There’s a well-known teaching tale, traceable to the Indian Buddhist tradition but almost certainly older, about a group of blind people trying to come up with a conception of an unfamiliar object -- here, an elephant -- solely through the sense of touch.
Each of the people is touching a different part of the elephant -- the leg, the trunk, the tail, the tusk -- and thus each comes to a conception of the elephant that is not only different from but also incompatible with the other definitions. One is convinced it’s a sort of basket, another the handle of a plow, still another a kind of broom.
The people, with their partial perception of the totality of the elephant, end up bickering back and forth: “It’s like this; it’s not like that. It’s like that; it’s not like this.” The story illustrates the power that perspective has both to determine and to limit our apprehension, conceptualization and, ultimately, response to the world in front of us, as well as the speed with which trying to speak to each other across these competing perspectives devolves into strife.
Over the past few years, as the director of a fledgling teaching center at a public research university, I’ve spent the bulk of my time collaborating on projects related to teaching and learning both with faculty members and instructors and with professionals on the student-facing side of the university.
In the course of these conversations, it’s become increasingly clear to me that research universities in the U.S. -- especially public research universities -- have what we might call an elephant problem. I believe this problem may play a critical and unrecognized role in fostering intra-institutional strife and hampering our efforts to improve educational outcomes, achieve greater equity and support the success and thriving of all members of our community.
Our elephant problem is the fact that we don’t fundamentally agree on what a research university is.
Sitting in meetings with student-facing professional staff, I’ve heard a phrase repeated, especially over the past year, that never fails to bring me up short. At the end of the day, the sentiment more or less goes, at the very least we can surely agree on one thing: what we’re doing here at the university is “for the students.” Our primary purpose, our priority and our responsibility are the well-being and success of those who come here, at great personal and familial expense, to be educated.
I hear similar common-sense assumptions when I interact with undergraduate students, with parents and with alumni, and also when moving around town and chatting with community members. If you ask nearly all these so-called stakeholders about the nature of that bulky institution up on the hill, the first answer that comes back is nearly always something like, “a very large school for advanced learning.”
The trouble is, if you ask most research faculty at the same university the same question, the first definition we produce will be something like, “a place where new knowledge is produced.” Shortly thereafter, of course, we will bring up the educational function, but that won’t be what comes first. The educational function of the university is not why we were hired, nor why we are retained. It’s not how our labor for the institution is primarily valued and rewarded. Nothing in the preparation and training of research faculty, let alone our personnel reviews, indicates that the first priority of the institution is the educational one. And this mismatch of institutional priorities is only exacerbated at Hispanic-serving research institutions (HSRIs), which, unlike HBCUs, were not designed from the outset to serve minoritized students.
Now, I’m not interested in starting or stoking a moral argument here, or even an argument that one of these groups is right about the elephant and the other isn’t -- clearly, both are correct about the nature of the beast.
Also, of course, there are more than two definitions of the research university: parents, prospective employers, college sports enthusiasts -- each has their unique view. My particular interest here, though, is in the consequences of the elephant problem, given the relatively sudden and increasingly widespread push for greater attention to educational equity in public universities, including research universities. To tackle that challenge, the faculty and the student support staff have a central role to play as key collaborators. But how can we collaborate well when we don’t agree about the institution we’re trying to transform?
In order to be successful at transforming the public research university into a more equitable institution, we cannot simply keep adding to everyone’s plates, nor can we try to “solve” the challenge of sustaining more equitable outcomes by backfilling the critical shortage of instructional personnel with contingent faculty who labor under drastically inequitable working conditions.
On the faculty side, we need to consider strategic measures such as building out the teaching professor track, giving greater weight to educational equity contributions and other DEIA work in academic personnel review, and reconsidering what counts as research to include research-based transformations of teaching.
Above all, though, we will need greater coordination and cooperation between the student support professionals on campus and the instructional faculty -- and that kind of cooperation must start with greater mutual respect and understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities.
Too often, in my experience, we look across at each other in somewhat baffled hostility. We all know that a research university has a dual function, but we take for granted the order of priority of its main activities -- research before education, education before research, this before that, that before this -- with a kind of total (and totally understandable) conviction that our sense of the order of things is … true.
As the drive for greater accountability for undergraduate student success across institutions of public higher education gains traction, spurred by everything from the global pandemic to the student debt crisis to the concerns of the very same legislatures who systematically and progressively underfund public universities, maybe the first best step in addressing our collective challenges would be to sit down and talk with each other about what a public research university that is also a minority-serving institution really is, and what it is like for all of us to work in and for that institution.
To put this another way, one of the most perplexing parts of the parable of the blind people and the elephant is that it doesn’t seem to occur to them, before they devolve into strife, to compare notes and come up with a composite vision of the elephant, one that might bring them into a collective vision that is closer to reality than the partial view their limited perspectives afford. Might we do better?