Research and Teaching: Friends or Foes?

30 July 2008 at 11:19 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Administrators at every research university know the mantra, repeated endlessly to parents, funders, and overseers: cutting-edge research and top-notch (undergraduate) teaching go hand-in-hand. But there is surprisingly little work, theoretical or empirical, investigating the relationship. Here is an edited transcript of a discussion between economists Jim Gwartney (Florida State), Dirk Mateer (Penn State), Rich Vedder (Ohio U), and Russ Sobel (West Virginia) about the relationship between research and teaching. They were asked (1) is research needed for good teaching, and (2) can research activity harm teaching?

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. . . .

Hat tip to Vedder, whose higher ed blog is on my regular reading list.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Institutions, Teaching.

Neuroeconomics and the Firm Call For an Annual Adam Smith Festival

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe Champion  |  30 July 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Thanks Pete, that transcript is an absolute treat! The bit about overseas jaunts was good, recalling comments by Barzun (The House of Intellect) and C Wright MIlls (The Sociological Imagination) about conferences being the opportunity for established scholars to pursue their tribal rituals (and their not so ritualistic feuds and vendettas) in exotic locations, while the young ones position themselves in the job market.

  • 2. Warren Miller  |  31 July 2008 at 1:31 am

    Well, let me wade into this one. For those who might not know me, I completed all of my Ph.D. coursework (but not my dissertation). I am one of those Flat-Earth-Society “practitioners” (shudder), but I also (a) attend some academic conferences, esp. SMS and ACAC, (b) stay in touch w/a number of academic colleagues, (c) subscribe to over a dozen academic journals, and (d) continue to integrate current research findings into my work as a provider of valuation and related advisory services to (mostly) closely-held businesses. I can probably see both sides of this debate at least as well as others, and maybe better (said he modestly).

    With Ben Oviatt, I co-authored “Irrelevance, Intransigence, and Business Professors” in AME (11/89 – We applied Porter’s five-forces framework to what we labeled “the business education and research industry.” We identified three causes of academic intransigence: munificent industry structure, the long-standing tradition of freedom in the academic culture, and the reward system for b-profs. Even tonight, much of that paper still resonates for me.

    In the years since then, there have been some changes, of course, and mostly for the better. In particular, the emergence at many research institutions of “clinical professors” whose job is teaching and nothing else is a step forward, at least in some respects. No, they do not receive tenure, and yes, I hear that they are, within the traditional academic culture, quasi-second class citizens. But still, I think that is progress, at least of a sort.

    Whether it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars is a different issue. Most taxpayers would probably object loudly. . .if they knew.

    As a result of my half-decade in academe and active publishing activity ever since (two HBR case hits, many articles in professional journals), I have an extreme appreciation of research. Some of you have seen my work on unsystematic risk (I have a book coming out from Wiley in May 2009 on the subject).

    Papers that appear in the “A” journals are no walk in the park for scholars. Anyone who thinks so hasn’t published in those journals. I believe, strongly, that those in the business of disseminating knowledge should be in the business of creating some. Third, doing rigorous research helps keep professors current in their knowledge. In a tenure environment, I think that’s important. Of course, once they have tenure, they can effectively quit research, and I’ve seen many who have. But the great ones, which includes the scholars who read and write this blog, would do research with or without tenure. Maybe there’s a 12-step program out there for that. :-)

    That said, however, I have been in close quarters in several universities where there was no research component in the system of incentives. Profs got tenure anyway. That can have some adverse consequences. At one very tony university with which I am familiar, strategy professors teach undergraduates without textbooks. Now, before any of you reading this rush to their defense, let me also add that one of the professors who does this (he holds a chair, incidentally) actively disparages theory. I don’t know if he does to his students, but he did in a couple of conversations with me. I asked him about the RBV, dynamic capabilities, and NIE, and he just gave me the 1,000-mile stare in the 4-foot room. He didn’t have a clue.

    At another university, professors use textbooks that are over a decade old. That relieves them of having to do new preps, of course, but the fact that, IMHO, they are actively disserving their young charges by delivering many archaic notions strikes me as both shameful and morally indefensible. But they get away with it because it’s a state institution where funding is a function of “butts in seats.” Incentives strike again.

    I hope no one will think ill of me if I say that some professors should not be allowed near undergraduates because they (the profs) just don’t like students. Period. Whether these folks should be in a university environment at all, of course, is a different question. But they are, they’re tenured, and they’re not going away anytime soon.

    However, I don’t think that rationale applies at the graduate level. Graduate students can fend for themselves. But I believe that it is just not appropriate to turn student-despising professors loose on unsuspecting undergraduates.

    An undergraduate teaching requirement in a research-oriented institution also creates some costs that most readers here have probably not encountered. Students can really get shafted. Case in point: accounting majors.

    At most colleges and universities (community colleges excepted), the accounting principles textbook we went through in two semesters 35 years ago is now inhaled (with a lot of indigestion, I might add) in a single semester. You don’t have to be a CPA to know just how crazy that is. I know because I taught accounting as an adjunct a few years ago. By halfway through the course, we were dealing with the amortization of bond discounts, and the students were absolutely glassy-eyed.

