By Richard Vedder
My good friend Patricia Smith has recently sent me a couple of letters, one from the Economist and one from the Columbus Dispatch, both picking up on themes often mentioned in this space.
It is argued that the emphasis on research is getting out of hand. We have moved from "publish or perish" to "get grants or perish." Areas where there is little opportunity for grants --the humanities in particular --are neglected and downsized, while money gets showered on the grant-receiving parts of the university. Perhaps that is justified --but perhaps it is not.
Some CCAP research supports the writer's laments. Salaries of professors rise more the more grant money there is. Wealth and job security are actually reduced by showing too much attention to students and their important transition from childhood to adulthood. Thus researchers make a ton more than teachers. What is interesting, though, that the share of university budgets being paid for by the students is not falling --it is actually rising in many schools. There is a growing disconnect between the sharply rising tuition charges --and the increasing neglect of the basic customer.
This disconnect is one reason why the traditional liberal arts colleges and the community colleges are flourishing despite repeated predictions of their ultimate demise. They take the role of teaching seriously and reward it (although salaries at the community colleges lag sharply those at the four year schools). The customer feels that his or her tuition funds are being used for the purpose intended. The ability of the research universities to raise tuition fees dramatically while increasingly neglecting the undergraduate students is almost certainly going to be imperiled at some point, except at the most elite and selective universities of the Harvard variety.
As I have said at least a dozen times, research distinction is recognized nationally and internationally while teaching distinction is recognized only locally for the most part (although I love to read what students think of my colleagues at other universities on rateyourprofessor.com). Information is readily available on good research, but not as clearly so on good teaching. Moreover, research prowess is being measured more and more not by outcomes --published research or patents --than by inputs (amount of money obtained in grants). Professors are becoming whores, and the universities are their pimps.
In short, universities are terribly money hungry --they share the basic human instinct of wanting more material things, even if they lack the incentives markets provide to pursue their material ambitions in an efficient fashion. Money talks at universities, and money says "do research." We might start rethinking the funding of some research efforts, especially the provision of overhead funds at an extremely high level.
I am not disparaging research. It is important, and our society has progressed enormously through the advance of knowledge. Both the quality and quantity of our lives has advanced because of research. But that does not mean, at the margin, we have got it right in terms of the relative emphasis placed on the two important aspects of university lives (and, for that matter, on the other things universities do -- like the fascination they have with throwing and kicking balls and other trivial acts of physical strength).