A couple days ago, GEARS decided to tackle the following set of questions:
Why, with the high cost of university tuition, can’t schools have teach-only professors? With a ratio of 20:1 in the classroom and a rate of 100/hour (roughly), why do professors still need to get research dollars? Is it economically feasible to have teaching-only professors? Why doesn’t this happen more? Why do universities have to rely on research funding to stay afloat? We were talking about the demands on researchers and how that prevents better teaching (because so much time is involved chasing funding) and were questioning why not just give up the research side of things?
There are a lot of ways to tackle these questions, but I’d like to make a few different points. (I’d also like to mention that GEARS discussed the teaching school alternatives, so I don’t plan on hitting that point again.)
- The first point is that there are already places that have this. Most of the time, they are adjunct professors or lecturers. They are brought in to teach as few as one class on occasion and as many as six classes per semester. I can guarantee you that they aren’t paid $100/hr, especially if you take into consideration how much time they have to work on course-related activities outside of class. My university has something called a “professor in practice”, which is basically a full-time teaching professor but with a year-to-year contract. (Not all that different from an adjunct, but I believe they get benefits.)
- Professors often do not receive money during the summer months, i.e. when they are not teaching. Sometimes research money can fill that gap when they are not being paid by the university.
- The research funding is often necessary not for the professors, but for the students and post-docs that they employ. In other words, the university pays for the professor, but the professor needs to find ways to pay students and staff.
These points address some of the logistics of the questions. However, I would like to talk about the “why”.
A study very recently came out that made an argument for why research and teaching should mix: teachers make better researchers. Usually, academics are in one of two camps: teaching is a waste of time because it prevents one from doing research or that researchers make better teachers. I don’t know if there is any empirical evidence of either of those claims. My experience with good researchers in the classroom is that they’re as much of a mixed bag as those who are marginal to poor researchers. I personally don’t think that research ability is any indicator of the quality of teacher.
That said, I can very much see how teaching would benefit someone who is a researcher. It forces a researcher to go back and review fundamentals on a regular basis, communicate with students (almost all of whom have a significantly less sophisticated view of a field than their professors), and, probably most important, talk about how the basic approaches are still used in advanced research. In other words, it makes you think about what you’re doing on a more regular basis. Practice makes perfect.
Now, one may argue that research has no place in the university setting. That’s a value judgement, but a significant number of technological advances have been made at universities. Most industries (with pharmaceuticals probably being the major exception) do not want to put significant amounts of money into research and pushing the cutting edge, technologically. (For instance, virtually all of the Bell Labs-type organizations have been shut down.) If you have no interest in the US being a global science and technology leader, then, by all means, eliminate research.
I would also like to point out that even industry looks to academia to train scientists and engineers (as well as many other professions). Most industries are not willing to train their employees in job-related duties, let alone provide the general education that most graduate students, and many advanced undergrads, receive. Eliminating research would remove the training grounds for most of our scientific workforce, and this training is not likely to be picked up by private industry any time soon, even with the significant decreases in funding that have been coming down the line in the past decade or so. In fact, most research organizations have shut down at the same time that the government had been cutting budgets to most scientific funding organizations, such as NSF and NIH.