In recent months the direction of the conservative attack on the nation's universities has shifted its focus. For decades we have heard about the undeniable strong leftward tilt of the faculty and classroom. For the last year or two we have heard about the waste of time and money when college tuition for the academically unprepared is subsidized by the government. Now the blogosphere and newspapers are filled with commentary attacking the dual role of the university professor - part teacher, part researcher. This time the conservative attack misses its mark.
All of the attacks I have read conflate so many different issues that their analysis is essentially meaningless. I will try here to tease out some of the issues. First let's consider money. Research professors are more expensive than teaching faculty. Their job description (in the sciences) usually assumes that at least half of their time is devoted to research. Their promotion is more tightly coupled to the prominence of their research program than to their teaching prowess (although the attention to the latter has dramatically increased since I was an assistant professor). Moreover, there is greater competition for top researchers than for teachers. Consequently the salary for an internationally renowned research professor may double that of nonresearch faculty. Thus, the cost per classroom hour of a research professor may easily be quadruple the cost of teaching faculty. Is it worth it? How do we decide? One way to approach this difficult question is to examine what the market says.
The most prestigious private universities primarily hire research professors. Premium private four year colleges typically hire faculty with a respectable research program but give them less time to pursue their research and offer somewhat lower salaries. Teaching loads are typically 50% to 100% higher than at the top research universities. Which gives the better deal to students? Let's look at two examples, Stanford and Swarthmore. Tuition and board at Stanford currently costs approximately $53,000 per year. Tuition and board at Swarthmore will run you approximately $53,000 per year. So, we see that in name brand schools, increasing the number of faculty hours in the classroom per salary dollar does not lower student expenses. This reflects two facts: (i) faculty salaries are not the main driver of college costs, and (ii) class sizes are flexible. Four year colleges will definitely offer fewer 200 student lectures than state research universities and fewer 100 student lectures than private research universities. Class sizes are more elastic than tuition.
Some students choose to attend 4 year colleges, and others choose to attend research institutions. Putting aside the question of whether all these students are gaining admission into their preferred school, we see that some students (and their parents) value the smaller class size offered by 4 year colleges; others value the opportunity to interact with and possibly work with leading researchers. Moreover, many students at research institutions whose aptitudes and goals make them unlikely to benefit directly from the presence of active scientists still receive a second order benefit: the extremely academically focused students who are attracted to the research environment enrich the university experience for their less academically focused peers. Both types of environments have significant strengths. I find it highly amusing that the conservative commentators opposed to the research university seem opposed to allowing consumers to choose the product most suited to their tastes and needs.
If we focus on taxpayer supported public universities, then the fact that the best students in their states prefer the research university to the research inactive community colleges is not as decisive an argument in favor of supporting the former as it is in the case of private universities. I have discussed this public funding question elsewhere. We must leave that fundamental value judgement to the voters of each state. I, however, will advocate for supporting the research universities in my state.