The University Record, April 5, 1999

Research universities need to let government know their value

By Jane R. Elgass
'More [students] are going for a four-year degree and immediately into the workforce,' Lynn Rivers told the audience during a panel discussion at the Jerome B. Weisner Symposium last week. Photos by Bob Kalmbach

A member of Congress, representative of industry, grant-maker and college dean shared their perspectives on "Education for the 21st Century: Responsibilities for the Research University" during one of the panel presentations at the Jerome B. Wiesner Symposium March 29.

Rep. Lynn Rivers, a U-M alumna and member of the House Science Committee, cited the "uneasy alliance" apparent today between government and the education community, cautioning against what she characterized as the "possible devastating intervention of government" into the day-to-day running of education.

Government is good at funding research, which is good for research universities, but, she asked, what about the fate of undergraduate education at these institutions?

"If you look at the trends, you see a change overall in the way students are approaching education. More are going for a four-year degree and immediately into the workforce; fewer are going to graduate school." Reasons for this, she noted, include decreasing interest in the arts, individuals who are "living for the moment," and the burden of financial aid debt, which has shifted from grants to loans in recent years.

Members of Congress are bombarded with varied viewpoints on education, ranging from those who say we must develop critical thinkers to those who are proponents of "pounding facts into heads."

"It's difficult to find a balance," she said, when trying to determine policy and funding. Many in Congress, she said, believe that teaching takes a back seat to research at research universities, and feel the institutions must change, citing the "anti-intellectualism movement" that surfaced in 1995.

At that time, Rivers said, Congress felt that the "academic world was peopled with slackers, with not a lot of value going on, that subsidized education was a waste of time." The result, she added, was an initial budget that had huge cuts in education. "There is not a clear understanding that the money we invest in education has a big payoff," she said. "You must apprise [Congress] of the value of the academy."

Recent recruits to Ford Motor Co. told John McTague there were elements missing in their undergraduate experience, including learning how to deal with open-ended questions and doing collaborative work, learning how to formulate a question and how to decide when you have an answer that's good enough, and learning how to utilize non-traditional resources, such as engineers learning from the line workers how best to do something.

McTague, Ford's vice president for technical affairs, said that from the perspective of a large company, inquiry-based learning is the key to giving students the experiences they will need to succeed in their careers. These experiences do not all need to be found in research activities, however. They can include such things as lab apprentice work, design courses, projects such as the Solar Car Project at the College of Engineering "in which students learn and get the confidence that they know what knowledge is," summer internships and co-op programs.

"The undergraduate experience needs to be broader than pre-professional training, but we don't need something added on. The new experiences must be integrated with the current curriculum."

Referring to the controversial Boyer Report released last year, Robert Lichter said he doesn't "feel universities have failed their students." There is room for many types of educational institutions, he said, adding that a strength of the United States system "is the diversity of settings" in which education takes place, "all of which are linked in their commitment to student learning."

The problem, he stated, "is that universities do a lousy job of telling their success stories. Therefore they are vulnerable to attack."

Lichter, executive director of the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, "eschews the term research university," which he said amounts to a "rating system rather than an accounting system."

Doctoral institutions, he said, are educating the next generation of leaders. "We don't have to expect great discoveries. What's important is that people learn how to take responsibilities.

"It would be a mistake to change the focus [of research universities]," he said. "The best path is in research universities. We must find ways to broaden that, because there is good evidence that research is an effective means of teaching."

Above all, he said, research universities "must maintain their focus on the diversity of the student body and the faculty," and make greater use of graduate students, who can play an effective role in undergraduate education."

Additional suggestions by Lichter to help increase research opportunities included incorporating pedagogy into graduate education, consideration of post-doctoral positions by the arts, making greater use of emeritus faculty, making research experience a part of teacher education and employing non-academic experts.

Inquiry-based education and research experiences are imperative in the engineering fields, Stephen Director told the audience, and, as a result, the undergraduate engineering curriculum is undergoing a transformation, the first since the one the launch of Sputnik caused 50 years ago.

The practice of engineering is changing, and the problems are so complex that diverse teams from disparate fields--whose members have good oral and written skills, a solid grounding in the field and exposure to the humanities--are required to arrive at solutions that now must take into account social and environmental considerations.

"Learning is a lifelong opportunity," said Director, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, "and there is more than one style of learning. A lecture is not always the best. The bachelor's degree is just one step in a lifelong learning paradigm."

Through teamwork, he noted, students learn how to define problems. They are exposed to learning on their own. The students gain confidence, while at the same time realizing how little they and their professors know."

Director emphasized that non-traditional learning experiences cannot be left to chance. "They must be introduced early in the academic career. We demand a great deal of our students, but not all of what we demand can be gained in the classroom. They need other experiences."

The panel was moderated by Roberta Gutman, corporate vice president and director of global diversity, Motorola Inc.