Thursday, January 30, 2014

Research Universities and the Future of America

The NRC report is a list of 10 recommendations for increasing innovation among research universities. Each recommendation comes with three or four key points for implementation. Usually these deal with federal funding priorities in secondary and post-secondary education and a few with intellectual property rights. I think we all know that the political landscape gives absolutely no chance for any of these recommendations. Therefore, I read this document as a text about American value systems as they relate to education at the beginning of the twenty first century. Sure we all want a good education system in our country, but the real question is why?

The introduction and the conclusion both propose a historical arc for the U.S. research university that has two main periods. First is the "Morrill Act" period from 1862-1940 that gave us big state schools, lots of research on improving extractive industries, and - at least this is what the NRC claims - a broad, well educated middle class. The second phase is the "Cold War" era from approximately 1940 until 2000. This phase gave us lots of new technology, like the internet and GPS, that happened to get invented along the way to making more efficient weapons. These two historical periods account for two of the values: economic prosperity (as measured by something like GDP) and security (through superior weaponry).

Indeed the NRC basically says this exactly on the first page where they are explaining how implementing their recommendations will help keep research universities as the primary engine of innovation:

In doing so, we will encourage the innovation that leads to high-quality jobs, increased incomes, and security, health, and prosperity for our nation. (pg 1)

(I've never understood what phrases like "health ... for our nation" or "the national ... health ... we expect" (pg 3) are supposed to mean in these types of reports. I doubt they're talking about national mortality and morbidity rates. I'm ignoring the health-of-the-nation type values in this short summary, but maybe it's an important theme worth exploring later.)

So research universities foster innovation and innovation leads to more money and guns. Note all the things that are left out of this value system:

- education for social mobility;
- increasing equality and shared prosperity;
- sustainability;
- education for the sake of education;
- references to humanistic values (I assume the NRC wouldn't count poetry as innovation);
- education for social justice;
- universities as promoters of diversity;
- academia as critic of government, cultural, and economic institutions.

I could go on, but you get the picture. There are other values that can be marshalled to justify changes and improvements to U.S. research universities. I'm not surprised that the organization responsible for representing medical, engineering and science research has chosen to focus on policy recommondations based on a money-and-guns value system. However, I am shocked that the report does include a few whiffs of alternative values. Albeit buried on page 17 in a section specifically on diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

Our nation’s greatest asset is its people. Improving the educational success of our citizens at all levels improves our democracy, our culture and society, social mobility, and both individual and national economic success.  (pg 17)

This suggests to me that someone, who had a seat at the table, was able to put forth an alternative vision for the purpose of research universities; that vision is still a distant second behind the twin goals of prosperity and security, however. It would be interesting to read and listen to any primary sources, like emails, meeting minutes, or markup drafts, from the process for creating the NRC's report to see who brought up these alternative values, what sort of reception they got, and why it ended up in the report at all.

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