• September 4, 2015

Scientists Fault Universities as Favoring Research Over Teaching

The United States' educational and research pre-eminence is being undermined, and some of the chief underminers are universities themselves, according to articles this week in Science and Nature magazines.

Universities are aggressively seeking federal dollars to build bigger and fancier laboratory facilities, and are not paying an equal amount of attention to teaching and nurturing the students who would fill them, scientists say in the articles.

"It's a Ponzi scheme," said Kenneth G. Mann, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Vermont, whose concerns were described by Nature. "Eventually you'll have a situation where you're not even producing the feedstock into the system."

A group of researchers, led by two biology professors, Diane K. O'Dowd of the University of California at Irvine and Richard M. Losick of Harvard University, made a similar point in a commentary in Science. Teaching is suffering at universities because the institutions prize research success above all other factors in promotions, they said. The job of educating students offers little reward, and instead "often carries the derogatory label 'teaching load,'" they wrote.

Those faculty members raise the issue at a time of growing anxiety for universities and their research enterprises. Republicans took control of the House of Representatives this month, after party leaders promised during last year's election campaign to cut nondiscretionary federal spending to 2008 levels. That is likely to mean deep budget cuts at the federal science-financing agencies. The National Institutes of Health, the largest nonmilitary provider of research money to universities, could see its budget fall 9 percent below its anticipated 2011 level of $31.3-billion.

And universities have been seeing even more dire budget scenarios at the state level, the traditional foundation of their governmental support. Those worries, and the hope among universities that the federal government might take up more of the load from the states, helped encourage the National Research Council, a private federally chartered institution, to form a study panel of 22 university and corporate leaders. The group, due to issue a report this spring, has been drafting arguments for why the federal government should recognize university science as a national asset deserving of more resources.

Skewed Priorities?

That is a worthwhile argument, Mr. Mann said. "Research is essential" to the overall success of a university and the country, he said.

At the same time, Mr. Mann said, universities have become so obsessed with using federal dollars to build new research facilities that they've skewed their priorities, leading both faculty members and students to see the competition for federal money as their main professional mission.

Mr. Mann, who served as chairman of biochemistry at Vermont from 1984 to 2005, said grant money made up about 22 percent of his salary as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota back in 1970. Now it's 60 percent, as he pulls in about $3-million a year in federal support, and administrators at Vermont are asking him to push it even higher.

"Nobody has ever asked me how good my papers were, and I think you would find that universally true," he said, "They basically say, Well, how many research dollars are you bringing in?"

Some university leaders have recognized the potential for a financial crash if the federal government eventually proves itself unable or unwilling to support the number of university research labs it has already helped to build. Robert M. Berdahl, who plans to retire in May as president of the Association of American Universities, asked Congress in 2009 to help determine the optimal size of the nation's university-research enterprise, giving impetus to the current study by the National Research Council.

Mr. Losick said his commentary in Science had put teaching into that equation because it questioned how research universities balanced research and teaching. The authors recommend that universities take steps that include helping their science faculty members improve their teaching practices, and basing tenure and promotions on teaching skills.

Mr. Mann said he saw a direct correlation between universities' promoting and paying for those teaching skills, and improving the quality of science research. Among other problems, he said, universities rely heavily on the integrity of their faculty to produce trustworthy science. "As the pressures become higher for people to generate grant income to support their salaries and their enterprise," he said, "then the pressure for the absence of integrity gets higher."

The health of universities, and the overall U.S. economy, depends on finding that right balance, he said. "There's a real risk at the present time to have a system that's not stable."


1. cdwickstrom - January 13, 2011 at 04:14 pm

"Teaching? Teaching? We don't need no stinking teaching! Ha,Ha, Ha Ha, Ha!"

To paraphrase some famous movie dialogue. Unfortunately an all to common attitude in many R-1 schools. And not only in the sciences. Four classes a year is a typical teaching commitment in many, but at least a similiar number of published peer-reviewed articles or national conference presentations is also expected. And these bolster the perceived strength of potential performance as a grantee. It is not only grant income for faculty salaries that is being sought by these universities. It is also the indirect funds from grants that provides the resources to pay for the increasingly large administrative staffs these research facilities command, and that will remain, even if the grants disappear. Ponzi indeed.

2. sabbatical - January 13, 2011 at 04:44 pm


Not just R1 schools. I work at a "teaching school," and the sole (real) criterion for tenure and promotion is research. Teaching has the same cachet as childcare. Although everybody pays lip service to how important and wonderful it is, we don't value the service in dollars and cents.

