The Search for Truth, Knowledge and Beauty – in Decaying Buildings

The purpose of the university is two-fold: first, the search for truth, knowledge and beauty; and second, the dissemination of the results of that search. In this essay, I will describe how the first purpose has come to dominate the second in the modern university and how this development has undercut a fifty-year quest for a suitable teaching facility at my university.

The classic role of American higher education was first to establish an environment in which man’s quest for knowledge, search for truth and identification of beauty could be pursued avidly and in an unhindered way. The complementary purpose was to transmit what had been learned – of course in the most recent quests, but especially what had been learned and verified over time – to students, colleagues and, indeed, to all in the public who were eager to learn of the fruits of the ongoing search.

Alas, the skill sets for performing these distinct, but related functions – that is, research and teaching – often didn’t line up. Any of us who has spent time within the halls of academia has encountered splendid researchers who could not teach their way out of a paper bag and, conversely, superb teachers who lacked the originality and/or persistence to do meaningful research. This disparity was evident to all who paid attention. Universities coped with this in several ways. Sometimes they refined their mission, becoming either a research-oriented institution or one that focused mainly on teaching. More commonly, universities retained their dual character, but faculty roles became specialized between teaching and research. It soon became clear that universities felt compelled to choose which of the two faculty modes to favor and promote. Today, it is evident that they chose research over teaching. Why did that happen? Here’s my assessment:

  • The primary reason was the competition for academic recognition. For decades, a small cadre of institutions (the Ivies, MIT, Cal Tech, and the University of Chicago) was universally recognized as elite. Following World War II, amid the explosion in university enrollments, almost all the State universities, plus many private universities “below” the stature of the Ivies, developed an almost compulsive desire to be ranked among the elite. They pursued that ephemeral dream in many ways: seeking increased funding, upgrading facilities, setting higher student admission standards, and massive PR campaigns; but primarily by enhancing the quality of the faculty. And the primary measure they used to evaluate faculty quality was research, not teaching.
  • A second reason was the techno revolution in university instruction. Through new software products, hardware platforms and innovative facilities and programs, high quality university teaching became inexorably intertwined with technological advance and instructional innovation. The latter were not cheap, nor easily implemented. The amount of time and effort required of a faculty member to modernize his teaching credentials was substantial – providing yet another advantage to research over teaching.
  • Another factor was the well-documented decline in the percentage of college courses taught by tenure/tenure-track faculty. As more and more resources were devoted to faculty research, the teaching load was increasingly assigned to adjunct faculty. This only enhanced the imbalanced evaluation of faculty excellence based on research instead of teaching.
  • Research brought in dollars to build facilities and pay high salaries. Federal, state and corporate grants poured money into the research enterprise. Not only did teaching endeavors not do likewise, they were often a drain on resources. Yet another factor moving the needle toward the emphasis of research over teaching.
  • Finally, in some sense, the university chose between its faculty and its students on whom to lavish more attention and resources. It wasn’t a hard choice. Faculty careers can last a lifetime; student careers no more than a few years.

In summary, over the last two generations, we have seen on campus a dramatic shift in attention to research faculty at the expense of teaching faculty. A corollary as well as a cause of that shift has been a de-emphasis on teaching credentials among the tenured faculty as well as weak qualification in the tech aspects that have grown fundamental to modern instruction.

Now let’s tie that assessment to a remarkable development at my university.

I recently retired as Professor of Mathematics at a large state university. At my institution virtually all of the freshman- and sophomore-level math courses are delivered in large lecture format: the instructor lectures three times per week in a lecture hall seating up to 350 students and students meet once or twice per week with a TA in a small classroom. We service literally thousands of students per semester in this format.

The lecture halls are located in a building called the “Armory.” It has that designation because the building was constructed during World War II to serve the needs of the relatively large ROTC contingent on campus. The building housed a rifle range and several large warehouse-type rooms in which guns, ammo and other military equipment was stored. After the war, it was retrofitted with multiple large lecture halls.

When I arrived on campus in 1969, I was told that there was a serious plan afoot to replace the Armory with a modern building containing up-to-date lecture halls. Not surprisingly, the project experienced some delays. Forty one years later, I retired – still waiting for the lecture hall building. I continue to teach part-time and this January, more than forty-five years after my first foray into the Armory, I will deliver lectures in a lecture hall therein – its configuration only modestly updated from what I encountered nearly half a century ago.

But not to despair. A benefactor dropped an eight figure donation on the campus not long ago and – hallelujah – it will provide seed money to finally build my new lecture hall building. In fact, ground was broken just this past fall. If I am still doddering around in 2017, I might be able to finally teach a class in a modern lecture hall. But maybe not!

The university has decided to open the facility to bidding by campus departments prepared to do innovative things. I don’t know what will happen but it seems likely that, although the whole point was to replace the antiquated classrooms in the Armory (used almost exclusively by Math), in the end Math will get only some of the classroom time in the new building, and maybe a small portion at that.

For as a consequence of the trends described above, the Math Department is not in as good a position to utilize the new facility as was originally envisioned. Actually, the Math Department does a good job in discharging its teaching obligations. It has an excellent curriculum for Math majors. But, although with recent emphasis on STEM subjects, the number of majors has gone up, the total is still relatively modest. In fact, Math is largely a service department, providing lower level Math courses for Engineering, Natural Sciences and Social Science majors. These courses are largely pedestrian, staffed by adjunct faculty and the method of delivery is severely dated. There is little technology or teaching innovation because too many resources were funneled into research instead.

I have been waiting 50 years for the new lecture hall building. I promised the Department that, when it was built, I would put in my teeth and come over and teach a class. Now I may not be able to fulfill my 50-year old dream. And if that happens, it will be a direct consequence of the increased emphasis on research at the expense of teaching that is the state of higher education in America today.

This essay appeared in a slightly abridged version in the online web site of ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

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