Glittering reputations do not impress students

May 19, 1995

The unequal status of research and teaching in some top research universities is the subject of a high-powered commission of scholars and scientists in the United States.

Chaired by Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the nine-member commission is expected to produce ideas for how the almost separate worlds occupied by students and academics can be combined.

At the heart of this divided world is the notion of academic tenure. Academics get on, become professors, achieve tenure, through writing research papers, not by teaching students.

For decades research universities have been criticised for neglecting undergraduate education or not doing it very well, says Shirley Strum Kenny, president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who came up with the idea for the commission.

Students are taught by postgraduates on low salaries, while the professors spend their time on prestigious research.

The result is that only 43.8 per cent of the undergraduates at public research universities were satisfied by their contact with academics and administrators, according to a 1991 survey.

The number satisfied at private research universities was higher, 64.2 per cent.

In contrast, 75.4 per cent of students at private four-year colleges, which include liberal arts and religious colleges, were much more satisfied. Such colleges do not emphasise research. Instead professors spend their time teaching undergraduates.

A recent case of a professor denied tenure at Rutgers, the prestigious public university in New Jersey, is a case in point.

Richard Barr, 38, was called an "exceptionally talented" teacher, but Rutgers English department thought he had not published enough. To be precise he had two articles, two theatre reviews and an unpublished book behind him. It did not matter that he had won three teaching awards.

The university's position was that it needed academics with glittering reputations to compete with its peers and attract the grants and research contracts that help to pay the costs of a large state university.

"The current culture is, frankly, a divided culture between student life on the one hand and the faculty culture on the other," said Mr Boyer.

On the commission is Chen Ning Yang, a Nobel physicist and professor at Stony Brook University, who has taught basic physics courses to undergraduates for the past six years.

Stony Brook is a pioneer in this field and recently it has organised teams of professors and graduate and undergraduate students to undertake major research projects in physics and biology.

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