Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Jan 3 2011   4:11AM GMT

The recommissioning of large universities

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

I’m a professor in a computer science department in an engineering school in a major state university.  There has been a quiet, but dramatic change in the way a lot of computer science, engineering, business, and science departments are funded.  It’s in response to the increasing difficulty of financing large universities with taxpayer funds.

The problem is:

How do you compensate for a projected long term decrease in state funding?  What do you do when tuition has already been raised to frightening levels?

The solution is:

Tell professors that their primary job is to bring in research dollars.  If you can’t get the state to pay, let the federal government do it via NSF (the National Science Foundation), the DOE (the Department of Energy), DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the folks who funded the development of the Internet), and a handful of other federal agencies.  Look to large corporations, too, for research funding.  And take advantage of any proprietary technology that might result from university research by spinning off start up companies.

Basically, the idea is to keep professors busy writing research proposals, and let the money flow in.

Of course, the result is that professors teach even less than they have in the past, and in fact, it’s professors who don’t bring in enough money who are assigned increased teaching duties.  I won’t go so far as to say that teaching is a punishment.  There is an acknowledged need to teach the children of taxpayers and it makes sense to have some professors focus on teaching in order to free up other professors to write proposals.  But the preference is to hire, tenure, and promote faculty who bring in lots of research dollars – not the professors who end up being full time teachers.

If you want to teach in a university and have it be your primary occupation, your employer would prefer to  hire you as an “instructor”, someone who earns a hell of a lot less than professors.

Where do those research dollars go?

It’s important to note that the federal government is not interested in supporting the teaching mission of state universities.   Federal research dollars must support specific research projects.  The money pays for Ph.D. students to perform research, for faculty members to travel to conferences to disseminate research results and buy equipment, and to have those Ph.D. students help churn out research papers to be published in academic journals.

Research dollars in effect re-commission large universities as research institutions instead of educational institutions.

It is true, however, that universities charge 50 percent or more  overhead to the federal government.  If a professor is given a dollar to perform research, the federal government gives the university another fifty percent to manage the overall effort and provide basic infrastructure, like offices and lights and electricity.

There is an upside to this.

This retargeting the mission of universities is not all bad, not by any means.  Research is important.  University researchers make a lot of advancements that improve medical technology and our electronic infrastructure.   Research leads directly to the development of new products and services, and in doing so, greatly aids our economy.

(By the way, many private universities find themselves in the same situation, pressuring faculty to focus on research and not teaching, in order to stay afloat.)

It’s also true that a university which has an excellent research reputation boosts its reputation, drawing in more qualified students and bringing out of state students (who often pay dramatically higher tuition) into the state to be taught by those famous researchers.  (But undergraduate students won’t see all that much of these professors, as their teaching duties have been sharply reduced as a reward for bringing in research dollars.)

There is a downside to this:

The impact on teaching is very broad-based, beyond the removal of high-profit professors from the classroom.  It’s becoming harder and harder for universities to support academic departments that don’t bring in research dollars.  Faculty positions are shifted to computing, engineering, and science departments, and business and information schools, as well as to high-dollar graduate programs like law and medicine.

All in all:

It is of course true that many fine researchers are fine teachers who enjoy being in the classroom.  Very few professors actually do not teach at all.

And teachers who are in tune with the research world can convey more cutting edge material.  Students often benefit greatly from graduating from big name research institutions.

I enjoy my work and the environment in which I work.  I teach technology, and gifted students in my classes point out emerging technology to me all the time.  I would never want to not teach.

Finally, combining research and teaching can, I believe, provide an optimal platform in which to train the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and policy makers.

We just need to be aware of the changes that are happening at major universities, and make sure that in the end, students remain a primary focus.


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