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Monday, April 28, 2014

The Soul of the Research University

Basic research, whose applications may be decades in the future, is an uncertain investment for any single entity (e.g., corporation), even if it is an essential public good for the long term advancement of civilization. Consequently, basic research is mostly done at universities and government labs. Indeed, the vast majority of research in the US is led by professors and takes place on campus. Unfortunately, this crucial aspect of the mission of universities is least understood by their broad constituency.

Boosters, alumni, parents, and advocates should note that the research prowess of a great university is a large component of its institutional prestige: nearly all of the most prestigious universities in the world, those that attract the brightest and most able (and, ultimately, most successful) students, are world class research institutions.

Nicholas Lemann writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Chronicle: ... building on the foundation laid by the establishment of The Johns Hopkins University, in 1876, American higher education has embraced the idea of the research university as its most cherished aspiration. Today there are about 300 American universities that confer doctoral degrees, far more than envisioned by the original proselytizers for importing the research-university model from Germany to the United States. And that number understates the importance of the model, because the core members of the faculty and senior administration at hundreds more institutions hold doctoral degrees and operate within the academic tenure system that lies at the heart of the way research universities are run.

For many people who have spent their lives working in higher education, mass higher education and research universities make for a perfect fit: Together they express both the public service and the intellectual ambitions of educators. And during most of the 20th century, especially the years between 1950 and 1975, the two big ideas grew and flourished in tandem.

But they aren’t the same idea. Mass higher education, conceptually, is practical, low cost, skills oriented, and mainly concerned with teaching. It caught on because state legislatures and businesses saw it as a means of economic development and a supplier of personnel, and because families saw it as a way of ensuring a place in the middle class for their children. Research universities, on the other hand, grant extraordinary freedom and empowerment to a small, elaborately trained and selected group of people whose mission is to pursue knowledge and understanding without the constraints of immediate practical applicability under which most of the rest of the world has to operate. Some of their work is subsidized directly by the federal government and by private donors, but they also live under the economic protection that very large and successful institutions can provide to some of their component parts. ...

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