I read an interesting piece from a computer science professor at Bucknell, who documented his path to discovering universities “in the middle” — where both research and teaching are valued.
As an undergrad in a small liberal arts college, I was familiar with this notion, and early on in grad school, I was interested in one of these jobs “in the middle.” Since that time, if I have experienced any epiphany about how universities balance research and teaching, it would be: universities really only truly care about research or teaching. Those ones in the middle are unicorns. A lot of places will say they value research and teaching, but I think for most of these places, it’s mostly lip service.
I’m not saying this is a universal truth, because obviously there are a lot of institutions that I don’t have direct experience with, but I’ve never seen any convincing evidence to the contrary. Yes, there are some that support both, and encourage faculty to do both well. But if you were to characterize the ethos of an institution and what it truly gives a damn about — then either one or the other. I’d love to be convinced otherwise, but I haven’t seen it yet.
If you want to understand the character, then you’ve got to look at how decisions are made at critical moments. Can any of you honestly point to a research institution where a faculty member was denied tenure primarily because they were bad teachers? Does it ever happen that a professor in a teaching institution who is known as an amazing teacher loses their job because they weren’t bringing in enough grant money?
Recall this perennial gem from Joe Biden:
If we’re trying to understand how and why administrative decisions get made, we should remember the maxim: “Follow the money.” A research-focused institution gets money from research activity. And from big-pocket donors who want to give money to big and impressive research facilities. Meanwhile, teaching-focused institutions get money from tuition and other funding directed toward student outcomes. If an institution is chasing research money, focusing on teaching just gets in the way (aside from universities that have a big emphasis on educational research). An institution that touts high quality teaching and the undergraduate experience can’t afford to focus on much on research, aside from emphasizing undergraduate research as a high-impact educational practice.
It seems to me that most teaching institutions value research primarily for the opportunities and outcomes for students conducting the work. And they’ll take the overhead if they can get it. But at every teaching institution that I’ve been directly familiar with, the institutional value of research is not so much about discovery, but the fact that enrolled students are making discoveries and getting to do cool things. Researchers are only important to teaching-focused institutions insofar as students are the centerpiece. Is this a cynical viewpoint? Sure. I’d love to be shown wrong about it.
So from a financial standpoint, what institutions can afford to financially prioritize both teaching and education? I guess it’s the ones that don’t have to worry about money, and while we have a number of those in the US, they appear to be are more obsessed with money than ever. Another category might be the ones that have a robust donor base that is on board with a research-and-teaching mission, which presumably are the wealthy alumni/alumnae of liberal arts colleges. Which brings us back to the piece by Evan Peck, who said that top 40 liberal arts colleges were in that sweet spot. I think this might be true, maybe, perhaps, for the top 5 — the SLACs that have obscenely huge endowments and can spend money willy nilly. But on the lower end of the top 40, with which I’m quite familiar, they are at heart teaching institutions. They trumpet scholarship, they appreciate scholarship, they say scholarship is what truly matters — but if you look at the bottom line when it comes to resource allocation and personnel decisions — teaching comes first. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also not so much in the middle.
I’d like to point out there is a huge distinction between what an institution cares about and how individual faculty members are allowed to spend their time. For example, I work at an institution that clearly cares about teaching over research — half of our funding comes from the state to pay for teaching students, an the other half is from student tuition. The overhead from research grants might even be a drain, actually. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not granted the latitude to focus on research as long as I keep the institution happy. But I’ll never fool myself into thinking that my Dean or Provost or President will put research first. That’s not in the DNA of the institution. Frankly, I want to work in a university where students come first, so this works out well for all of us. But I’m not going to expect them to prioritize research over teaching, and I won’t complain about it when it happens.
If an extra fifty grand magically pops up somewhere, I can expect most of those funds to go to teaching, not to research. Or, maybe, they’ll go to support student research, as an educational best practice. But if there’s a piece of equipment that needs to be purchased, if it’s going to be used for research then it’ll have to be rationalized in terms of classroom deployment. A department might have exceptional research facilities, but if it’s a teaching institution, then the storyline is that the equipment is for classroom use and student-oriented research.
So, yes, there are places where you can do teaching and research. But are there places that value and prioritize them equivalently, in terms of budget, personnel, marketing, and so on? I’m not so sure.
[Update 30 May 2017 7:51am pacific time: After hearing from some Canadians and Europeans, yes, I realize I failed to indicate that I’m writing about universities in the US. Since I try hard to take an international perspective, I think I screwed up by not qualifying this early on, so thanks y’all for mentioning this.]