Sunday, February 14, 2010

Does higher education have some explaining to do?

I was reading the op-ed page this morning, and I came across Glenn Cook's A Few Questions for Carson City (here).   Among the questions that he asked, two in particular caught my eye:
-- Why are higher education officials and lawmakers giving a moment's thought to closing Nevada State College at Henderson when its students actually make progress toward degrees and graduate in large numbers, while most UNLV undergraduates drop out? 

-- How much research at UNLV and UNR is funded by taxpayers to explore professors' personal interests, when those professors could be teaching classes instead? In this economy, and with the sacrifices UNLV and UNR face, is it really that unreasonable to ask faculty to suspend all research that isn't self-funded?
Let's take these two questions together.  Assuming that Mr. Cook's stats are correct--and I have no independent info, one way or another, about the graduation rates of either Nevada State College or UNLV--his questions actually illustrate why we need a strong community college system and a strong research university system.  Community colleges and research universities serve different purposes.

In my mind, the mission of community colleges is access.  Excellent community colleges give their students the ability to build a solid foundation for the careers that they choose.  Take a look at Nevada State College's mission statement (here):  "Through student-centered learning, Nevada State College emphasizes and values: exceptional teaching, mentoring, advisement;* scholarship; career and personal advancement; continuing education; and service to our community." 

The mission of research universities is discovery.  Excellent research universities don't just disseminate already-discovered knowledge well; they build upon that knowledge with new discoveries.  And these discoveries aren't the same as the important discoveries that industry produces.  Industry-funded discoveries are intended, by definition, to develop industry objectives and bottom lines.  University-based discovery advances our knowledge in the arts and sciences, and that discovery activity makes our teaching better.  We can talk with our students about what our discoveries mean for our fields, and we can have our students participate with us in those discoveries.** We are changing the fields in which we teach.

So, in response to Mr. Cook's two questions:

(1)  Good for community colleges with good graduation rates!  Those high graduation rates are helping our economy recover from this deep recession by putting better-prepared employees in our workforce.

(2)  If UNLV's graduation rate is too low, let's figure out why.  Is it that UNLV faculty members aren't doing their jobs well, or is it that, with the budget cuts that UNLV has already suffered, UNLV has had to cut back on how often it offers certain core courses?  I know that the latter point is true, and I also know that many of us are picking up larger teaching loads than we used to have. 

I quit private practice in large part because I enjoy teaching students, and I know that my colleagues take pride in their teaching, too. 

But the idea that we should quit researching, unless someone else besides Nevada taxpayers foots the bill, means that we would quit making those discoveries that move our fields forward and enable us to give our students a different experience than they could get at schools without a research mission.  Sure, I'm all for funded research--that research adds to a university's bottom line, thanks to the surcharge that the funding agency pays to the university for overhead.  But not every field has the same access to funding sources, and we shouldn't stifle discoveries in the other fields.  Advances in music, art, and dance will eventually find their way to Nevada's tourism industry.  Advances in the liberal arts will make Nevadans better writers and thinkers. 

If we say, "make UNLV into a teaching institution," then we're creating a massive redundancy in the system and wasting money.  We can have great institutions that have, as their primary mission, a teaching focus, and others that have, as their primary mission, a research function.  Nevada needs both--and now, it needs both more than ever.

*I'm assuming that "advisement" is a typo and that the College means "advising."
** The relative teaching loads in community colleges and research universities means that it's just that much more difficult for professors in community colleges to have time to conduct extensive research in their areas.

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