The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances.  He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation...  He is the world's eye."...  ....Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Commentary of the Day - February 27, 2004:  Research in Predominantly Undergraduate Colleges and Universities.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article by staff writer Tanya Schevitz (2/23/04) that revisited the old debate about research in the California State University system, which many (including several legislators) view as a system of "teaching" institutions.  The article was not grossly inaccurate; and, it did a reasonably good job of describing the tensions between research and teaching that can exist in predominantly undergraduate universities and colleges.  However, the article failed to discuss many of the basic reasons for encouraging research and scholarly activities in these institutions.

Before delving into these reasons it is important to note that the IP, himself, has been actively involved in research and scholarly activities for his entire career including the 32 years he served as a full-time faculty member at Crispy Creme U.  In addition, he also has been active as a councilor and member of the Council on Undergraduate Research, the national organization that promotes research in predominantly undergraduate institutions.

"Predominantly undergraduate institutions" or PUI's is a term that covers a wide range of colleges and universities.  It includes the two-year community colleges, the private four-year institutions, and the comprehensive universities -- such as the California State University campuses -- that offer master's degrees and teaching credentials as well as undergraduate degrees.  Some of these comprehensive universities may offer a few doctoral programs, but in general the focus is on undergraduate and master's level education.  With its 23 campuses, the California State University system encompasses a diverse collection of institutions that range all the way from the small and highly specialized California Maritime Academy to large, nationally known campuses such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, San Jose State, and San Diego State.  But the primary focus at all the Cal State campuses is undergraduate education.  So why then should the faculty at these institutions be interested in research and scholarship, and is it really the case that this interest has grown to the point where it threatens the basic mission of the system (a point made in Schevitz's article)?

The answer to the second question is simple.  In a word "no"!  There is no danger that any of the research-oriented University of California campuses will be eclipsed by out-of-control research activities in the California State University system.  And, there is no danger that the principal focus in the California State University system will shift away from undergraduate education.  There are two reasons for this.  One is external, and the other is internal.  The external reason is that the CSU campuses are funded almost exclusively by enrollment-based support (both state support and student fee support are tied directly to enrollment) that ensures that teaching is the primary job.  The amount of money brought in through research contracts and grants at most campuses in the CSU is at most a few percent of the total campus budget.  And, even at the few campuses where contracts and grants amount to more than ten million dollars, the fraction is less than 25% of the total budget.

Internally, retention, tenure and promotion decisions are based on policies that put teaching at the forefront.  While most campuses require some evidence of scholarly or creative activities for a positive tenure decision, this component always counts for less than the teaching component.  An outstanding scholar almost never will receive tenure in the CSU system if his or her teaching is not up to snuff.  The converse, however, is not true.  The system frequently tenures faculty members whose research or scholarship is marginal, if that person has demonstrated outstanding teaching ability.  This is the opposite of what happens in research universities.

The more interesting question is why should faculty members who work in the CSU or at other predominantly undergraduate institutions engage in research and scholarly activities?  After all, the impediments to serious scholarship in these institutions often are great.  Teaching loads are heavy, and even those scholars with outside funding typically teach far more classes than faculty members at research universities.  Often the infrastructure for research in PUI's is much poorer than in the research institutions, and frequently institutional support for research and scholarly activities is weak.

The answer to this question turns out to be both complex and counter-intuitive.

At first glance, it might seem that a strong interest in research might detract from a faculty members teaching.  However, based on the IP's experience, this generally is not the case.  In fact, most of the really great teachers in the system are faculty members who have had a long and abiding interest in scholarship.  The reason, which should be obvious, is that knowledge is not static.  Those faculty members who have active research programs are far more likely to keep up both with new discoveries and with new interpretations of old knowledge.  Even if their own research impacts only tangentially on the courses that they teach, they are far more likely to attend professional meetings and engage in spirited discussions with colleagues than those who have no program of scholarship.  All of this feeds back into the insight with which the faculty member teaches even introductory courses.

Over the years some inside and outside the academy have characterized teaching and learning as fundamentally different from research and scholarly activities.  In the IP's opinion, that view is flawed.  In many disciplines, a significant lore exists outside the knowledge found in conventional textbooks.  Often one cannot learn the real essence of a discipline from the classroom experience alone.  Students who have the opportunity to work with faculty members on research or scholarly projects gain much greater insights into the quality of knowledge in a discipline than those who learn only in the classroom.  At the research universities it is primarily the graduate students who are able to learn through research; but, in the PUI's many undergraduate students get this opportunity.

There are other reasons to support research and scholarly activities in predominantly undergraduate institutions.  One of these is that some of these colleges and universities have unique, niche programs that may not exist in the research universities.  For example the two polytechnic campuses in the CSU system have some majors that are seldom found at the research universities.  Since, this is where the faculty expertise resides, it is only natural that this is where research in those fields would be done.  Another reason is that at the research universities the competition for funds is intense.  Thus faculty at those institutions often feel constrained to work in "hot" fields and on "hot" topics that lead to frequent publications.  Many interesting problems are ignored at the research institutions simply because they are not in fashion.

The more relaxed scholarly environment of the PUI's can encourages scholars in those institutions to pursue research programs in niche areas at a more relaxed pace.  Instead, of writing one book a year the scholar at a PUI may write one book every five or ten years, but he or she may do a superb job exploring an interesting topic that has been ignored at the research universities.

The bottom line, however, is that active scholarship helps the faculty member who labors in a predominantly undergraduate institution to remain alive intellectually.  This, in turn, helps to make the courses that are taught by this person more interesting for the students.

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