University News

Profs balance research, teaching

By
News Editor
Tuesday, April 10, 2012

As the University aims to compete with powerhouse research institutions – many of which have larger endowments – research experience has become a major factor in hiring and faculty tenure decisions. But faculty members remain conflicted as to whether the University’s increased emphasis on research and expansion – highlighted by the creation of the School of Engineering two years ago and the current development of a school of public health – has affected the quality of undergraduate teaching at the University.

Teaching and research are often viewed as conflicting obligations that faculty must fulfill. Extra emphasis on research can be interpreted as less time for undergraduate teaching, but portraying them as “disjointed and competitive would be the wrong model,” said Andries van Dam, professor of computer science and the University’s former vice president for research. Van Dam’s argument was echoed by many faculty members.

“If you’re on the cutting edge, it will be reflected in your teaching,” said Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences. She conceded the difficulties of balancing teaching and research – especially with the extra effort needed to secure research funding in the sciences in the current economic climate – but she said the University hires and values individuals who seek to do both research and teaching. In The Herald faculty poll conducted last fall, faculty estimated that they spend about the same amount of time teaching and conducting research – 44 percent of their time was dedicated to teaching and 42.3 percent to research.

Professors may also couple the two elements in a complementary manner. Even in introductory courses, professors come across opportunities to talk about their latest research and findings, van Dam said, and undergraduates in the computer science department may incorporate research into their studies as early as their second semester at Brown.

But students are not the only ones who benefit from the relationship between teaching and research, he said. Though professors at Brown may not be able to compete as successfully with those committed to full-time research at research institutes, teaching and working alongside students can boost research and elicit new ideas, van Dam said. Teaching and research are “two halves of the same coin,” he said. “You lose some time, but you gain intelligence from student input and participation.”

But other faculty members believe research is gaining the upper hand at the University. Professors are expected to be at the top of their field, said Harold Roth, professor of religious studies, and research is becoming increasingly important in tenure decisions.

“I would like to see a clear message from the administration that the quality of teaching will be viewed on equal footing to the significance and quality of research,” he said. “Right now, I don’t feel like that’s the case.”

“Should we attempt to compare ourselves to Harvard and Princeton on an alarmingly frequent basis?” he said. “We’re a different animal.”

Roth emphasized the importance of the relationship between teaching and research, where top researchers are present in the classroom and develop “personal mentorships and relationships” with students. This is rare at larger research institutions and at some Ivy peer universities, he said.

Van Dam refuted the idea that the University pressures professors to prioritize research due to the more direct benefits it offers with regards to prestige. “What is in first place? Research,” he said. “But at a place like Brown, teaching is right behind there.”

Rather than moving the University away from its focus on undergraduate teaching, van Dam said he believes Simmons’ efforts through the Plan for Academic Enrichment have strengthened research at the University in a necessary and beneficial way. “It’s been redressing the balance in the right direction,” he said.

“I don’t think you come to Brown expecting to be left alone to do research in your lab,” said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12.

But Ivo Welch, professor of finance and economics at the University of California at Los Angeles and former professor of economics at Brown, wrote in an email to The Herald that he thinks the University does and should provide incentives to professors to emphasize research over teaching because high-quality research is necessary for maintaining its national ranking and reputation.

“Research reputation is the difference between (the University of Rhode Island) and Brown, not teaching quality,” Welch wrote. “If you do not want Brown to compete with URI, but compete with Yale, Columbia and Princeton, you need top research that drives the knowledge that we are teaching. If anything, Brown has too little emphasis on research relative to its peers.”

“You cannot eat your cake and have it, too,” Welch wrote. “Yes, undergrads in the short run – and most have only a four-year perspective – would be better off if all researchers suddenly deemphasized research and emphasized teaching. However, in the long run, it would drop the prestige of the University.”

– With additional reporting by Mark Raymond