Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Re-reading the Boyer Commission Report

The passage below is from page 17 of the pdf, found at the ERIC site.

It is obvious that not every student should, or would wish to, attend a research university. Without attempting to characterize students at other kinds of institutions, it might be said that the undergraduate who flourishes at a research university is the individual who enjoys diverse experiences, is not dismayed by complexity or size, has a degree of independence and self-reliance, and seeks stimulation more than security. A research university is in many important ways a city; it offers almost unlimited opportunities and attractions in terms of associations, activities, and enterprises. But as in a city, the requirements of daily living may be taxing, and sorting out the opportunities and finding like- minded individuals may be difficult. The rewards of the ultimate experience, however, can be immeasurable.

I suspect that well less than half of the undergraduates at Illinois fit this set of desiderata.   My guess is that the population we're talking about is no more than 20% of the student body, quite possibly less.  In the preceding paragraph of the report, they write:

A New Model
WHAT IS NEEDED NOW IS A NEW MODEL OF UNDERGRADUATE education at research universities that makes the baccalaureate experience an inseparable part of an integrated whole. Universities need to take advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education, rather than striving to replicate the special environment of the liberal arts colleges. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between all the participants in university learning that will provide a new kind of undergraduate experience available only at research institutions. Moreover, productive research faculties might find new stimulation and new creativity in contact with bright, imaginative, and eager baccalaureate students, and graduate students would benefit from integrating their research and teaching experiences. Research universities are distinctly different from small colleges, and they need to offer an experience that is a clear alternative to the college experience.

If I'm in the ballpark on how many students fit the desiderata and if the New Model mentioned above is predicated on the assumption that near 100% of the students fit the desiderata, then there seems an obvious big issue with the argument before it has really started.  So I've momentarily interrupted my reading of the rest of the report to pose the following questions.

Is there an alternative model that would be more functional for the majority of students and yet remains consistent with the research character of the place?  Or are we stuck with the characterization of the old model provided in the report, where the education of most undergraduates is given short shrift? 

Let me add here some factoids about the business side of undergraduate education, regarding what has changed since the report was published 17 years ago.  We, and really here I mean all public R1s, are much more dependent on tuition revenue now.   Thus a strategy that said reduce the size of the student body to get much closer to that 100% numbers is likely not feasible.  Then there is the much greater reliance on non-tenure-track instructors now, many of whom do no research.  And, finally, the small liberal arts college alternative, which might be more suitable for many students on purely learning grounds, has become so pricey tuition-wise that the in-state public R1 has become the first choice of many students for what economists would refer to as liquidity reasons. 

My inclination is that the necessary change that might enable some progress here has to be found at the promotion and tenure level, not on a campus by campus basis but systematically across all R1s.  These changes must lower the bar on the research side of things and raise the bar on undergraduate teaching, which all tenured and tenure track faculty must do in a significant way.  People need to recognize the Prisoner's Dilemma aspect of what is at play here.  That will block any possible alternative model in favor of preserving the status quo.  The only way to stop the Prisoner's Dilemma is by some systematic change that promotes teaching at the expense of research.  I fear that we will not get there and that the current model will break.

Now back to reading the report. 

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