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Why Do Universities Support Research?

We live in times of diminished reputation of the higher education sector within the US. In the last few years public opinion has leaned toward less trust in the institutions of higher education, either because of their perceived ideological homogeneity and/or their high cost. The Great Recession forced attention on getting jobs, as the labor market swelled with the unemployed. Many, therefore, focused on the content of the classroom that advances one’s work career.

The discussion of the value of higher education has morphed a bit over time. For example, more people seem to know that lifetime earnings tend to be $1 million or so higher among college graduates versus others. There seem to be fewer calls for young people to reject going to college in favor of immediate entrepreneurial activity.

However, I find that even many college graduates hold in rather low regard the role of research (versus teaching) within universities. Some say glibly, what is the value of a published article in an obscure journal read by 20 people? (Said that way, I must admit, even I have my doubts.) This is less often said about research in the lab sciences, in my experience, but quite common concerning those fields in which the scholarship is often done by single scholars.

One hypothesis I have about this attitude is that most college students see the lives of their faculty members only as instructors. Their exposure to faculty is in formal classroom settings. The research lives of their faculty members are often not as visible to them. Especially in fields where faculty research and scholarship is done in archives or in the solitude of one’s office by oneself, students don’t see their faculty members engaged in research. It evokes the metaphor of thinking that an attorney only argues cases in court, ignoring the assembly, evaluation, and synthesis of evidence outside the courtroom.

I worry about two phenomena: 1) the need for every undergraduate to develop research skills, and 2) the need for universities to articulate why research and instruction are inseparable.

First, we know that large portions of undergraduates now entering college will live to be over 100 years old. This means that their undergraduate years will form less than 4% of their life course. The notion that all learning to prepare one for adult life must be packed into 4%, placed very early in life, seems unwise at best. We expect our graduates to have multiple careers, not just multiple jobs. We should have no illusion that the content of many courses will remain the same 40 years later.

We expect that many will find in their 40’s or 50’s that their chosen career line has been completely disrupted by technical, social, or political change. How can they cope at that moment? At those turning points, they must identify options; they must learn whole new knowledge domains; they must self-teach; they must assemble volumes of information, some relevant, some irrelevant; they must synthesize and form judgments about the way forward. These are precisely the steps exercised in scholarship and research projects. Providing students with 2018 content without giving them the skills to assemble and synthesize 2058 content is a mistake.

This leads to my second worry. If we organize the work of universities to separate instruction from research, we fail to prepare our students for their own original inquiries so necessary to their long-term success. We want our faculty to be active in research because they can convey to our students the then state-of-the-art content of a field. We also believe that it is through research that major contributions to the common good are made by universities. It is rather easy to document that almost all major improvements in our lives built through new knowledge have some of their roots in university research. But it seems increasingly obvious that we also need to integrate research and instruction in order to truly serve our students. Georgetown faculty are active in experimenting with organic integration of research into courses. With this development, we give our students the ability to continuously refresh their lives and careers throughout their 100+ year lives.

11 thoughts on “Why Do Universities Support Research?

  1. Two crucial dimensions of a research-oriented posture are valid for life’s journey : the first is the ability to ask questions to which there are no pre-set and authorized answers ; the second is metacognition, being able to know creatively what it is that you do not know. The best of us are familiar with both these dimensions.

  2. The concept of being a teaching scholar has informed my teaching and research throughout my various faculty appointments both prior to and while at Georgetown. So I am encouraged by and fully appreciate this blog as it supports our mission to better serve our students and the university as a whole.

    • Dear Dr. Groves,

      I also fully support this blog post as relates to both education and research viewed in the long term. In fact, at Georgetown we are newly launching a MS degree in Aging & Health that addresses issues of longevity and retraining our work force for multiple careers.

      Our students will gain training and knowledge applicable no matter if they are a new, mid, or encore career students. Please watch our video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=u6EL4BHs7Z8)

      and check out our website aging.georgetown.edu.

      Sincerely, Pamela A. Saunders, Program Director

  3. Excellent comment on the importance of research in undergrad education- doing and or seeing research being done allows one to evaluate with a critical eye others’ research. As one of my wisest professors in Med school said “ I give open book tests because you need to think and evaluate and actually 50% of what you’re learning now will probably be proven to be false fifty years from now “. Well it’s fifty years later and he was very right. We all need to at least know about research to keep abreast and know how to evaluate research in whatever field we are in .

  4. The question now moves to why do universities produce so many people with PhDs, when these people cannot get jobs when they graduate. The main answer to this vital question appears to be that research universities are ranked and rated by the quality of their graduate students and not whether these grad students get jobs when they graduate .

  5. The comment on the masters in aging and health is an example of Georgetown’s leadership and creativity in developing programs that will prepare students for the future to be men and women for others in new and important fields . Research AND useful education! I Congrats!

  6. The question now moves to why do universities produce so many people with PhDs when these people cannot get jobs when they graduate. The main answer to this vital question appears to be that research universities are ranked and rated by the quality of their graduate students and not whether these grad students get jobs when they
    graduate.

