Are Research and Teaching Friends or Foes?

Editor’s note: Higher education has two key missions: transferring existing knowledge to students, and discovering new knowledge. While the two functions are not mutually exclusive, there is a growing awareness that trade-offs exist between them. Does an emphasis on research detract from undergraduate education? Are too much time and money spent on research rather than teaching? Is career advancement (such as tenure) too dependent on research, a la “publish or perish?”

We asked four noted university-based economists to discuss those issues. This dialogue is an edited transcript of their commentary.

The participants are: James D. Gwartney, who holds the Gus A. Stavros Eminent Scholar Chair at Florida State University; Dirk Mateer, senior lecturer and co-director of undergraduate studies, Economics, Pennsylvania State University; Richard Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University; and Russell Sobel, who holds the James Clark Coffman Distinguished Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies, West Virginia University. (For more information about this stellar group, see links below.)

Editor: We asked the panel to address two questions: 1) Is it necessary to conduct research in order to teach well? 2) Can research harm teaching?

Richard Vedder:

To a point, more research means better teaching and more student learning. The two are complements. At some threshold, however, they become substitutes; incremental research comes at a net cost to students.

A non-researcher with a good knowledge of basic economics and a lot of enthusiasm might offer as good or better instruction per dollar of resources expended than a research-savvy superstar who makes three times as much money.

Is the community college model, which emphasizes teaching, necessarily inferior to the research university model? At research universities we are trusting inexperienced teaching assistants to stand up and teach in front of students in order to give faculty more time to do what they want to do. Is this how the public (i.e., the taxpayer) wants the resources they provide to be used?

Russell Sobel:

It is entirely possible that—for the purposes of teaching undergraduate principles and maybe even upper-division undergraduate courses—an enthusiastic, caring non-researcher who simply knew the principles might well might be a better value dollar-for-dollar.

But in my world, undergraduate education is only a small part of “teaching.” In fact, most of my teaching time is devoted to teaching our Ph.D. students, both in-class and out-of-class. In that role, research is king. It would be impossible for me to train the teachers of tomorrow in my field without being active in contributing to the literature in which I teach. And directing dissertations, a time-intensive part of my teaching, would be virtually impossible. Without my research career, I could not educate, or place, doctoral students.

With that said, I can tell you that my undergraduates do get some value out of my recognition as researcher. I know that Steve Levitt’s classes are always full. [Levitt is author of the best-selling book FreakonomicsEditor.] The benefit from research may not, however, justify the extra cost to the undergraduate student . . . but it should count as a positive.

Dirk Mateer:

Let me argue for specialization and division of labor.

Good teachers have a comparative advantage in the delivery of instruction at the principles, intermediate, and, quite possibly, senior-level undergraduate courses. Knowledge of cutting edge-research is limited in its usefulness at these levels. I also believe that the right educators can teach effectively in large lecture settings with no drop-off in quality. Due to economies of scale, the per-pupil cost of education falls significantly.

However, the twin mission of most institutions is research. We should free our best thinkers from the classroom so that they can maximize their contributions to the advancement of the discipline and also help to mentor the next generation through the dissertation process—as Russ does.

My big problem is that for most faculty, research productivity assumes a primary role and is critical to obtaining tenure. To specialize in teaching is looked upon as a second-class occupation. Some of us—that would be me—end up with multi-year contracts, rather than tenure, even though our contributions to the mission of the department are every bit as important as those of our tenured colleagues.

Richard Vedder:

Perhaps the issue isn’t “teaching vs. research” but, rather, should taxpayers be funding either? Perhaps we are over-invested in higher education.

The statistical correlation between state government appropriations and economic growth is negative—there is a strong empirical basis for believing that colleges reduce economic growth rather than propel it. (Editor: See, for example, the Vedder piece on North Carolina.) If this is the case, state universities are negative economic externalities that should be taxed rather than subsidized.

The late Milton Friedman suggested that to me in an email a few years ago. It may be that economic growth slows because we are billing our taxpayers thousands of dollars so that professors can attend meetings of our friends in luxury foreign resorts, something that would be difficult to justify on strict cost-benefit grounds. (Editor’s note: This dialogue occurred shortly before the participants spoke at an economists’ conference in Cancun.)

Getting back to the original question of whether research and teaching are at odds, I think the average teaching load in a university of middling quality has fallen from something like 12 hours a week in, say 1957 (50 years ago), to 6-7 hours today. If class sizes are remaining roughly constant, such a reduction (around fifty percent) in hours of teaching is only possible at considerable added expense per student. Is this justified in terms of either the value of the additional research performed or the better teaching resulting from the increased research capabilities of professors? I, frankly, am skeptical.

I think we professors are all a bit spoiled. Faculty members may be in for a reckoning, as society reacts negatively to rising college costs.

James Gwartney:

In my judgment, yes, there is a problem of balance between research and teaching in American colleges and universities. Most of the problem comes from the fact that government subsidies have undermined market forces.

