What is the Fundamental Purpose of Our Public Universities?

I want to congratulate our Republican legislators in both Austin and Washington, who have started the long process of addressing our fiscal problems.  What they’ve passed so far is not perfect, nor everything that many of us wanted, but it has been a good and needed first step.  In fact, the federal budget plan passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday incorporates many good, long-term ideas that begin to address both fiscal discipline, and the need to reduce the role of the federal government in local and individual decisions.  The debate Paul Ryan’s plan has started is good for the country.

Closer to home, another debate seems to be unfolding over the role of classroom teaching within our state-supported universities in Texas.  It’s that debate that I would like to discuss in this post.

I want to start with definitions of three words taken from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition):

  • Education:  “The knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process.” (p. 569).
  • College:  “An institution of higher learning that grants the bachelor’s degree in liberal arts or science or both.” (p.362).
  • University:  “An institution of higher learning with teaching and research facilities constituting a graduate school and professional schools that award master’s degrees and doctorates and an undergraduate division that awards bachelor’s degrees.” (p. 1883).

Now, let’s also look at the original provision in the Texas Constitution that authorized the eventual creation of our state-supported university systems:  “The legislature shall as soon as practicable establish, organize and provide for the maintenance, support and direction of a University of the first class…” (Art. 7, Sec. 10).

When you read all of this together, it’s pretty clear that the fundamental purpose of our state-supported universities is to provide an education to students—specifically, an education that can lead to the award of an undergraduate, graduate or professional degree through a process that includes learning from both teaching and research.  Reading these sources, it’s also clear that teaching and research are neither distinct purposes, in and of themselves, for the existence of a university, nor are they independent functions that are separate from the process of providing an education.

Yet, if you listen to the debate over the hiring of Rick O’Donnell by the University of Texas Board of Regents, and the promotion by Governor Perry of Jeff Sandefer’s “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education (http://texashighered.com/7-solutions) you could come to the conclusion that providing an education is no longer the central purpose of our state-supported universities.  Instead, you could determine that the central purpose of our universities is now to provide a source for economic growth for the communities in which they are situated, and for the state, through attracting top researchers and grants and conducting economically-beneficial research.  Consistent with this new purpose, the task of providing an education and a degree now may be  merely an incidental source of income to the university rather than its core mission.

Quite frankly, I find this whole debate fails to address the real problems with our educational system.  Though some correction may be needed, a wholesale change in the way we hire and retain university faculty is not needed.  However, the more professors and administrators attack any change, the more they make the case for the wholesale change they don’t want.  In the meantime, no one is really addressing how we improve the education of our children.

On the one hand, it is true that there is evidence showing a significant shift in emphasis on some campuses from teaching and research focused on providing an education to students, to “pure” research designed to obtain independent economic benefits for the school and the community.  This shift has created an imbalance in the use of public resources (as well as private grants and donations) to create and maintain facilities and faculties for “pure” research on some campuses. Perversely, on some campuses this shift has led to documented under-utilization of existing facilities, which could be more efficiently used to provide more education-related teaching and research.  Implementation of a few of the “Seven Breakthroughs” might effectively address this shift and restore the proper focus of teaching and research to education, while still allowing for the incidental, yet important, “pure” research that enriches the learning process while providing an additional source of income and economic benefit.  However, a wholesale change in the way universities hire and retain faculty, and provide and account for teaching and research, is not needed to fix the imbalance on some campuses; indeed, there are a lot more fundamental problems with our educational system, starting with kindergarten, that need to be prioritized and addressed over this issue.

On the other hand, the clueless and condescending reactions from some who have attacked the ideas promoted by Governor Perry, Mr. Sandefer, and Mr. O’Donnell underscore a fundamental question that many taxpayers, parents and students now have about our entire educational system:  are schools operating for the benefit of the students, or for the benefit of the teachers and administrators?  I think most of us outside of the educational system had thought state-supported schools at all levels operated to benefit students.  However, to read some of the op-ed pieces and interviews from current and former faculty and administrators, you would think that students are merely incidental nuisances with whom they have to interact periodically while running their facilities and conducting their research.  These reactions, combined with the video of teacher union protests in Wisconsin and the sentimental news stories about teacher lay-offs across this State, give credibility to the movement supporting wholesale change in the way we hire and retain teachers, professors and administrators.

While we may not need all “Seven Breakthroughs” to re-balance the functions of our universities, teachers, professors and administrators at all state-supported schools need to remember that they only have one fundamental obligation:  they work for the taxpayers and the parents of this State to provide our children, young adults and adults with an education through the processes of teaching and research—everything else, including the research they conduct as part of their job, is incidental to and dependent upon meeting this fundamental obligation.  Once we all get this point straight again, re-balancing the use of public resources within our universities and school systems, as well as fixing the more pressing problems with our whole educational system, should be easier to accomplish.

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  1. says

    The debate you suggest is appropriate for "colleges," but universities' research function is PART of the graduate teaching function. You cannot disentangle graduate education from "research," and only a philistine would try. That's why educators are so dismissive of such suggestions at the major research institutions: They reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what universities do.

  2. simple simon says

        I agree with you in part, but how many Texas Universities are Universities in Name Only (UNO)?  I can think of more than a few that are simply fluffed up colleges.  
       The primary goal of all of our schools (High Schools to Universities) should be to turn out educated graduates.  All else is secondary.
       I am an University graduate and found too many professors that did not care about education and it showed in their lectures.  Getting rid of tenure is a good idea, although I believe termination of a Professor should be for "cause" ; just like terminations are done in the private sector.
       The Schools are there for a purpose.  They are selling a service to a client.  There are very few services industries that could survive with the attitudes seen in the Universities toward their principal clients (students and taxpayers).

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