3. bizprof2001 - January 13, 2011 at 05:08 pm

Research funding--the next "bubble"

4. 22206165 - January 13, 2011 at 07:41 pm

Let's all calm down. Little has changed in the past forty years, and that includes the Golden Age of American higher education, for both the research universities, the teaching colleges, and the teaching universities where teaching AND research are still important. In the 1980s scientists in the graduate programs at my institution were expected to be at minimum 50% on grants, and preferably 100%! Faculty in the undergraduate science programs had to be funded,but not nearly to the same level as basic scientists in the Medical School. The classical research universities, giving 500-600 Ph.D.s, never made any bones about their priorities, which was winning a Nobel Prize. The biggest change today comes with the research requirements of the undergraduate teaching colleges, which even fifty years ago could count Henry Steele Commager, James McGregor Burns, and William H.Pritchard among their ranks. Now, they expect great scholarship from all of their undergraduate faculty, and with reduced teaching loads--I taught 4-4 in the 1960s--why not? At places I saw--Berkeley, Harvard, Michigan and similar institutions--it has been, is, and always will be: research first. The definition of a research university? A place that shuts its doors when the graduate students go on strike; and that hasn't changed.

5. fortysomethingprof - January 13, 2011 at 11:19 pm

The reason administrators evaluate research in terms of money is because they don't really have any other way to do it. They're not going to read your research articles and decide if they're good or not. Citations and impact factors are not really any better.

The biggest problem that I see is a trend toward unrealistic expectations for research productivity, which cause departments to admit more and more graduate students, including inferior students who take professorial attention away from students whose educations are more deserving of it.

6. profvikaskaushik - January 14, 2011 at 06:30 am

In general in most of the teaching institutions, research/consultancy has the priority over the CORE resposibility of the teacher ie the teaching.GOOD TEACHING if appreciated is with alow tone.PITY.Teacher Efficiency Index must be based on the efficient teaching not on secondary activities.
Budget must be specified for teaching related resources saparately in the universities.

7. softshellcrab - January 14, 2011 at 08:19 am

People, and institutions, will always generally target their efforts to what goes on the scorecard. So long as it is research, inventions, blockbuster articles and books, produced by a university that get the attention (both in and out of academia) universities will push and reward research over teaching, and faculty will respond apppropriately.

8. christophknoess - January 14, 2011 at 08:58 am

What is noteworthy here is not the message (nothing new here), but the messenger.

The palaces on campus are not only paid for by ballooning student loans, but also by ballooning research dollars. The dismal success rates of undergraduates are a direct consequence: while graduate students might come close to full-time faculty in the area of knowledge creation, in the areas of knowledge integration, academic advising and mentoring there is nobody stepping in for faculty who can only advance their career in research. And retention and graduation rates suffer as a consequence. I believe that campus executives understand the causal relationships, but feel unable to fix it. (State) boards will have to do it for them.

To fix undergraduate education, research needs to become a by-product of teaching, not the other way round. That requires that economic success (i.e. funding) needs to be primarily a function of education (quantitatively and qualitatively). Within the higher ed bubble there is a student loan and a research funding bubble. Which one will burst sooner and which one more quickly is moot. The only way to fix higher ed is to make student success the goal number one.


9. keis8427 - January 14, 2011 at 09:10 am

The whole thing is a racket...

10. teachinst - January 14, 2011 at 09:37 am

Some of the emphasis on pulling in research funding can be traced to the shift in how public higher education institutions are funded. Prior to the anti-tax era, many of our 'public' institutions were funded at 80% by states using tax revenues. With the over emphais on tax cuts for the past 30 years, we are seeing the impacts in higher ed.

Now many (most) big institutions received closer to 10% from the states. The higher funding levels funded operations and permitted reasonable tuition rates. With less funding, universities rely more on tuition, loans, and indirect costs from research grants to make up funding formerly provided by the states.

So, from my perspective some of the blame lies with the failed trickle-down economics, anti-intellectualism, and anti-tax movements. One of the roles of goverment, at any level, is to take care of systems that can't be created, supported or maintained by private groups--most importantly, infrastructure.

The delayed payoff of a good education places it in the infrastructure column. Society benefits from an educated population, making education a critical apect of our society's infrastructure. Government cannot take care of infrastructure w/o funds! And unlike private companies subcontracting for government business, civil servants and government entitites are not primarily focused on making a profit from their work.

Enough! If we want affordable higher education then we need to look at times when higher ed was indeed affordable, There relationship between higher taxes, publicly funded higher ed, and lower tuition needs to be considered.

