Article - Autumn 2019

The Crisis of University Research

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Academia’s pursuit of corporate and government dollars has undermined its commitment to learning

By Richard Drake | September 3, 2019
Virginia Tech mechanical engineering students test a robot developed to compete in a contest sponsored by the research arm of the Department of Defense. (Getty)
Virginia Tech mechanical engineering students test a robot developed to compete in a contest sponsored by the research arm of the Department of Defense. (Getty)

The debate over the role of research in the life of the university was settled a long time ago. In a classic 1852 book, The Idea of a University, the Catholic priest and future cardinal John Henry Newman made what in retrospect appears to have been a last stand against the proposition that research should be an intrinsic part of university life. The Newman argument went something like this: if university professors are properly doing their work—seriously keeping up with the reading in their fields, preparing and revising lectures, grading exams and papers, engaging broadly in the life of the university, and guiding students in the decisions they must make at such a crucial time in their lives—then they are not going to produce original scholarship on top of everything else. To Newman, teaching and research were fundamentally incompatible activities, requiring very different talents and skills. Because universities are teaching institutions, research can have no proper business in them. Research, he concluded, should take place in institutes created for that purpose.

Newman was on the losing side of the argument about university research. The great 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke energetically countered the kind of arguments put forward by Newman, asserting that in his field the capacity to produce and publish original archival research was the real measure of a scholar. Primary sources found in archives were for Ranke the premier form of reputable historical evidence. Young historians in German universities would be trained in seminars to investigate archives. Ranke’s relentless emphasis on the primacy of such research produced a revolution in historiography, and the modern scholarly community of historians is to a large extent a reflection of his wishes for the profession. Scholarship in the university generally came to abide by the spirit of Ranke’s principle that the production of original research determined the professional worth and standing of an institution of higher learning.

For historians especially, the German research university served as the model for graduate programs in the United States, beginning in the 1880s at Johns Hopkins. Historians in America thereafter underwent a rigorous graduate school apprenticeship. An elaborate testing structure evolved, featuring oral and written examinations, foreign language qualifying examinations, and theses and dissertations—leading to the doctorate in philosophy, a German degree. By about 1900, the PhD had become the highest badge of professional competence in American universities. The academic world of conferences, papers, publications, scholarly periodicals, and book reviews took shape in this period. The university as we know it today is a direct consequence of the late-19th-century professionalization revolution associated with Ranke’s name.

Ranke’s model of historical scholarship, however, is not without difficulties. Some of Newman’s concerns about the burden of fully carrying out the responsibilities of teaching, service, and research seem legitimate to many critics inside and outside university circles. Publishing more and more about less and less, the disappearance of grand narrative history, and the loss of a public audience for academic scholarship have been some of the consequences of Ranke’s influence.

The problems of Ranke’s approach notwithstanding, I take his part against Newman on the question of university research. Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Yale University historian of religion and a fervent admirer of Newman, spoke here at the University of Montana several years after publishing The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (1992). He told us that Newman’s eloquent defense of the humanistic tradition was the most profound book ever written about higher education. Newman’s adamantly argued distinction between the liberal education he admired, for the formation of taste and judgment, and what he called servile education, or job training, would always be a rallying cry for real universities. Nevertheless, Newman was wrong on the issue of university research, Pelikan contended. He thought that research and teaching were mutually reinforcing. As lectures are being prepared, important research projects can come to light by a teacher’s discovery of gaps in the scholarly literature on a given subject. Moreover, the mental exercise acquired through research gives intellectual tone to a teacher’s classroom presentations. In other words, the Rankean formula deserves to hold its place as the gold standard for professional life at the university. I agree with Pelikan.

The intellectual integrity of university research, however, is today beset with difficulties caused by corporate and government pressures on the schools. To survive, research universities need the money that only corporations and government can bestow in sufficient amounts. Such patrons as these are not in business for artistic and intellectual aims alone. They have ulterior motives for granting research support to scholars and scientists, with the unavoidable result that the ensuing work bears the mark of its extra-intellectual parentage. Newman’s concerns about university research, significant as they are in scholarly terms, have been superseded or at least dramatically supplemented by the emergence of an academic culture true to the principle of he who pays the piper calls the tune.

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