    The textbook I was forced to use is, supposedly, one of the best in the nation. I thought it was dreadful, and I have a very high tolerance for turgid text. It didn’t mention accrual-basis accounting until about p. 75 or “T-accounts” until well past p. 100. I ended up writing the authors and telling them that the one good thing about their otherwise-awful book was that few students could possibly be attracted to accounting as a career and, therefore, the incumbents would be able to raise their billing rates much faster. They weren’t amused.

    At Beckmill Research, LLC, about half of our revenues every year come from or through CPA firms across the country, in Europe, and in Asia. I’ve taught CPAs in 30 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada. The CPA firms are pretty tight-lipped about what I’m about to say, but our business clients are not: few of today’s new accounting graduates can do accounting.

    Four years ago I saw it first-hand with a family member who graduated from one of the best colleges here in Virginia with a degree in accounting and a hefty GPA. During his senior year, he ran a gauntlet of age discrimination by the big accounting firms that made me cross-eyed. Their idea of diversity is a 22-year-old who passes out after three beers and a 23-year-old who passes out after four. I was willing to underwrite a lawsuit to put a stop to this rampant age-based discrimination (the family member was over 40), but he didn’t want to, so it didn’t happen. I don’t believe in litigation as a good way of resolving differences, but there are some cases where a big ugly lawsuit is the only language the big corporations understand. The Big 4 accounting firms need to wise up and quit discriminating on the basis of age.

    Back to my story: The family member then passed all four parts of the CPA exam. By then, it was an on-line exam that could be taken one part at a time – he shot the lights out each time (two of his scores were in the 90s). But he couldn’t do a simple debits-and-credits accounting entry to save his soul.

    I probed him on that point. Well, it turned out that, as an undergraduate, he had never had to do what in the old accounting principles courses was called “the practice set.” It became a casualty of the two-semester course becoming a one-semester one. IMHO, tenured professors didn’t want to bore themselves by teaching basics for two semesters if they could cram it into one. Like many colleagues in my age bracket, I found the “practice set” to be the single most valuable learning experience I ever had in any accounting course.

    Of course, a one-semester course that used to be two also creates opportunities for textbook publishers. So there are beneficiaries of this incredibly bad idea, but students and those who underwrite their expenses are certainly not part of that cadre.

    I was pleased to read through the link that Peter provided that, at Penn State, 60 percent of faculty are now on fixed-term (non-tenured) contracts. Seems to me that the market there, at least, is working, however slowly.

    Maybe business research should be funded exclusively by foundations and other non-taxpayer institutions. In essence, research would be done in a think-tank-like environment. Doctoral students could get their Ph.D.s in such environments. That would bring some needed efficiency to the current system. They would then have to decide whether they wanted to teach and do research. If so, they would have to do a one-year ‘practicum,’ much like those who want to teach at the primary and secondary levels must do in most states.

    MBA education is a kind of purgatory, I think. I’d like to see a way for clinical professors to be allowed to teach at that level because I don’t think it’s a big intellectual jump from a BBA to an MBA; the big jump in business is from the MBA to the Ph.D. In liberal arts, I’m told, it’s just the opposite: the stretch is from the bachelor’s level to the master’s; the Ph.D. is not a big leap thereafter, friends say, although it comes with a significant research component.

    I think there was a time when tenure was needed to protect the Constitutional rights of professors. Today, however, I think that time has passed. Perhaps tenure should be granted only to productive researchers. Everyone else could be on the Penn State model as fixed-term contract employees.

    Sorry to be so long-winded, but this one really hit home with me. I’ve been pounding my spoon on my high chair for years about it.

  • 3. Joe Mahoney  |  31 July 2008 at 7:02 am

    In the movie, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis (as played by Anthony Hopkins) states to his brother Harry:

    “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. …. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me. ”

    Prayer, research and teaching are all activities that change me for the better. I do these activites for the conseqences of acting upon them — in the spirit of William James’ “A Will to Believe.”

    Teaching to folks at all levels helps to make our ideas clear. Such communication skills help us become better writers in our research publications.

    Research keeps our minds active; teaches us limits to what we can know; and increases clarity of thought (via the journal review process) and all these improvements we bring into the classroom to make us better teachers.

    Provided there is adequate time and energy to be provided for each, teaching and research are intimate friends.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  31 July 2008 at 10:40 am

    Warren’s insightful comment raises many key structural issues. Given the complex relationship between research and teaching (not to mention outreach and extension), how should educational institutions be organized? As large, diversified, multi-purpose entities or as smaller, more specialized outfits? Should classroom instruction subsidize research, or vice versa? How should professors be evaluated and rewarded? Etc. My sense is that there isn’t nearly enough research by organizational economists into these issues. We briefly discussed faculty governance before, but there is a need for much more work in this area.

    Personally, I agree with Joe Mahoney. But the sentiment expressed by Joe doesn’t help a lot with the broader structural problem. I love research and I love teaching, but how do I allocate the marginal hour between the two? From the point of view of the administrator (or, for public institutions, the taxpayer), how should the marginal dollar be allocated across these activities? That’s where we need help.

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