By and large, the government subsidizes colleges, not students. Federal and state financial support, although based on the enrollment of each student, goes to the university, and the university administration allocates it. If the government actually subsidized students, the payoff from undergraduate teaching would be higher, because students would seek to spend their subsidy dollars at schools emphasizing undergraduate education and not at schools emphasizing research. It would also lead to more of the specialization that Dirk mentions, which makes a lot of sense.

In other words, the current public university system makes it very difficult for students to cast dollar votes for excellence in teaching.

If students go to a private school, they lose most of the government subsidy to higher education. And because of the expanding state support, it is now very difficult for private liberal arts schools to compete. These are the schools that have historically stressed the importance of quality teaching and interaction between students and teachers. I went to one of those schools in the early 1960s and got a good education despite my immaturity and my focus on other things. Today, there are fewer of those colleges, and the ones that still exist find it very difficult to attract faculty from the highly subsidized state schools. As a result, they are not nearly as attractive an option for students as they were 50 years ago.

I do think that research helps one become a better teacher, particularly at the graduate level. But the marginal payoff of research is low for most faculty members. The creative energies of those who are interested in tenure and larger raises are directed toward knocking out more articles, even if few read them. Would this be the case if the government subsidies followed the student and students were free to choose among colleges? I don’t think so. Student dollars would go more toward good teaching and less toward esoteric research.

Dirk Mateer:

Rich wrote that faculty are teaching less. He added that even if class sizes are roughly constant, the fact that each faculty members teaches less raises costs—“such a move is only possible at considerable added expense per student.”

And even if your faculty/student ratio looks good, when you consider course releases, sabbaticals, and other time off for faculy, the actual number of faculty is low compared to students. The difference between what is reported and the reality (especially at the undergraduate level) is magnified at research institutions.

In addition to this problem, I strongly suspect that the average class size has gone up significantly in the last fifty years—no matter what the reported data say. This is certainly the case at Penn State, where I teach. The newest wrinkle at Penn State is “blended learning”—or a combination of Web-based delivery with some instructor contact.

Students who register for blended learning courses do most of their work independently online. They meet with an instructor four to five times a semester. Students love this approach but I’m very skeptical of the “learning” that takes place. Since most blended classes can be staffed by graduate students, the cost is extremely small to the university. My fear is that when the economics of large lecture classes (staffed by real teachers) loses out to blended classes, then any attempts to really teach the material disappear.

Jim’s point was that students should take their dollars with them to the colleges they want, and I favor this approach). I don’t think that families would be satisfied with that outsourcing of courses to graduate students and the Web that we see today.

Russell Sobel:

Faculty-student ratios can be found in the Digest of Education Statistics (the 2005 version is here).

Dirk Mateer:

Let’s look at those. The number of students to faculty has risen, at least in public universities. In 1997, the ratio of students to faculty at four-year institutions was 14.5:1 at public colleges and 12.4:1 (at private colleges). By 2004, the ratio was 15.4: 1 (at public universities and 12.5: 1 (at private schools). (Data from pre-1995 are not comparable or missing.)

There do not appear to be standardized data in the NCES survey that measure class size. I continue to believe that these data, if available, would show a steady increase in the size of lower-level undergraduate classes.

Editor: Another question: Is poor research dominating both research and teaching? And is this an inevitable characteristic of today’s research universities?

Dirk Mateer:

In my capacity as an instructor I am interested in distilling only seminal ideas to students. The set of influential articles relevant to undergraduates is surely less than 200. To me the pursuit of submarginal research is an enormous efficiency loss.

The simplest solution is to redesign the criteria for promotion and downsize the importance of tenure.

My personal career journey illustrates the new mold at many public universities. Our department has lost two tenure-track positions in my six years here but gained four non-tenure-track positions. Each new, non-tenure-track hire generates an enormous revenue stream because we all teach large sections. In contrast, tenure-track positions drain scarce resources.

I have a five-year contract that is renewable by mutual consent—this provides significant job security and also allows the University to jettison non-productive faculty by not rehiring them. This middle ground is where we are heading at Penn State. In fact, 60 percent of all university faculty are now fixed-term rather than tenure-track, so the landscape is already tilted away from tenure

Editor’s Conclusion:

When free-market economists put their heads together, you’re going to get free- market solutions, starting with Vedder’s call for less government interference and supported by Gwartney’s suggestion that government should subsidize students rather than schools. Also, the panelists all pointed toward benefits through the specialization of undergraduate teachers (although tempered by Sobel’s caveat that familiarity with cutting edge research is necessary for graduate-level education). As Mateer suggested, the market is already moving in that direction—toward more teaching specialists with long-term contracts.

Just imagine what these guys could come up with in a weeklong seminar instead of a short email exchange!

About our contributors:

James D. Gwartney:
Dirk Mateer:
Russell Sobel:
Richard Vedder:.