11. theart - January 14, 2011 at 10:08 am

The other factor at play here is teaching buyouts. With adjuncts getting paid less than a third as much as full professors, some departments actively push senior faculty to not teach.

12. sand6432 - January 14, 2011 at 10:40 am

Research productivity seems to have become measured primarily by number of articles published, rather than quality per se, which has resulted in the huge proliferation of STM journals over the past forty years (to tie in to comment #4), the commercialization of STM publishing, and the near bankruptcy of university libraries. The move toward open access has not helped with this problem at all, but even exacerbated it, since the economics of OA depend on front-end fees, which increase as the number of articles accepted increases. This has produced immense waste in the system as a whole and is one reason that teaching has not been given proper priority. What needs to be done is what a very few schools have instituted, viz., a cap on the number of articles submitted for tenure and promotion review, so that researchers are compelled to emphasize quality over quantity themselves.---Sandy Thatcher

13. nosman - January 14, 2011 at 11:17 am

While teaching has never been highly valued at R1 universities, the situation has become far worse in the past decade. Universities are best thought of today as businesses. With diminishing state support for post-secondary education, universities now value dollar generation above all else. This is manifested in the increased emphasis on patents and grants - even above scholarly publications! Teaching simply is no longer seriously considered in tenure and promotion decisions. What this means is that the academic areas not in position to bring in large grant dollars are being marginalized. The implications of this for the welfare of society are staggering, yet students and faculty are largely silent on the matter. The noble idea of a "public" university is essentially gone.

14. philandrel - January 14, 2011 at 11:22 am

My heart goes out to all you natural scientists; I understand the crisis you confront with political and institutional emphasis on research over teaching. Yes, with

"Universities . . . aggressively seeking federal dollars to build bigger and fancier laboratory facilities, and . . . not paying an equal amount of attention to teaching and nurturing the students who would fill them, . . . 'Eventually you'll have a situation where you're not even producing the feedstock into the system.'"

Indeed. Thankfully for us in the humanities,

"The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will receive nearly a $10 million increase under the fiscal year (FY) 2009 omnibus spending bill (HR 1105), enacted into law this week. The total budget for the NEH would grow to $155 million from the current $144.7 million."

This is impressive, since the total NEH budget is only slightly more than the cost of a major athletic facility on my campus. Thankfully, we in the humanities have been saved the crisis in the natural sciences by effectively not having research funded. Thus, we can spend all our time on teaching.

Of course,

"Teaching is suffering at universities because the institutions prize research success above all other factors in promotions, they said. The job of educating students offers little reward, and instead 'often carries the derogatory label "teaching load,"'"

Insofar as the humanities are to carry the "teaching load," then, their contribution to institutions "is suffering." Being so, I suppose, "'Eventually you'll have a situation where you're not even producing the feedstock into the system.'" No crisis, though, after all, it's only the humanities, you know, those disciplines which study humanity.

15. tuxthepenguin - January 14, 2011 at 11:54 am

It's not one or the other. You want to have more tenured faculty in the classroom, teaching at a high level? Hire more faculty. Don't think the quality is good enough? Give teaching load reductions and sabbaticals so there is time to prepare lectures.

Research vs teaching is a creation of those who don't like research, in order to prevent those who do like research from engaging in the activity.

16. afprj - January 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm

People respond to incentives.

That's it.

17. tr2501968 - January 14, 2011 at 01:15 pm

I work at an R1 my wife at an teaching focused campus. The message is clear, we need to excel in two of three things: research, teaching, service (to the university, profession or community). At my R1 one of the two has to be research, at her campus one has to be teaching. I'm an economist she is a sociologist so neither of us have big labs to maintain. You want grad students or travel money for conferences? get grant money. otherwise no real pressure to get funding. If you are in a bench science field, you need to maintain the labs. A good friend of mine is a biochemist, no interest in becoming faculty, why? He would rather do the science and not spend his life chasing grant money to keep the labs going.

18. butteredtoastcat - January 14, 2011 at 01:19 pm


"Research vs teaching is a creation of those who don't like research, in order to prevent those who do like research from engaging in the activity."


19. tr2501968 - January 14, 2011 at 01:21 pm

another issue to consider....some of the best scientists make rotten teachers....do we really want them in the classroom?

