The importance of research

January 04, 1995

The recent series by reporter David Folkenflik showed that higher education can't be improved simply by forcing professors to spend more time on instruction and less on research. These twin components of a professor's job are equally useful to the student body, the good name and the bottom line of most public and private universities.

Still, the frustration of students who complain they're taught more often by young doctoral candidates than by tenured professors is understandable. Maryland legislators, tuned into the steady buzz of displeasure across the state and peeved themselves at the seeming reluctance of University of Maryland officials to address the topic, have withheld $21.5 million from the UM system. The legislators will likely release the money early next year if they're satisfied with a study of how professors spend their time and a policy for faculty schedules, both recently submitted by UM officials.

The pressure from students, their families and state lawmakers has had the helpful effect of making educators more sensitive to this issue. State senators and delegates would be taking a step in the wrong direction, however, if they tried to legislate increased classroom hours for professors. Other states have tried this approach and found it ineffective. Besides, Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening, a longtime associate professor at College Park, would almost surely veto such legislation.

Even worse, it ignores the importance of research as a source of funding and prestige for a school -- and as an engine of economic development. Without research, there would be no "rainmakers," or star faculty members, who in turn attract other top scholars and students, the same way Duke draws top basketball players and Penn State gets the best linebackers. Students benefit when they can tout a sheepskin from a highly regarded university as they hunt for employment.

The existence of a star system doesn't let colleges off the hook. They must be accountable for the quality of research done by faculty members -- rainmakers and rookies alike. One solution might be a regular review of each teacher's research to ensure it amounts to more than critiques of obscure books in even more obscure journals.

In addition, the state's Department of Higher Education could publish a guide telling secondary school students and their families what to expect from various Maryland colleges -- for example, that professors at Towson State and Bowie State devote more time to classroom instruction than do their counterparts at College Park. Such a guide would help families become better consumers as they seek out the schools best suited to their sons and daughters.


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