The University Record, January 25, 1999

Bollinger: ‘We can make the intellectual air we breathe as good as any place in the world’

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

The University needs to create an intellectual climate in which no faculty member ever feels he or she can go someplace else and have a better atmosphere to work, President Lee C. Bollinger told faculty and students attending a meeting of Sigma Xi, a scientific research society.

“We can’t create oceans and mountain ranges, but we can make the intellectual air we breathe as good as anyplace in the world,” Bollinger said during his Jan. 20 lecture titled “The Status of Research at the U-M.”

Bollinger warned against automatically equating the University’s large research budget ($491.5 million in FY 1998) with outstanding research, or assuming that new buildings will improve research. “I prefer to have deferred maintenance over deferred creativity,” the president said.

The Life Sciences Commission’s report, to be released in the next several weeks, should generate important campus discussions about future directions for University research, Bollinger predicted. The Commission has been looking at how to better integrate the life sciences into the institution as a whole. Bollinger said the U-M is fortunate to have a Medical School on campus, and added that the space behind the Power Center for the Performing Arts (now a parking lot) would be an ideal point to blend the intellectual efforts of the Central and Medical campuses.

Bollinger talked about the advantages undergraduate students enjoy at a large research university. The learning experiences students get here are as good as those at small liberal arts colleges, he said. “That has a lot to do with research expectations.”

Bollinger also shared worries about a growing anti-intellectualism in society, which he said takes many forms, from attempts to tie tuition increases to the Consumer Price Index to criticisms of the use of graduate student instructors to assist in the teaching of undergraduates.

Comparing the U-M’s $2.1 billion endowment to Harvard University’s $12 billion, Bollinger said the resources per student at private universities with large endowments are increasing at a much faster rate than at public institutions such as Michigan, which must rely on tuition increases and state appropriations for the bulk of their funding.

Bollinger also talked about the University’s aspirations and the need to focus on what must be done to remain a truly great research university. One area that needs to be addressed carefully is the University’s relationship with the community. Increasingly, he said, universities are becoming the patrons of new work—from scientific research to novels, fiction, poetry, architecture and drama.

Bollinger invited the scientists to educate him about research issues. In a question-and-answer period that lasted almost one hour, faculty and students shared concerns about bureaucratic demands on time, quality of undergraduate teaching, the role of research scientists as teachers, and the importance of teaching in tenure and promotion decisions.

Rowena G. Matthews, the G. Robert Greenberg Distinguished University Professor of Biological Chemistry, said she is spending more time on issues peripheral to teaching and research, adding that for too many faculty the “resource of time is at great risk.”

Thomas E. Carey, senior research scientist in the Kresge Hearing Research Institute and a mentor in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, said he enjoys teaching undergraduates and spends many hours working with students in his laboratory. However, the U-M offers no credit for this kind of service. Medical School laboratories do not receive funds from LS&A for their work with undergraduates, and it is not counted as teaching, Carey explained.

Audience members praised and criticized the quality of undergraduate teaching at the U-M. Bollinger said that as a teacher he enjoys the intellectual energy and tension associated with classes of 50 or more students, and thinks that large classes are a wise use of faculty resources. He also said he admires graduate student instructors and what they bring to undergraduates, because they are professionally youthful and have a fresh way of handling material.

Bollinger assured students in the audience that teaching is considered at all stages of faculty members’ careers, including annual salary reviews. Acknowledging that good teaching is very difficult to evaluate, Bollinger said he asks students at every opportunity how they feel about their experience and is “dazzled” by their responses. Citing the devotion of Michigan alumni, Bollinger added, “we must be doing many things right.”