Teaching, Research, or a Learning University?

Spend enough time in higher education, you will eventually hear or participate in a conversation about the distinctions between a teaching University and a research University. However, I suspect that there is an important alternative to each of these two, one that will serve almost any institution well in the 21st century landscape.

A teaching University is one where faculty pride themselves on focusing upon interacting directly with students through teaching and advising. The University where I currently work historically described itself as a teaching University, so much so that we have no history of using teaching graduate assistants. You find ample faculty teaching entry-level undergraduate courses as well as advanced undergraduate and graduate classes. Faculty know and call students by name, they are largely accessible to work and chat with students outside of class, and the scholarship of teaching has largely been valued more than that of research. In fact, it is common to see a tenured (we don’t technically have tenure) faculty member or chair of a department spend the afternoon tutoring and working with small groups of students at the on-campus coffee shop.

Those who speak to the benefits of a teaching University tend to emphasize this close connection between student and faculty. To support this focus, such Universities justify lighter expectations about research and other scholarly activities. At the same time, this means that teaching loads are often much larger at such Universities. If faculty members desire to conduct research, it is often above and beyond their large teaching and advising load. Similarly, rank and promotion at such schools may well emphasize evidence of strong teaching skills above the presence of a solid research agenda.

Research Universities expect that faculty have a strong research agenda. Publication and other peer-reviewed scholarly activities are critical to the tenure process. Teaching loads are often much smaller. More entry-level courses are likely to be taught by graduate assistants.  However, motivated students at such institutions may have the opportunity to aid a faculty member on one or more major research projects, gaining a sort of apprenticeship into the discipline.

This distinction between teaching and research Universities gets to the mission of an institution. Consider these two distinct mission statements from two  very different universities.

The opening paragaraph of the mission statement at Carroll College in Wisconsin:

“As a liberal arts school, Carroll College acknowledges the practical role of preparing its students for a career, but it also affirms the traditional role of providing for the expansion of the intellectual, imaginative, and social awareness of its students. It is dedicated to providing for its students the means for their full realization of a dual goal of vocation and enlightenment. Thus, while providing substantial professional and pre-professional programs, the College encourages and expects all students to participate in a broad spectrum of academic disciplines.”

Contrast that with the mission of Carnegie Mellon University.

To create and disseminate knowledge and art through research and creative inquiry, teaching, and learning, and to transfer our intellectual and artistic product to enhance society in meaningful and sustainable ways.

To serve our students by teaching them problem solving, leadership and teamwork skills, and the value of a commitment to quality, ethical behavior, and respect for others.

To achieve these ends by pursuing the advantages of a diverse and relatively small university community, open to the exchange of ideas, where discovery, creativity, and personal and professional development can flourish.

While both attend to the education of students, note that Carnegie Mellon leads with a statement about “creating and disseminating knowledge and art through research and creative inquiry.” Such an emphasis is what distinguishes the research-intensive University. While the education of students in important, the role of professor is not primarily that of teacher. It is researcher, scholar, and teacher. Of course, professors at teaching Universities may engage in research and other scholarship as well, but teaching is given a higher priority by the institution. Perhaps the most extreme example of a teaching higher education institution would be the community college systems where there is often little to no research expectation of faculty, and the strongest research-intensive Universities have some faculty who teach two or fewer courses in a year.

Is there an alternative to characterizing Universities as research or teaching? In fact, this is not a new question. It is one that Frederick Terman of Stanford University addressed already in the 1950s. Sometimes called the father of Silicon Valley and also a dean and provost at Stanford, he offered an alternative to Stanford being a teaching or a research University. Instead, he proposed that it be a learning University.

By focusing upon the idea of a learning University, we have opportunity to imagine traditional classroom activities, research, even business ventures as an integrated part of the learning community. This is a place where  students and faculty are co-learners, both connected by the shared commitment to learning, whether it take place in a laboratory, a classroom, in the community, or a promising startup business. I recall once reading where Terman encouraged his faculty to start businesses based upon their research, part of what some consider a start to what we now call Silicon Valley. Such a vision affords a broader understanding of learning than something that occurs as a result of a professor lecturing to a group of students.

Consider the landscape of higher education today. We see Universities creating research parks for startup businesses. Others are adding startup incubators to their campuses, sometimes connecting them with undergraduate or graduate programs. There is rapid growth in blended and online learning. MOOCs and other open learning experiments gain increased attention in higher education media outlets. We are on the verge of a competency-based and direct assessment explosion in higher education institutions.  Government and public pressures call for Universities to explore more cost-effective models and to show that graduates have gainful employment as a result of their studies. Where do these trends take us? How do we make sense of them?

Does the model of research University or teaching University best support these innovations and changes? Or, is this third model of a learning University a more helpful way to make sense of these changes, providing us with a vision for Universities that are rich with excellent teaching, ground-breaking research, applied endeavors like startups and service learning? This is all within a community that aspires toward transformational learning? In the end, there is likely ample room for all three ways of defining a University mission, but perhaps this is the time to give further attention to considering what it would look like to have more learning Universities, placing that emphasize learning in all forms: in class and out of class, by students and faculty alike.

To take this proposal seriously also includes attending to and measuring things differently than we have done before.  While tools like the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) asks some questions that seem to get at this idea, more careful consideration of what it means to be a learning University might call for new tools and ways to think about engagement and learning, especially given that a learning University is a huddle of learners; but much of the learning and impact may well happen far beyond the walls of the campus, venturing into local, regional, national, international, and digital contexts.

If you want to have a certain indication of whether a particular school fits into one or more of these categories, just answer four questions:

  1. What is most measured (formally and/or informally) when it comes to faculty activities?
  2. How broadly or narrowly do they define and measure student learning?
  3. What is most rewarded in the rank and promotion process at the University?
  4. What are the criteria for hiring new faculty?
Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Teaching, Research, or a Learning University?”

  1. ralphsherman

    Your mentioning of Carroll College was a pleasant surprise for me. I went there for 5 semesters from 1970 to 1972. We didn’t have computers back then. Try to imagine what a difference that would make in the learning and social networks.

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