  7. In order to deliver the Government’s modern industrial strategy, a pool of high-level graduate skills is needed to feed into leading-edge sectors and help drive innovation and productivity. These talented individuals need to be able to think critically, analyze and solve complex problems, and bring ideas and teams together – and crucially, they need to have the capability to adapt to a rapidly changing labor market. The research-intensive learning environment at Russell Group universities enables students to become active participants in the production of knowledge rather than passive recipients. Students are supported to develop the personal and professional skills that are integral to graduate-level jobs, meaning they are better able to realize their ambitions and to contribute fully to our society and economy

  8. Provost Groves,

    This is an issue I have often thought about and discussed with my fellow students. The role and prioritization of research at universities like ours is a subject indeed alien to many students, and sometimes controversial.

    You shared: “I find that even many college graduates hold in rather low regard the role of research (versus teaching) within universities. […] One hypothesis I have about this attitude is that most college students see the lives of their faculty members only as instructors.”
    […] Especially in fields where faculty research and scholarship is done in archives or in the solitude of one’s office by oneself, students don’t see their faculty members engaged in research.”

    You are right that part of the problem is that we don’t see faculty doing research and we only see them in the classroom. I would go even further and offer that the problem is not that we don’t see the process of research, but that we don’t see the research itself, nor the results of it, inside or outside the classroom. As you mentioned, research products are not always the pieces that are driving conversation (and I’m not claiming that they should be) but this contributes to why students and graduates often question its value. In an overly transactional interpretation of higher education, we attend university – and pay dearly for it – to learn, and in Georgetown’s case, to learn from the best. Research seems distant and separate from that process.

    You later offer: “It evokes the metaphor of thinking that an attorney only argues cases in court, ignoring the assembly, evaluation, and synthesis of evidence outside the courtroom.”

    I would strongly challenge that metaphor. In a court case, the work the attorney does outside the courtroom (“assembly, evaluation, and synthesis of evidence”) is essential for the case that he or she presents. If that work does not happen, the attorney shows up to court empty handed. From a student perspective, that is not at all the case in teaching. Our professors are, ideally, sharing knowledge they have accumulated by being experts in their field and from a lifetime of continuing experience by our beloved practitioners. At worst, students often receive pre-packaged slide decks that are recycled every year and do little to incorporate new developments, much less the research the faculty are doing. I don’t think students see being good teachers and being good or even active researchers as related in any way, and if we had to choose, we would rather have good teachers.

    I agree with you that students need to develop research skills that will prepare us for jobs in a dynamic and changing world and that will be useful decades from now. This is another common complaint of students: many professors treat teaching as merely training for academia. Classes are so often based on students’ ability to replicate the research methods and processes our professors do. This is not a smart strategy, given that not all (or even most) of us want to become academics, and that new professorships represent a minimal fraction of doctoral graduates every year. I hope you can continue to share your forward-looking vision of modern teaching with faculty at Georgetown.

    Finally I would just reiterate that, at least in my view, the main reason students are skeptical of the value of research at universities is because we see it as completely separate from what we are paying for. This can turn to anger when a faculty member’s passion for research negatively affects their teaching. As a student, when you have a bad professor, it feels like a bad investment. When you have a bad professor because they would rather research than teach, it feels like you are being robbed.

    I do not, by any means, intend to paint faculty members as greedy. We are well aware of the issues surrounding faculty compensation, tenure, and the rise in adjunct hiring. I do think it is relevant to think about this issue in the context of the perennial student question in today’s universities: “Where is the money going?” For many students, ‘research’ is not an entirely satisfactory answer. (Although in my view it is much better than ‘non-faculty staff’, which is the real answer…)

    The question of the right balance between teaching and research is not an easy one, but thankfully it is answered for us as you mention in your next post. Our duties are 1) formation of students, 2) inquiry of faculty, and 3) service to the common good. Thankfully, as we all know, this isn’t just the current view: it is spelled out by Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution for Catholic universities.

    The order here is not arbitrary – teaching goes first. I like that Georgetown goes further than teaching, and into ‘formation’. We are hopefully being taught to be good people, too. And while a university’s contributions to the common good can certainly be attributed to the products of research, I would offer that thousands of well-formed graduates being good people and doing their best in whatever fields they dedicate themselves to probably have a much bigger impact in advancing our communities and the good of humankind.

    “I worry about […] the need for universities to articulate why research and instruction are inseparable.”
    That is something we certainly agree on. Hopefully we can work on this important subject in the future.

    Yours respectfully,

    Ricardo Mondolfi
    SFS ‘19

    • Very interesting and thoughtful comments. Maybe faculty needs to emphasize more the importance of research and how it also is part of why they are “ experts” in their field. Part of the reason is their ability to pose and try to answer some key questions in their field and also explain that process in their teaching. We also need to emphasize how we determine what are facts we teach and how those “ facts “ are determined and need to be continually be tested . We all should be careful of being stale in teaching and we can all fall into that by just handing out the same “ deck of slides “ or the same information and handouts every year . A research attitude towards all academic and life’s questions should help stimulate students to attack all issues they will face with openness and creativity. Thanks for your comments. It’s great food for thought for faculty and students alike.

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