Owsley: The problem with the modern research university

Finn Owsley, Contributing Writer

Aristotle once wrote, “Those that know do, those that understand teach.” While it is certainly true that understanding is necessary for teaching, it can be argued that far more is required. One can possess an incredibly deep understanding of a subject without having the slightest ability to teach it to others. Teaching is a skill to be appreciated in and of itself. 

Yet the modern system of research universities seems to be entirely unaware of this. Research universities are defined by the fact that they combine teaching and research under one institution. This is a productive arrangement; students gain exposure to research that helps further their education, and researchers are able to draw from a body of students to aid them in their pursuits. 

The problem arises from how research universities, such as Case Western Reserve University, tend to manage this relationship. Institutions often hire and promote professors based on their research and publishing accomplishments. However, one of the largest parts of many professors’ jobs is teaching undergraduates. The problem with research universities is that they combine the roles of teacher and researcher without taking into account the differences in qualification. There is no reason why the person who teaches calculus or linear algebra needs to be the same person researching new topics at the forefront of modern mathematics. The person best suited to do research is seldom the best suited to teach because they are two very different skills.  

Too many professors are mediocre educators because they are forced to teach as part of their position when they would rather be conducting research. And too many teachers are relegated to less-stable, lower-paid positions—such as adjunct professors and full-time lecturers—simply because they prioritize instruction over research. The irony is that those adjunct professors are often better teachers than the higher-status tenured professors for that exact reason—that their main focus is on educating students. 

This system hurts both students and professors; students receive less passionate (or even unclear) instruction from professors who may not even want to be teaching them. The professors who are genuinely interested in teaching are underpaid and underappreciated. And the research-minded professors are split between research and teaching, making them distracted from the area they are passionate about and less attentive toward students. Of course, you can’t blame the research-minded professors for this. How can you expect them to be eager to teach undergraduates when the university hires them for their research accomplishments?

The fault lies in the system that research universities enable. There is often a divide between the ambitions of the research university and the needs of the students, where the school focuses on status rather than the actual student experience—leading them to fight over highly accomplished researchers and undervalue passionate teachers. This is especially likely at schools like CWRU. The administration is eager to expand its reputation and budget, so it makes sense that they hire professors with impressive research backgrounds to bring in not only status, but also more funding in the form of research grants. These benefits are flashy and appealing, but they shouldn’t outweigh the goal of providing undergraduate students with a quality education.

Ultimately, we need to change the way we view professorship. The truth is that a teacher who knows more isn’t always better. Of course, a teacher should have an in-depth understanding of the subject at hand. But when it comes to the classroom experience, being able to make a course engaging and connect with students is more important than publishing thousands of papers.

Practically speaking, there ought to be more of a divide between researchers and teachers in universities. Institutions should treat these two positions as distinct from one another, with some overlap. There is nothing wrong with having professors who genuinely want to do both, and those professors should be free to do so. But for the most part, research universities need to understand that being knowledgeable in a subject and teaching that subject well are very different things—so they should hire for research and education separately. That way, the only people who need to teach would be those who are truly passionate about teaching, and researchers would be able to focus on their research.