18 January 2011

An indictment of university research and teaching priorities

From an article at the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Universities are aggressively seeking federal dollars to build bigger and fancier laboratory facilities, and are not paying an equal amount of attention to teaching and nurturing the students...

Teaching is suffering at universities because the institutions prize research success above all other factors in promotions, they said. The job of educating students offers little reward, and instead "often carries the derogatory label 'teaching load,'"...

... universities have become so obsessed with using federal dollars to build new research facilities that they've skewed their priorities, leading both faculty members and students to see the competition for federal money as their main professional mission.

Mr. Mann, who served as chairman of biochemistry at Vermont from 1984 to 2005, said grant money made up about 22 percent of his salary as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota back in 1970. Now it's 60 percent, as he pulls in about $3-million a year in federal support, and administrators at Vermont are asking him to push it even higher...
The article has drawn a lot of commentary, including this observation:
Some of the emphasis on pulling in research funding can be traced to the shift in how public higher education institutions are funded. Prior to the anti-tax era, many of our 'public' institutions were funded at 80% by states using tax revenues. With the over emphais on tax cuts for the past 30 years, we are seeing the impacts in higher ed.

Now many (most) big institutions received closer to 10% from the states. The higher funding levels funded operations and permitted reasonable tuition rates. With less funding, universities rely more on tuition, loans, and indirect costs from research grants to make up funding formerly provided by the states...
The article strikes a chord with me.  I entered academia in the late '70s, and the Chairman at my first faculty appointment greeted me with a pat on the back and the comment "We'd like you to do some research while you're here."  Within twenty years I saw a dramatic shift in emphasis.  Faculty were expected to earn a much higher proportion of their salary from research grants, corporations had taken a much larger role within the universities, and teaching of students had begun to be viewed by many faculty as an impediment to their careers.  Those changes in the environment contributed to my decision to opt for early retirement.


  1. In my lifetime we have seen a trend away from promoting academics to college and university presidencies and other senior administrative positions toward appointing bottom-line-focused business types. Then we wonder wither teaching? Come on man!

  2. This is the first time in YEARS I have seen someone correctly write "strike a chord." thank you!!

  3. The trouble with this study is that it doesn't compare the students of 2005-2007 to students in previous periods, so we have no idea whether the results show things getting worse.

    --Swift Loris

  4. There are a lot of reasons tuition is going up, but I don't think less tax dollars is an important reason:


    Universities are one of those big businesses with important friends in government that are extracting an increasing share of the commonweal at the expense of the rest of society (see the recent NYT article on the law school scam). Government workers, hedge fund managers and financial advisers, are also doing pretty good.

    Taxes are just a way for politicians to pick beneficiaries. White men were the winners for all of the decades up until 1964. The wealth has been spread more evenly since then. But don't think for a second that the wealth isn't being spread or that winners aren't being picked based on criteria other than what's best for the commonweal.

  5. Google search for

    "strike a cord" - 471,000 hits

    "strike a chord" - 781,000 hits

    strike a cord chord - 301,000 hits

    "strike a cord" -chord 526,000 hits

    "strike a chord" -cord -6,590,000 hits

    I can't explain those last two

  6. My Chem I professor sucked. His idea of teaching was. "Here's a problem....Here's the answer....Here's another problem....etc..."
    My Chem II professor was a fantastic teacher. He made chemistry fun and easy to understand. He was the one shining light in a department that is abysmally bad at teaching and got in trouble with ACS for failing so many students.
    I was in his last class. They fired him because he only wanted to teach and not do any research.
    I still hold that they should have found a way to let Chem I prof take Chem II prof's share of research/lab time/grad students and given Chem II prof Chem I prof's share of teaching. Chem I guy was also the dept. head, so it's not like he was in want of things to do...

  7. It's things like this that make me glad I go to Cal Poly: with no PhD's to give and very few masters', the emphasis is very much on undergraduate education and not on faculty research. I remember reading an article about an MIT professor's quest for tenure and it mentioned that one of their highest teaching awards is known as the 'kiss of death' for tenure-seekers because it signals to the higher-ups that you're spending too much time teaching well and not enough time researching.
    Almost seems we should separate the research institutions from the teaching ones.


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