Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View: Watching the evolution of a public university

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 20, 2010.

The negative consequences of an emerging "new normal" for public universities became uncomfortably clear a few weeks ago after some unofficial recommendations of the University of Iowa Task Force on Graduate Education leaked out. The task force -- one of six strategic initiatives task forces -- has evaluated more than 100 graduate programs on campus and rated them excellent, strong, good or weak. The baker's dozen of programs initially labeled "weak" often included a recommendation to close down or to merge. But after some pushback from the program faculty and alumni, the language was changed to "additional evaluation required."

The task force's recommendations cut to the heart of how Research 1 public universities have balanced research, teaching and service for at least a generation. UI faculty members justify their salary by focusing on the production of cutting-edge research -- making new discoveries, writing books and organizing centers and institutes that become go-to places for national media and public officials looking to talk to "experts."

To keep churning out that high-level research, the university has depended on attracting well-qualified graduate students to serve as research assistants, teaching assistants (to help those faculty members who teach large, lecture hall classes) or general instructors (to teach their own undergraduate classes under the supervision of one of those faculty members).

For faculty, programs and departments that are able to attract large grants and other external funding -- primarily in the hard sciences -- this research-teaching-service model is still working fairly well. For faculty, programs and departments that depend on state allocations and other internal funding -- primarily in the humanities -- the model is wholly unsustainable in the present economic environment.

That's why it's not surprising that many of the threatened graduate programs are in the humanities. Although generations of scholarship have rewarded more and more narrow specialization in these fields, the graduate programs' very survival now depends on figuring out how to attract more undergraduate butts in seats.

On top of that, many state legislators -- the people who decide how much state funding UI receives -- don't seem to care about how well qualified graduate assistants are. They want to see high-salaried UI professors themselves in the classroom teaching the next generation of Iowans (and Chicagolanders).

The faculty and administrators of the threatened programs say that the task force members seem to be missing a key point: That cutting back on graduate programs will cut back on the quality of the graduate students and faculty attracted to a department, which then will cut back on the quality of the undergraduate program.

But the task force is responding to a larger trend in which public universities nationwide, in order to justify their public role, are de-emphasizing the importance of their graduate programs and changing the research-teaching-service model into a teaching-service-research model.

It's unclear what the final recommendations, released Monday, of the Task Force on Graduate Education will lead to. After all, that task force's recommendations will have to be added to the recommendations of the other five task forces, and then UI officials will have the challenge of coming up with a new model for how all those different components work together.

No one yet knows that that new model will look like or how it will function. But today's Press-Citizen begins a three-part series -- "Is this the new UI?" -- exploring the options for the public university of the present and future.

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