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Commentary

Research Award Redux

by James Brock, Economics

In response to my friend John Kiss’s views in this column Feb. 24, I offer the following observations:

First, the Oxford campus enrolls 15,300 undergraduates, compared to 1,300 graduate students. In other words, 92 percent of our students are undergraduates; only 8 percent are graduate students — numbers which adequately distinguish dog from tail.

Second, although our graduate students doubtless are stars in the nation’s intellectual firmament, Miami’s national reputation and strength stem overwhelmingly from the quality with which we traditionally have taught the undergraduates who comprise the lion’s share of our student body. Indeed, the quality of our undergraduate education has kept generations of paying "customers" flocking to Oxford for two centuries.

Third, while numbers don’t count for everything, nonetheless it seems reasonable in the light of their relative magnitude to expect that universitywide research honors should be awarded at least in part on how the research has benefited real undergraduates in real classrooms taught by real teacher-researchers. Many examples come to mind: An historian whose extensive publications on Germany directly shape his undergraduate courses on German history; paper scientists whose cutting-edge research feeds directly into their undergraduate classrooms; a chemist who trains and takes undergraduates on his historic expedition to Antarctica.

Fourth, as these and other examples indicate, research and scholarship can, indeed, enhance the quality of undergraduate teaching. But excessive emphasis on research can also devalue, degrade and destroy the quality of undergraduate education. Indeed, if the relationship between the two were automatically beneficial, then Miami long ago would have been displaced by the nation’s first-tier research universities; it could not possibly have survived, much less prospered, for two centuries.

Finally, rather than simply declaring that "research underpins the teaching enterprise at Miami" — an assertion akin to medieval claims that the nonexistent substance "phlogiston" causes combustion — why not demonstrate how the research valued by the Miami community at large is, in fact, the kind of research which also promote better teaching in the undergraduate classroom — that it is the kind of research that enhances, rather than subverts, undergraduate education?

John rightly emphasizes that these awards should reflect the "community’s values." The key questions are: Which community? What values?

Date Published: 03/09/2000
Volume: 19   Number: 28

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