A post from Mike the Mad Biologist takes a shot at a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education's site. Hackner and Dreifus pursue a thesis that Universities need to return to their roots, or "roots" I should say, and refocus on the education of undergraduate students. The part that got Mike the Mad....well, Mad, was this:
Spin off medical schools, research centers, and institutes. Postgraduate training has a place, as long as it doesn't divert faculties from working with undergraduates or preoccupy presidents, who should be focusing on education--not angling for another center on antiterrorist technologies. For people who want to do research, plenty of other places exist--the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute--all of which do excellent work without university ties. Princeton University has succeeded quite nicely without a medical school--which often becomes the most costly complex on a campus, commandeering resources, attention, and even mission. In fact, the "school" often becomes a minute part of a medical complex: Johns Hopkins has fewer than 500 medical students, but atop them sits an empire with more than 30,000 employees.
As is my wont, first a distraction. A comment over at MtMB's place identifies an important point of debate.
Slight correction, but an important one. Ready?
Education is not, and should not be, the core mission of the university.
The core mission of the university is scholarship. The university is a place in which the creation, transmission, criticism, and development of knowledge is the paramount good. Part of that mission is the transmission of knowledge.
There's more in that vein so go read the rest of the comment. I haven't thought much on this in my career, not being in any sort of position where I might be inclined to fight over these issues. It is also something that is so readily apparent to me that I gloss over it. University undergraduate education is inferior as pedagogical instruction, full stop. I believe this heartily and for good reason. I've done undergraduate instruction in several types of institutions from community college to SLAC to Big Honking U. Not a ton of everything, but enough. I also received undergraduate education in a place dedicated mostly to instruction.
Big Honking U's confer other benefits, of course. Including opportunities for research and contact with FamousPeopleInTheirFields. In some cases this may mean a local improvement in the pedagogical experience, but this is not the norm.
Okay, back to Mike the Mad who points to the obvious. Universities are dependent on the external funding teat. External funding is a net plus for the University, you better believe it. And if you want to spin off the research mission to refocus on undergraduate instruction, well, there has to be a cash source.
Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, you either have to raise tuition (or state taxes for public universities), or hope someone ponies up a huge honking endowment. I realize "huge honking" is a highly technical term, so to put some concrete numbers to this, if a university loses $15 million of indirect costs, it needs to raise $300 million of endowment ($15 million is a five percent annual payout).
That's the practical reality. There is also the intangible quality of reputation. Institutional reputation looks a heck of a lot different to people in the scientific (and no doubt all other academic) fields than it does to people who are focused on undergraduate or lay-person reputation.
Hopefully most students who are looking into graduate education come to this realization quite quickly. If the reputation of a University dictated your undergraduate applications it is nearly certain that a whole different list shaped the graduate school application process. This is because Universities that are not of conventional reputation (see Ivy league) may be be awesome in subfields of -ology or even all of biomedical science. [full disclosure: I applied to a single Ivy league school for grad studies, for reasons that now are unclear to me. Certainly the other ones were all similarly strong in the -ology I was planning for graduate study and this Ivy was not particularly impressive. My dad observed that he thought I did it just to get an admissions bid into an Ivy. Perhaps I did, perhaps I did.] The reputation is built on the science coming out of that University, rather than the undergraduates coming in ("selectivity/exclusivity cred") or going out ("destination cred").
This brings me to the comment in the CHE bit that struck my eye "Princeton University has succeeded quite nicely without a medical school".
Princeton what? Who are they?
Seriously, they have next to no profile in my fields. Harvard? Yale? Sure, I have colleagues that I know at these places. Multiple investigators, in fact, that contribute at present and in the past to my subfields of major and minor interest. Core papers have come from investigators working at those Universities. I review grants from those institutions. Etc.
Princeton? Without resorting to PubMed or the Googs I can't think of a single investigator or paper from Princeton University that has any impact on my scientific subarea.
So have they "succeeded quite nicely"? Well, if so, only for some values of success.