The University Record, October 21, 1998
By John T. Lehman, Professor of Biology and Secretary to the Faculty Senate
Almost exactly six months ago, news media from the New York Times to the ABC Nightly News announced the release of a new report that spotlighted the educational experiences of undergraduates at 125 U. S. institutions classified as American Research Universities by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The report, titled Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for Americas Research Universities, was a product of the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates, which included such luminaries as Nobel laureate Chen Ning Yang, National Academy President Bruce Alberts and a host of senior academic officials.
News reports at that time seized on the perception that all was not healthy in the undergraduate educational experience at research universities, and the
U-M was tarred with the common brush that painted a fairly bleak picture of the institutional landscape. The focus of the report, which did not always make the lead for news items, was its proposed Academic Bill of Rights for undergraduates and a set of 10 constructive recommendations for building on the strengths of research universities to improve undergraduate education.
The challenge of maintaining attentive and committed treatment of undergraduates at universities like ours is a fair topic for examination. Perhaps the sharpest focus is gained by looking through the lens of budget realities described by President Bollinger to University faculty at the September meeting of the Senate Assembly (The University Record, 7 October 1998, page 10). The U-M maintains a roughly $3 billion operating budget overall, of which $2 billion not tied to the Health System is the immediate issue. A large and appreciated state investment of $350 million each year plus student tuition simply cannot pay all the bills. The enormous shortfall between these reasonably secure revenues and outlays is met by a mix of endowment earnings and proceeds derived from intellectual properties created by faculty, including indirect cost charges against research grants and profits from marketing of patents. Increases in the latter categories provide the marginal increases in revenue that fund new administrative initiatives and keep the old ones going.
The somber message from budget numbers is that state appropriations are unlikely to climb faster than the CPI, and political pressures restrain tuition increases, as well. The U-Ms endowment of ca. $2 billion has not yet been large enough to feed enough profit into the budget, relative to needs and visions, despite the past booming stock market. The president explained how the figures portend lagging growth for the U-M compared with better endowed universities that have realized 15 to 20 percent annual earnings. The existing budget and hopes for future growth hinge for now, for better or worse, on the profits from faculty research. This analysis must surely be the same at all but the richest private research universities.
The budget realities are well known to research university faculty in the sciences, medicine and engineering, at the very least, because the reward structures institutionalized in their units reflect them. Against that backdrop, however, is another consideration that was formally articulated in the 1997 document Principles of Faculty Involvement in Institutional & Academic Unit Governance at the University of Michigan. The cardinal principle stated there is:
The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, standards and procedures for admission of students, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.
So, faced in April 1998 with a claim that undergraduate education was not up to potential at our major, public research University, faculty groups took their lead from this powerful statement of purpose and decided to confront the issues head-on.
Days after the Boyer Commission Report first appeared, planning commenced for thoughtful and informed discussion of its message at a faculty-sponsored forum. Led originally by U-M members of Sigma Xi, the scientific and engineering research honor society, and then by SACUA, the AAUP, and the Academic Womens Caucus, the event culminates Tuesday, 27 October 1998 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on North Campus. The conveners were fortunate to obtain as opening and closing keynote speakers Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, President of SUNY Stony Brook and chair of the Boyer Commission, as well as Dr. F. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation and former U. S. Secretary of HEW.
The forum is organized around two panel discussions, with opportunities for audience participation. In the morning, faculty from the sciences, social sciences, humanities and engineering will probe alternative visions and goals for undergraduate education in the research university context. In the afternoon, a panel that includes Regent Olivia Maynard, President Lee Bollinger, U.S. Reps. Lynn Rivers and Vernon Ehlers, plus NSF Science Adviser James Lightbourne will serve up ideas of how the goals can be accomplished. Dr. Mathews intends to complete the program with a seminar-style audience interaction aimed at characterizing points of resolution and points worthy of further study.
The forum is offered free to interested audience participants, but tickets must be obtained in advance. Tickets are available through the SACUA office, 764-0303.