Say you’re an ambitious new university president who has just become the head of a large public university. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it is widely conceded in your state that this new university has been underfunded and lacks a distinctive vision. What would you do to try and build a better university for the public of your state?
The New York Times had an interesting piece earlier this week on how public universities are facing big cuts in their budgets, which is in turn derailing some of the most ambitious attempts by university leadership to make their campuses into research powerhouses.
I agree with the basic thrust of the article, which was to suggest that the conventional formula for building a top-tier R1 just isn’t sustainable when you multiply it by 50 states, that there’s room for a few public university systems to build that kind of institution but that they don’t make sense as a generalized aspiration.
So go back to the hypothetical scenario: you’re a new president and you want to build up a public institution, and not just have it be a under-resourced, haphazardly organized, third-order imitation of the University of Michigan that is mostly seen by regional communities as the provider of football and basketball. That you want to think about how to combine public mission and excellence without trying to stuff your faculty full of supposedly world-class researchers.
Let’s say instead that you decide that what you really want to concentrate on is building the very best teaching institution that you can, one which offers a superb range and quality of education specifically tailored for the needs of the public of your state.
You now have two really huge problems.
1) The range of teaching you need to best serve most publics in most states is best modeled not by existing large public universities but by many community colleges. Community colleges are already doing the job you want to take on for your public university. They’re often badly under-resourced in various ways, so you could certainly perform a valuable service by building a very well-resourced “flagship” version of the same curricular architecture. What you’d need is not just courses for a four-year degree but a range of enrichment courses. You’d need programs aimed at specific reskilling and retraining as well as general education courses. It would take a lot of effort and leadership to get the average faculty of the average large public research university to see their course offerings in these terms.
2) I can’t think of a sound way to preferentially recruit great higher education teachers in an institution that’s building a lot of new capacity. It’s a really fundamental problem: great teaching doesn’t offer the same kind of external record that research or publication productivity does. If you, hypothetical president trying to direct a flagship teaching institution, had the budget to hire 40 new tenure-track faculty whose positions you defined expressly as teaching positions, where you expressly wanted great teachers who were intellectually lively but were indifferent to their research productivity, how could you do that? You’d get a lot of c.v.’s if the positions were tenure-track with good benefits and salaries, but you can tell almost nothing about the difference between a competent teacher and a classroom dynamo from a conventional academic c.v. In fact, a lot of professors know that the gap between someone who has proven creativity or accomplishment as a researcher and writer and someone who can hold their own as a lecturer or teacher is sometimes startlingly wide when a job candidate shows up for their campus visit.
So, if you were that president, trying to build up a well-funded “super CC” to serve a regional public, how would you go about it? How do you reconstruct a curriculum away from the default structure of an R1, and how do you recruit with most of the weight on teaching excellence rather than research accomplishments?