What's Right and Wrong About Research Universities

As he departs as president of the Association of American Universities, Hunter R. Rawlings III considers where leading research universities are today.

May 10, 2016

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better; federal regulation of universities, an issue to which I had previously paid little attention, is stifling and out of date; and big-time intercollegiate athletics, incredibly popular, are also incredibly perilous for universities, as their moral and physical hazards multiply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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