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Author, Educator Larry Cuban Discusses the Tension Between Teaching and Research in the University

Educator and author Larry Cuban discussed the reasons behind scholar's preeminence over teachers in the modern university, the topic of his latest book, at a mid-March TC BookTalk.

While university administrators preach that good teaching and good research are indivisible, the reality professors face is that their survival depends on their ability to produce research, not on their ability to teach and tutor students.

"The primacy of doing research and publishing scholarly work over teaching has been an enduring pattern in universities since the turn of the century," writes Cuban in his new book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change Without Reform in the University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990. "Amid repeated presidential and faculty claims for the signal importance of teaching and affirmations that harmony, not conflict, characterizes teaching and research, critics and scholars have noted the research imperative as dominating academic work again and again."

Cuban related a telling experience at Stanford University, where he is a professor of education. A colleague in the college of education was assigned as a mentor to a young associate professor, who was focusing extensively on her teaching in order to obtain a full professorship. To make his point, the colleague took the associate professor to the lobby of the education building and showed her a large plaque displaying the winners of the annual Excellence in Teaching award. All of the winners had been assistant professors, and none had received tenure. "Stick with the research," the colleague advised.

In his book, Cuban, using Stanford as a case study, explains why these patterns arose, and how they have persisted.

During the late 1800s universities adopted as their core mission the creation of new knowledge, or the research imperative. Yet, in admitting undergraduates, the research-driven universities also had the moral mission of building the student's character and cultivating citizenship, or the teaching imperative. The universities' compromise was the invention of the university-college, embedding the mission of teaching undergraduates within the departments. Thus was born the current "restless détente" between the research imperative of the graduate school and the teaching imperative of the college.

"Professors realized they were hired to do research but paid to teach," writes Cuban, "then they were retained or fired on the basis of published scholarship."

Richard Heffner, host of PBS's The Open Mind, hosted a panel discussion of the topic as part of the BookTalk, which was held in the American Museum of Natural History's Kaufmann Theatre. In addition to Cuban, the panel included Teachers College Professor of Education Hervé Varenne and Associate Professor of Education Frances Schoonmaker.

Schoonmaker said the imbalance between research and teaching reflects the attitudes of society toward teaching, summed up in the famous George Bernard Shaw statement: "He who can, does. He who cannot teaches. Teaching hasn't been honored," she said.

Schoonmaker also believes that the disparity reflects deeper societal attitudes. "We are not a society that honors children. Just look at the credentials, status and pay of the daycare providers we hire to look after our children."

Varenne believes universities and society should examine how universities are internally organized and funded, for instance the length of tenure, and especially the federal grants for research.

"But, we can't discount the value of university research," Varenne said. "The university represents a quality research with peer review, which is a guarantee to the community of its validity."

While Cuban admits to little optimism that universities can reverse the asymmetry between teaching and research, he did indicate that with the rise in tuition costs in the early 1990s, concern over the quality of teaching has increased.

"This is not a polemic against research," said Cuban. "Society prizes the creation of knowledge and lodges that at the university. Yet, if you consider teaching as a moral endeavor and disseminating knowledge as the role of the university, publishing is only one way to do that."previous page