By Richard Vedder
A very fine teacher from my undergraduate days once told me that "research enhances teaching, and makes it better." I have long believed that, and think I am a better teacher because of the writings and publications I have done over the years. Indeed, I think the most compelling argument for the research university that combines teaching and research functions under one roof is that there are synergies between the two functions --senior researchers train students in research techniques, and insights from the research can make the classroom teaching more interesting.
Yet these synergies have limits, and overemphasis on research at the expense of teaching can hurt students. One problem that arises is when universities lower teaching loads for tenure track faculty and increase the proportion of teaching done by inexperienced graduate students intent on becoming research professors themselves --students who these days often have difficulty communicating well in English.
There is an inverted U shape curve that can be drawn, where teaching effectiveness is plotted on the vertical axis and research activity on the horizontal one. Up to a point, research activity improves student learning, but at some point it reduces it. At some point, there truly is a trade-off between the two functions. The positive spillover effects of research with respect to teaching exist, but they are finite in magnitude.
All of this has come back into my mind recently. My Whiz Kids at CCAP have examined carefully student evaluations of professors on the ratemyprofessors.com web site. On average, kids going to liberal arts colleges rate their professors higher than ones at research universities --even controlling for perceived course difficulty. There is a teaching-research trade-off. At the research universities, there is some cross-subsidization of graduate teaching and research with funds ostensibly devoted to instruction.
Incidentally, showing a trade-off exists between the two functions does not tell us what optimal policy is. One has to weigh the deterioration in undergraduate learning that occurs when research emphasis increases against the gains to advanced students who help with the research as well as the gains to society from the insights that the research produces. But here, too, diminishing returns exist. The marginal contribution to knowledge of three-quarters or more of the papers written in my own field of economics are close to zero. At the margin, having fewer papers written will not set back the creation of intellectual capital much, but if accompanied by renewed interest in advising and instructing undergraduates, it could have net positive good.
Shortly, CCAP is probably going to release, via a nationally prominent magazine, a somewhat more student-centered, outcomes-based, ranking of colleges and universities. In general, it will show somewhat higher rankings for some relatively less-research oriented schools than is the case with the gold standard of rankings, those of US News & World Reports. Stay tuned.