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Report Criticizes Focus of Research Universities

By Zareena Hussain
News Editor

A report released last week criticizing research universities for neglecting undergraduate education in favor of research and graduate training continues to produce discussion within many areas of the Institute.

The report, entitled "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities" was funded by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and was written by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. The report has produced a vigorous debate within the academic community as administrators and faculty members try to determine the the validity of the report and weigh its recommendations.

The report asserts that "research universities have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate populations."

"Recruitment materials display proudly the world-famous professors, the splendid facilities and the ground-breaking research that goes on within them, but thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research."

The report also made ten recommendations to change undergraduate education. These included emphasizing research-based learning, changing the structure of the freshman year, making the freshman year a basis for future education, linking communication skills and coursework, using information technology in teaching, culminating the undergraduate experience with a capstone' experience such as senior thesis or research, improving training of graduate teaching assistants, changing the faculty reward system, and cultivating a sense of community.

"I think that the issues raised in the Carnegie report are the right issues to be focusing on," said Associate Professor of Political Science Charles Stewart III. "My disagreement is that they are overly alarmist."

"[The report] tends to take an overly utopian view of what a research university can do," said professor of physics Thomas J. Greytak '62.

"The key idea of the Boyer Commission is it points out many of the problems MIThas addressed but not completely fixed," said Luis A. Ortiz G a member of the task force on student life and learning. "There is a lot of work to be done."

Teaching not rewarded

One charge of the report was the lack of emphasis on teaching within a research university, best exemplified by the process of tenure decisions.

"There is no incentive for professors to teach," said Professor of Mathematics Gian-Carlo Rota.

"The problem is the reward structure," said Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Donald R. Sadoway. The structure "is to a large extent based upon accomplishments in research."

However, a complete shift to a focus on teaching may also be too extreme. "It's very difficult to change that, it has to be thought out well," Rota said.

Despite a reward structure that rewards research over teaching, many professors are still respected for their research ability. "People do it because they really care," Sadoway said.

In addition, reinventing education is also held in high regard, Stewart said. "You are rewarded for organizing a really great teaching system." For example, the faculty members who redesigned the Electrical Engineering curriculum during the 1940s and 1950s were held in high regard. More recently, the faculty and staff who successfully redesigned the freshman physics curriculum were met with praise.

In addition, contrary to popular assumption, some professors view teaching as a boon to their research. "Teaching is an integral part of my research," Rota said.

Faculty student interaction

Another issue brought up by the Boyer Commission was the need to cultivate a sense of community among students and faculty.

Increased faculty student interaction is "one thing that would create more of a sense of community," said Kamla A. Topsey '00. However to encourage this interaction would also require relieving the time pressure on both students and faculty, Topsey said. "I don't think that is something the Institute is willing to do."

"There's not nearly enough faculty student interaction at MIT," Stewart said. The "barriers are real."

Stewart cited many factors that contribute to the separation of faculty and students at MIT. These include time-pressure and the fact that faculty often live far from campus. MIT is not a residential community and there is little opportunity to get to know faculty and staff in a non-academic setting, he said.

"It's too easy for both sides to get away with not seeing each other outside the classroom." Ortiz said.

Being given a lecture by a world-class professor is not enough, Ortiz said. "Students don't find a way to get to know these professors," he said, "that's a great educational opportunity that's been missed." Faculty student interaction "relies too much on the initiative of a young student to make," Ortiz said.

"I think if you're willing to reach out they're there," said Natalie Chouinard '01. However, intimidation and the fear that professors will not take students seriously may prevent students from seeking interaction with faculty, Chouinard said.

"Do we reach all freshmen? Probably not. But do all freshmen reach out?," Sadoway said. "The student has to work too, otherwise it fails."

Rota said that, compared to other research universities, MIT did fairly well in encouraging student-faculty interaction. "I know it is true at Harvard" that students do not interact with faculty, Rota said. "[Students] don't care. They just want to make friends in their halls." But even at MIT, students must decide to reach out to their professors. It "is their choice, you can't force them," he said.