Broken research universities have not fallen beyond repair

May 04, 1998|By William B. Busa

LOST amid the heat and smoke of the debate regarding public schools is the equally tragic failure of our elite private research universities. A startlingly frank report recently issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has put this issue squarely in the public eye.

The report takes the country's research universities to task for largely ignoring their duty to undergraduates and for substituting platitudes and slick public relations for real intellectual mentoring of students. "Recruitment materials display proudly the world-famous professors, the splendid facilities and the groundbreaking research that goes on within them, but thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research," says the report, "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for Americas Research Universities."

Sadly, the emperor's clothes are by no means new. In the 22 years I spent in higher education, including 11 as a professor of biology at the Johns Hopkins University, I became all too familiar with the neglect verging on intellectual abuse that is the fate of too many undergraduates at prestigious research universities. Paying sums that would buy a fine home, the best and brightest of our youth suffer under too many professors who sleepwalk through lectures (if they teach at all), who insulate themselves from meaningful contact with students with layers of secretaries and locked doors, and who demand of students nothing more than the rote memorization of disconnected facts, rather than the development of intellectual creativity and breadth, because the former is much easier to test and grade.

Of course, at any university there are a few gems: Professors who take seriously their profession's fundamental purpose of mentoring America's next generation of leaders and creators. But frankly, these are few and far between, rare birds that many undergraduates will never meet. Their rarity isn't a result of some inherent flaw in the moral fiber of those who are drawn to careers in academia. Rather, it arises from a fundamental defect in a system run by bean counters; a system that generously rewards the winning of research funds while at best ignoring (and at worst disdaining) teaching.

Money matters

In today's intensely competitive world of scientific research, Herculean effort is required to consistently bring in the million-dollar grants that feed the research universities' insatiable appetite for revenue. By contrast, no effort is required (except, perhaps, by a few public relations employees) to attract yet another crop of undergraduates eager to pay $25,000 a year to gain the often unwarranted prestige our society attaches to a degree from Harvard, Yale, Hopkins, or the like. As a consequence, efforts devoted to research are rewarded, while efforts devoted to teaching are, in too many cases, actively penalized. In such an environment, even the most idealistic junior faculty members soon learn to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, hoping to survive long enough to earn tenure and the freedom it promises. Sadly, that hope is often an illusion. The years spent ignoring teaching while amassing professional prestige too often result in complete, if unwitting, capitulation to the system.

When I interviewed for my first faculty position, an offhand comment by a department chairman said it all. "You can do all the teaching you want while you're here," he assured me, ". . . and it won't make a damn bit of difference."

An elderly Nobel Prize winner recruited to our department as a senior professor created a now-famous embarrassment for the university by publicly (and rather honestly, I thought) characterizing it as "a great place to retire." Wherever professors are enticed by the lure of six-figure salaries and benefits combined with lax or nonexistent supervision of their teaching efforts, cynical self-interest can and will prevail.

The American research university's dysfunctional system will not changed from within. Their boards of trustees are typically dominated by business people chosen in large measure for their ability to bring in (or willingness to make) huge donations. Though well-meaning, for the most part they are ignorant of or unconcerned with the real work going on in the trenches. In turn, the presidents, provosts, deans and chairmen who answer, directly or indirectly, to these trustees don't earn points by rocking the boat. They are the titular overseers of academic quality, but rare indeed is the administrator foolhardy enough to admit that the emperor has no clothes. Lucrative promotions up the ladder of administration go to those who best keep potential embarrassment under wraps while keeping the revenue steam gushing. Nowhere is anyone sincerely charged with fighting for academic quality.

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