20. dboyles - January 14, 2011 at 01:22 pm

Too often what is referred to as "teaching" effectively does devolve into something that resembles childcare. Students must be put to do intellectual work if they are to be science and engineering leaders. Creating meaningful work for students to do is something that takes a lot of sweat equity on the part of teachers if the latter are worth their salt. Options for faculty at my institution: (1) Get research dollars and have one or two classes to teach per semester, or (2) no research and teach 4 or more classes per semester. Either way, it is far too easy for professors in either category to cut corners and reduce teaching to minimal effort and to reduce learning to the same. In the sciences the minimal pathway is often the more common, namely,lecture: students need not come to class having read the assignments, and faculty can tell students what to believe. This situation goes downhill very quickly, levelled by the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" that is driven by the bottom line of student opinion surveys, scorecards elevated to the level of performance standards. Whoa be the professor who actually spends the time it takes that puts students in an independent learning position to do the work that alone will make our scientific leaders for tomorrow. I would rather have scathing opinion reviews by students who came out of my class thinking critically than rave reviews by students who didn't learn or retain much of anything. But I may be a dying breed.

@afprj: People also respond to disincentives, of course.

21. becauseisaidso - January 14, 2011 at 01:41 pm

Recommended read: "University, Inc: The corporate corruption of higher education" by Jennifer Washburn. Explicates one of the many reasons--note MANY--we are in a fix.

22. michaeld10 - January 14, 2011 at 02:40 pm

I have worked as a consultant with about 35 R-1 universities over the last six years, primarily assessing doctoral programs; and I can say with reasonable certainty that these studies are flat out wrong. My clients are not the country's major research universities--e.g., Yale, Stanford, Chicago, etc.--but are large, comprehensive, primarily public, universities with doctoral programs in most fields.

In every university with which I've worked, the emphasis for most faculty is overwhelmingly undergraduate teaching and not research or teaching graduate students. In fact, in several universities, performance review guidelines codify this emphasis, stating that as little as 10% of faculty time (and the performance review) should be given to research, with the remaining time devoted primarily to teaching.

Compounding this, I've found time and again that the large majority of grant dollars, publications, and graduate students in any given department are in the hands of only a few faculty, while the faculty generally focus on teaching undergraduates. Consequently, when you look at a measure like graduate enrollment per faculty or degrees produced per faculty, the numbers always start with a decimal point and usually a few zeros.

I'm not in a position to say if research funding is the next bubble, as one commentator here has said, but I think the reality is that the best science (and social science) is performed by those who routinely compete for external funding. Faculty who don't do that become dated in their approach to science unbelievably quickly; and if they're mentoring graduate students at all, those students begin their careers with an understanding of science that's already out of date.

I've worked with a number of departments in fields such as Marine Science and Molecular Biomedicine that are wasting a great deal of time and energy building undergraduate programs so that they can become eligible for per-student allocations from the state--this in fields in which the overwhelming majority of programs and departments have always supported themselves on soft money. Once I see faculty doing that, I know that they're finished as scientists and will spend the rest of their careers teaching dated science to mediocre students.

None of this is to say that there shouldn't be a more or less equal emphasis on teaching and research; and I believe fundamentally that the two enrich one another immeasurably. In practice, however, and for reasons that elude me, this is rarely the case; and when faculty don't give equal emphasis, they're almost always focused on (undergraduate) teaching.

23. davi2665 - January 14, 2011 at 03:12 pm

Unfortunately, the reality of research funding is that very little of it goes into the research investigation per se, and the majority of it goes towards faculty salaries and overhead. Many elite universities have built huge empires on "soft" money, especially from NIH. Where their teaching needs could be met in a specific discipline by 6-8 good faculty members, they build a department of 50, with relentless pressure on them to bring in their full salary on grants. And teaching assignments are then determined by who does NOT raise their salary on grants. It is a self-perpetuating corrupt system.

A far better model would be a policy to fund faculty salaries ONLY for individuals on a specific career training award or actually employed directly by NIH or the federal intramural agency. An elite university should not become NIH at New Haven, or NIH at Cambridge. Federal grants should include salary for technical help but not faculty. This would force a university to actually develop a strategic plan for research to decide on its core mission, rather than a plan that is basically "gimme, gimme, gimme" and "more, more, more." The actual number of awards would go up by two or three fold. A second improvement would be a strict limitation on overhead. Rather than rewarding an institution that is inefficient or financially injudicious, a low fixed overhead would reward an institution for being frugal and efficient.

I believe that such a reformation of research funding would help to resolve the merry-go-round of endless grant submissions by faculty forced into non-stop applications to "cover their salary." Faculty supported by the UNIVERSITY rather than extramural grant money would be those who are the best. Research applications would come from faculty who are working towards the institution's strategic mission or plan, towards which the university's limited private resources could also be directed. Unfortunately, our current model has watched the research faculty empire building continue to expand, in part because of the grandiosity of universities bent on becoming "number one" and in part as a result of the graduate student mill that brings in cheap labor to keep the real work of the laboratories going while the professor spends most of his/her life writing more grant requests. It is time to stop the merry-go-round.

