Field of Science

Sell off Harvard Medical School!

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus contend
Colleges are taking on too many roles and doing none of them well. They are staffed by casts of thousands and dedicated to everything from esoteric research to vocational training—and have lost track of their basic mission to challenge the minds of young people... Spin off medical schools, research centers, and institutes... For people who want to do research, plenty of other places exist—the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—all of which do excellent work without university ties.
Never mind that Howard Hughes is intimately tied to the present university system, let's say we're in favor: sell off Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, Harvard Kennedy School, etc., until all that's left is the College. That'd make it what? -- Wellesley + men? (This question is meant to be snarky, but not anti-Wellesley, for which I have the utmost respect, as will be clear in the rest of the post).

It's the money, stupid.

The blogosphere has been rising to the defense of the research university, with posters and commenters focusing on the (alleged) claim that universities use research dollars to fund the loss-leading undergraduate programs. Here's Mike the Mad Biologist:
[O]n a federal grant, usually somewhere between 30-40% of the total grant award doesn't go to the researcher for research costs (salaries, supplies, etc.), but to the institution. Now, some of that money is spent on actual administrative costs, but the rest goes to the university*. So if the university spins off $50 million, or $100, or, in the case of the University of Iowa, $169,175,021 of NIH funding alone (never mind other government sources), that's tens of millions of dollars that have to be recovered. Since I've called for more of a research institute model, I'm not opposed to spinning off research institutes. But I have no idea how universities that receive a lot of research dollars will make up the revenue shortfall.
There's an easy way of answering the question: write to any of the numerous, high-calliber exclusively-undergraduate institutions that makes the American education system so interesting: Wellesley, Swarthmore, Amherst, Grinnell, Oberlin, etc. For the last 150-200 years, such schools have focused on teaching, and teaching caliber is weighted heavily in tenure decisions. I had phenomenal professors. To name a few, Arlene Forman could have taught a turnip to speak Russian, and Jim Walsh delivered spellbinding lectures despite unpromising subject material (e.g., linear algebra). People who had never even attended Ron DiCenzo's classes nonetheless raved about the vicarious experience. 

Research University vs. Liberal Arts College

I loved the small liberal arts college experience and wouldn't have traded it for anything. But I have friends who feel the same way about the large research university: the inspirational presence of movers and shakers in the research world, they feel, is irreplaceable. I'm skeptical, but the great thing about the American education system is that it provides both options, something that many (all?) other countries lack. The only distressing thing is that so many students -- along with the Chronicle of Higher Education and essentially every blogger I read and all their commenters -- seem completely unaware that an alternative to the research university exists.

America has research-only institutes. It has undergraduate-only schools. And it has that fabulous hybrid institution: the research university. Arguing that we need to start founding undergraduate-only schools is like saying America really needs subways. Maybe we need more subways (I think we do!), but claiming they don't exist is just ignant, and it's an insult to the ones that exist and the people who made them possible.

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