In the Washington Post earlier this week, Steve Pearlstein published a piece promoting four things universities should do to cut costs:
- Cap administrative costs
- Operate year round, five days a week
- More teaching, less (mediocre) research
- Cheaper, better general education
The next day, Daniel Drezner responded with four things columnists should do before writing about universities.
- Define what you mean by “universities.”
- Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.
- Don’t rely on outdated data.
- Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.
Drezner is right about his critique; Pearlstein’s column (which begins with the revealing language that higher education should undergo the “fundamental restructuring that nearly every other sector has done to reduce costs and improve quality”) commits fallacies of composition, misstates the source of ballooning student debt, and relies on outdated and poorly measured caricatures of academic life.
I want to focus, though, on the “useless research” or “research nobody reads” meme in the Pearlstein piece and that has been circulating more broadly. Drezner correctly notes (as does Yoni Appelbaum, whom Drezner cites) that Pearlstein’s numbers on citation rates are wildly inflated. And I would argue that citation is only one way of assessing whether “anybody reads” research. But the more general idea–that professors are just writing lots of mediocre research that nobody reads–is a common one that needs to be discussed.
In research universities like mine (though, apparently, unlike those Pearlstein may have been thinking of) the way things should work is that scholars actively involved in discovering new knowledge communicate that knowledge, and the spirit of inquiry it entails, to students. That requires some compromises: faculty have to engage with learners who aren’t at their refined level of learning, and students have to engage with scholars for whom the craft of teaching is not the focus of their expertise. But students have the opportunity to learn knowledge, ideas, and approaches from the people who actually discover them. I am not claiming (of course) that this synergy happens smoothly or even commonly. But I think it ought to be the standard by which we approach questions like strategic planning and cost cutting for research universities.
One crucial consequence of this framework is that research and education need not be a tradeoff. Often the assumption is that this is a zero-sum game: time spent on research is time not spent on education, and vice versa. But this is only true if the two are unrelated activities; to the extent that research and class preparation, for example, inform one another; or that new ideas for research come from class questions; or class material stays up to date through professors being actively engaged in the literature; or students have research opportunities in professors’ research programs (among many other possible mechanisms), more and better research may mean more and better education, and vice versa.
The zero-sum assumption, along with the misplaced panic about student debt, leads toward some false conclusions about research and scholarship. First, it leaves apparently “useless” research uniquely vulnerable. Principally, this includes research in the humanities and the arts, as well as the basic and theoretical sciences. That’s because, absent the education-research synergy, the logic for supporting research is the direct applicability of that research, and these fields are organized on the premise that their products are far removed from eventual applicability. But these are important elements of why universities are more than contract research firms: in the medium- and long-term, there is no way of knowing what knowledge and discovery will be of use, so universities need to sustain the broadest possible programs of inquiry as a hedge against (or preparation for!) that long-term uncertainty.
Second, it tends to under-reward risky scholarship by over-punishing failure. The result of a failed, but ambitious, research program may well be undercited (though not necessarily under-read) articles. Particularly when we hear so much about entrepreneurialism–which depends similarly on tolerance for failure–it’s a mistake to assume that scholarly projects that don’t pan out should never have been supported in the first place. Too little failure is a sign of insufficient risk.
These effects are magnified by over-reliance on outside, particularly federal, research funding, which is both dwindling in availability and administered with the same eye toward applicability and low failure rates.
So, to maintain homology with the two original articles, my four things R1 universities should be doing in this climate:
- Support and honor risky, useless research.
- Build local institutional capacity to support that research, thereby reducing the homogenizing effects of dependence on federal funding.
- Engage faculty in the education-research synergy by engaging current research in the curriculum.
- Engage students in the education-research synergy by providing research opportunities and support for inquiry-based learning.