, and a university education will be not just a means to an entry-level job, but an invitation to a lifetime of learning.

I am well aware of the difficulty of changing those cultures. It will take a broad and deep effort to realize serious and sustainable gains.  The stakes are high, not just for our universities but for the country.  In the global knowledge economy, an educated public is essential not just to economic competitiveness but to national well-being. 

Hunter Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on February 28, 2012, at the De Lange Conference at Rice University.

Midwestern colleges launch campuses built on public-private collaboration

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Throughout the Midwest, a new name highlights interest of universities and politicians in technology transfer.

Hello, Aggregator

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University PR offices ply the levers of new media to try to publicize the work of their researchers.


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