Sending campus exchanges the other way

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There’s a bunch of funding from federal agencies to send faculty at teaching institutions to leave their own labs, to work temporarily in other research labs.

The line of thinking is that professors at smaller institutions, with fewer resources, would need all of the stuff at research institutions to have a vital research program and provide great opportunities for their students. You know, getting a PhD and doing postdocs in research institutions isn’t enough to launch your own research lab, I guess.

This kind of program, aimed at increasing the research atmosphere for undergraduates in under-resourced institutions, is based on the deficit model. These universities are missing something, so then you can give them the chance to go to research universities where they can get the thing they need.

As I’ve said before, there are a lot of problems with trying to send professors who are running their own labs to go to work in someone else’s lab for as some kind of underling. I won’t rehash that, but here’s a constructive idea to flip the script, to have a better chance at creating the structural change that these programs are trying to accomplish:

When we create funding programs to send faculty from under-resourced universities to big universities, I see this as a small bandage covering up a big problem. The big problem is that there are a ton of highly trained researchers and students in smaller institutions that don’t have access to the social capital, research collaborations, and facilities that you find at larger and more prestigious research institutions.

Shipping off the professor from the under-resourced university to the over-resourced university is like giving someone a fish, instead of teaching them to fish. It deals with the problem, in a temporary manner, on a small scale. And often badly.

It’s the faculty in research institutions that need to learn how to fish.

The real problem — which is partly responsible for the research challenges at small institutions — is that the research community undervalues the expertise and quality of the scholarship of their peers who are in teaching-focused institutions. This extends to the students in these institutions, who are often thought to be enrolled in low-prestige institutions because they don’t have the academic ability to go to a more prestigious university. There’s a broad perception that students at low-prestige universities are not “high quality students.” In short, people think that students end up at non-elite universities because they’re not good enough to be elsewhere. Which really, really is a load of hooey.

Because faculty and students at the less prestigious teaching-focused institutions are not treated with adequate regard, there are a mountain of side-effects that all of us at these institutions are familiar with. We’re missing from most editorial boards of major journals. We’re unlikely to be invited join working groups and collaborative projects, or to give seminars Our students have a very hard time getting admitted to their graduate programs, and when students apply for federal fellowships they might get reviews trashing the quality of their undergraduate institution. The bottom line is that our students get screwed over because people underestimate their talent and what they can bring to table for the scientific community. And because our students are more likely to be first-gen college students and members of underrepresented minorities, this stops all of these diversity initiatives from actually working.

I don’t think bad intentions are at work here. I think a lot of my colleagues at research institutions have been listening to us, and while a lot of negative stereotypes have persisted, I think people know that there are very talented students at non-prestigious universities. People know that my students aren’t any less talented than students at high-prestige universities.

A lot of folks know about this, but don’t understand. This lack of experiential understanding is huge. Accepting the fact that students in non-prestigious universities are as good as those who got into fancy universities is one thing, and truly understanding how this happens is another thing. That difference is manifested in how people make decisions and choose their priorities. The professional futures of undergraduate students in low-prestige universities hinge on whether or not they get a fair shake with faculty members at PhD granting institutions. And for the most part, they don’t get that fair shake.

This isn’t borne of malfeasance, but a lack of understanding. Most of the people I interact with in my academic field have zero professional experience with low-ranking teaching institutions. This isn’t their fault, it’s not anything I can blame someone for, though this situation does make it harder for them to make decisions that support equity and inclusion.

We have a lot of folks from more prestigious institutions visiting us at CSU Dominguez Hills for very brief period of time. Up until this year, we’ve had a well-funded weekly seminar series in our department, regularly flying folks in to give talks. There are meetings with some faculty, gatherings with students, meals, the talk, and whatnot.

When I’ve hosted, these visits always end the same way: our guest expresses extraordinary delight and no small dose of surprise at how spectacular how students are. How they truly understand their research projects! How they are intellectually curious! How they ask the most probing questions! How they are so skilled in the lab! How well they’d fit in with their own lab groups! And what bright futures they have!

Seriously, it’s always this way. It’s a standard part of the visit. A lot of these people visiting are friends of mine, and all of them are people I hold in esteem, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to note that our research students are spectacular, I think it’s gracious (and a recognition of the obvious). It’s not like these folks were expecting our students to not be great, it’s just like, after meeting them, they were really impressed. I feel that way too, about our students every day, I’m so impressed at what they’re doing, even more so considering all of the structural barriers they’ve surmounted to get to where they are. It was this way for me when I first got to know students here too.

These one day visits to campus can be eye opening, but they’re not transformative. In the end, it’s just a nice visit. I’m not going to pretend that by visiting any campus for a day, I understand the place and its students, and the challenges these students face.

So how about instead of asking professors in low-prestige universities to pack up their students and their labs to spend the summer in an R1 institution, how about we do it the other way around? How about we fund professors from PhD-granting programs to spend a semester or a year at a nearby low-ranking university? How about the director of a graduate program at UCLA get an office in my own department for a year, teach a couple classes with us, attend our faculty meetings, and have their grad students visit for lab meetings? How about the chair of a department at the University of Michigan spend a semester working at Eastern Michigan University, which is just a 15-minute drive down the road? How about a professor at UC Riverside take a sabbatical at CSU San Bernardino, 20 minutes away from UCR?

If this actually happened — if professors from Research Institutions committed to actually getting to know the students and the faculty and the day-to-day happenings at low-prestige universities, this would be a lot more effective.

Here’s the bottom line: The system doesn’t need to train or repair faculty at teaching institutions. It needs to change research institutions so that they recognize that we’re great at what we do, and will welcome us into their academic community.

The only way that folks in PhD-granting institutions are going to really understand that students at low-prestige institutions have as much research potential as the ones that went to Oberlin and UC Riverside is for them to really get to know what these places are like.

How about we take all of the money being spent on professor exchanges and ship people the other direction?

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