Given the interdependence among these great institutions, both private
and public, one must speculate about the subjunctive. Were a few of these great
universities so weakened at some point that they could not support research,
would their extraordinary chain of research developments have been broken?
What might not have been discovered or invented that is key in today’s
civilization? The probability that progress would have been interrupted
or derailed is, of course, far greater if the whole set of universities had been
weakened.
Are these subjunctive musings becoming reality? For example, the
Schumpeter column in the September 4, 2010 issue of The Economist acknowl-
edges the “best in the world” status of US higher education but concludes,
“America’s universities lost their way badly in the era of easy money. If they do
not find it again, they may go the way of GM.” Such warnings are frequent in
the popular press and recent monographs.
What I give you today is my analysis as an economist of the dangers facing
the ecosystem of research universities. My analysis focuses on research
universities only.
A central characteristic of research universities is that they thrive on synergy
that flows from their mixture of research, graduate study, and undergraduate
instruction. Each element depends on the other and each is improved by the
presence of the others. Undergraduate instruction is
improved by the depth of faculty expertise and the
wealth of library, computing, and laboratory
resources available. Graduate study is strengthened
by the opportunities to participate in cutting edge
research and to learn the craft of teaching in a rich,
supportive environment. Faculty expertise is present
because resources that flow from tuition, state appropriations, endowment
funding, and research grants and contracts enable these universities to acquire
the resources needed to house and support their programs of research.
Forces that threaten to weaken this synergy are growing stronger. Even if
it were possible to provide undergraduate education with the same qualities,
to equally well educate graduate students and to conduct the same level of
cutting edge research in single-mission institutions, the financial interdepend-
ence of the three activities makes it unlikely that institutions attempting to do
so could thrive.
RLI 274
2
The Future of the US Research University
(
C O N T I N U E D
)
FEBRUARY 2011 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
Research universities…thrive on synergy that
flows from their mixture of research, graduate
study, and undergraduate instruction.
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