To the Editor:
The July 19, 2013, issue of The Chronicle contained an excellent series of articles documenting and analyzing the ways in which several major foundations have created large and strikingly similar initiatives directed toward specific types of change in U.S. higher education. The articles pointed out several of the features of those activities, including the efforts of multiple large foundations being focused on much the same objectives and funds being utilized by the foundations in a variety of ways directed toward the actual accomplishment of specific changes.
Another result of these clustering and redirection efforts, along with other trends over time, is that there are fewer sources and hence less funding available for research on all the other important issues and opportunities in higher education. Research in the United States on higher education has historically been supported primarily by private foundations, in addition to the relatively small FIPSE program of the U.S. Department of Education and the programs of the National Science Foundation for research in science and engineering education. In recent years several of the private foundations that had supported research on higher education have forsaken or reduced funding for the field and/or, as noted in the Chronicle articles, have focused and redirected funds to a few large and highly overlapping initiatives. The result is that there are greatly reduced opportunities for financing research on all the other aspects of higher education. Researchers follow the money, and so research in the other areas has already started to wither and will continue to do so.
Yet for higher education, as for any field, a wide and diverse range of research is vital since many major advances come as products of research that did not have that advance in mind as the research was started. Finding the unexpected and unanticipated is, in fact, the very essence of research. The United States is lessening its capability for broadly based research on higher education and thus is very susceptible to becoming locked into certain reforms that are not yet based on sufficient research evidence. We run the risk of missing superior approaches that could have been turned up through more exploratory and evidence-based research. The nation is better served by inviting, reviewing, and funding research over a broad range of subjects.
Center for Studies in Higher Education
Professor Emeritus of Chemistry
University of California