Last week Paul Fain had an interesting piece on Michigan State University, which is under pressure to add more in-state students and to emphasize undergraduate instruction. MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon is quoted as saying that therefore “the university [must look] at the big picture before it considers any new program and balances societal needs with the institution’s strengths. . . . ‘You try to find areas where you can be one of the best, if not the best.’” The operational conclusion has been “the elimination of independent research centers, which have self-sustaining budgets and can create barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration.” The university, Simon says, is trying to “reduce the administrative tensions of working together,” and to create “nodes of excellence” in order to “avoid layering centers upon centers.”
I am in principle sympathetic to what I think President Simon is saying, although I do not follow her logic. Let’s try to pull this apart. The starting premise is that public universities are becoming too big. They are drifting away from their land grant mission. They therefore must make hard choices about starting new activities and continuing old ones. They must be guided in their choices by a criterion of selective excellence. So far so good.
But the next premise seems to be that one of the criteria for successful research is “interdisciplinary collaboration.” Perhaps — certainly not always. Centers are hostile to such collaboration. Not necessarily. And in any cases, centers should not be layered upon one another. Absolutely. Let’s examine these propositions separately. These days there is understandable enthusiasm for interdisciplinary research. There is little doubt that disciplinary departments sometimes impede interdisciplinary collaboration. But there is on the one hand little genuine interdisciplinarity and on the other we surely also need rigorous disciplinary scholarship. We need both. But in my experience centers are frequently established precisely to facilitate end-runs around the traditionalism of disciplinary departments. They are frequently the best mechanisms for subverting the conservatism of traditional departments. Surely, therefore, we should not want to disband centers that are intellectually creative.
But if we ignore for the moment the question of their impact on interdisciplinarity, I agree with President Simon that the proliferation of centers is one of the most serious current impediments to the implantation of sound educational policy. Centers and institutes have become de rigueur as faculty recruiting tools. They buy up teaching time. They help to proliferate post-docs who require substantial care and feeding by senior faculty. They consume university resources even when they attract external resources. They are driven by funders, not by university policymakers. And the like. So Michigan State, and all research universities, would do well to think hard about adding research centers, and they would do well to decrease their number in the name of lean and mean educational policy. Selective excellence is the way to go. Small is frequently beautiful.
But what will all of this do to help in-state students? I wish you luck, President Simon, but I am not sanguine that you will succeed.