24. n2n_0131 - January 14, 2011 at 03:45 pm

davi2665: Not sure how corruption comes into play. I agree with other commenters that this is a function of incentives and disincentives that drive the behaviors of faculty and administrators.

dboyles: I believe you mean Woe to the professor, although Whoa is not a bad admonition in this context!

25. curious123 - January 14, 2011 at 09:32 pm

It is far easy to count papers and $$ than to review, critically comment in a constructive manner, and nurture talent towardds strategic objectives. It is not about Research Vs. Teaching - without one, the other will degenerate.

In addition to limiting overheads and restricting faculty salary to what is paid by the institution, funding agencies such as NSF, NIH, and DARPA must require a statement of teaching that is certified by the institution. Peer review of the teaching effectiveness must be requested. A faculty member who is not effectively teaching atleast three courses - one undergraduate, one graduate, and one additional course, without delegating it to their postdocs - must simply not be eligible for any funding. Given that student training is a serious national threat, this cannot be such an unreasonable position for our federal agencies. Great researchers who are lousy teachers, as noted in earlier comments, can move to Tenured Research Staff positions and teach no courses. Great teachers and lousy researchers, can move to Tenured Teaching Staff positions and conduct no research. This will leave the faculty positions to those of us who are committed to both teaching and research and restore the dignity of the profession.

When faculty in R1 or R5 universities are teaching three courses, the funding will be spread over more institutions and more faculty. Instead of the current protocol in many R1 universities where faculty get the awards and underprepared graduate students try to carry out the promised tasks, the faculty will be more involved in the conduct of the research. This will change the current culture of "anything goes as long as it pays" and result in better prepared graduates.

26. ddesormoux - January 15, 2011 at 12:50 am

If your teaching for the money its the wrong reason...

27. tuxthepenguin - January 15, 2011 at 05:43 am


I thought my point was clear. Let me try again.

There is no competition between research and teaching. The university is free to hire people who do teaching or research as it sees fit. It's not like the university is given a certain number of faculty and then has to divide the faculty up between research and teaching, so that one more hour of research is one less hour of teaching. The allocation to one does not in any way constrain the allocation to the other.

Every research university has its share of faculty members who decide they don't want to do research. Being at a research university, they have a problem. They have to come up with a story about why research is bad. The only thing that works is to say the faculty who are carrying out all the duties of their jobs are ignoring teaching. Rarely is there even any evidence that those who only do part of their jobs, related to teaching, are actually doing a better job in the classroom.

Just read the headline, "Scientists Fault Universities as Favoring Research Over Teaching". Complete and utter nonsense, because it implies a tradeoff. If the headline were instead, "Universities are not doing a good enough job in the classroom" the natural question is to ask the basis for the statement. The story about research vs teaching implies that, by definition, being better at research means you are worse at teaching.

28. drewgis - January 15, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Research dollars free up those who can get them to be more effective scholars.

If they are committed to teaching, talented researchers can find a way to include students in their research, just as talented teachers should be able to incorporate a little research into their pedagogy.

29. rambo - January 15, 2011 at 01:53 pm

any correlations between foreign scientists working at the universities and their light teach loads????

30. barmstro - January 17, 2011 at 03:49 pm

By all means, let us shift the emphasis from research to teaching. We can take as our models for how this is to be done the successful "teaching" institutions in this country, the places where teaching is everything-- the public schools.

Or, maybe we can choose as our models the successful teaching institutions in higher education.

Or, some combination of the two, along with any other relevant model. We are all very clear about how to "emphasize" teaching in a way that will achieve exactly what we want to achieve (we are also very clear about this notion).

Improve teaching, improve teaching, improve teaching-- I have been hearing this for the 30 years that I have been teaching at institutions of higher education.

I must have really gotten a lousy education 30-40 years ago, before all of the improvements were implemented.


31. physicsprof - January 17, 2011 at 04:22 pm

michaeld10, good post.

tuxthepenguin has voiced some truth that many would not like.

32. jkline - January 17, 2011 at 08:41 pm

Someone once said that a university is simply a college that stopped caring about its students. Some have posted good exceptions to this: dedicated R1 teachers, strong R1 commitment to undergrad program development, and the benefits of research grants on teaching. But there is still a lot of truth in this statement.

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