The Value of the Research University

WILLIAM E. KIRWAN

November 05, 1992|By WILLIAM E. KIRWAN

COLLEGE PARK. — College Park -- In settings ranging from congressional hearings to informal discussions, practices at America's universities are coming under increased scrutiny. Public officials and private citizens are raising questions about faculty teaching loads, reported cases of research fraud and claims of excessive overhead charges on federal research grants. Given the importance of higher education to our nation's welfare, and given the dependence of higher education on public funding, university administrators must not only address the mistakes that have occurred, but also attempt to correct misperceptions that may exist within the general population.

The current flood of negative rhetoric, based on egregious but relatively isolated incidents, threatens a potentially damaging erosion of public support for one of the nation's most valuable but poorly understood resources -- its research universities. Ignored in the attacks is the fact that the quality of American universities has made them the envy of the rest of the world. Indeed, higher education is one of the few American enterprises that enjoys a positive balance of trade with every other nation!

One issue of particular concern regarding our universities is the perception that faculty spend too little time teaching and too much time doing research. A useful discussion of ''teaching loads'' must recognize the differences in missions among higher education institutions.

At one end of the spectrum are teaching institutions -- schools devoted almost entirely to undergraduate education. Faculty at such schools typically teach four courses a semester and are evaluated largely on the basis of the quality of their classroom work. These institutions provide an educational environment well suited to the needs of many students, and Maryland is fortunate to have more than a dozen, both within and outside the University of Maryland system.

At the other end of the spectrum, research universities have a much broader mission than teaching universities. In addition to responsibilities for undergraduate instruction, faculty at research universities train the next generation of professors, for both the research and the teaching universities, as well as the vast majority of business and professional leaders in our society. Moreover, faculty at research universities are engaged in creating much of the new knowledge that enables our nation to remain at the forefront of technological, social and cultural advances.

While it would be foolish to maintain that all faculty research is important, it would be equally foolish to insist that faculty be permitted to do research only when their project has a clear practical payoff. Imagine the consequences for the computer revolution if 40 years ago faculty had been required to demonstrate the utility of such arcane and apparently irrelevant matters as ''binary arithmetic.''

Or think of the loss to society if no one had supported the research of Professors Crick, Watson and Franklin on the structure of the DNA molecule, research that led to the biotechnology revolution. We will almost certainly be better off in the future, as we have been in the past, by supporting promising and hard-working researchers who seek answers to fundamental questions, even when the ultimate benefits of their research may not be obvious.

Fortunately the state of Maryland does not have to wait years to reap dividends from its investment in research. Last year faculty at College Park won $122 million in externally funded research grants and contracts, a figure that works out to roughly $100,000 per faculty member. Virtually every one of these dollars came into the state's economy from outside and will stay here to support research and graduate training.

In 1991 the faculty also generated 69 new patents and licenses, primarily for use by Maryland firms. An ''incubator'' program at College Park -- which draws upon faculty research expertise -- has helped 19 new businesses to enter the state's economy and create new jobs. The outstanding work of College Park's Engineering Research Center, its Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, and its Maryland Center for Quality and Productivity are additional examples of how faculty at a research university -- in addition to teaching students -- work for the benefit of the state.

Given their broader set of responsibilities, it is true that faculty at research universities usually teach fewer undergraduate classes than their colleagues at teaching institutions. But this does not necessarily mean that undergraduate education suffers at a research university. Research universities tend to have better facilities, larger libraries, the most modern equipment, all of which enhance undergraduate education. And as a result of their dual responsibilities, faculty engaged in research bring special expertise and insight to the classroom.

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