Amping up Research Universities


Research Universities and the Future of Work

In “Research Universities and the Future of Work” (Issues, Fall 2018), Mitchell Stevens channels his inner Clark Kerr and perceptively diagnoses an opportunity and imperative for research universities to more boldly apply their expertise to pressing questions about the future of work and workers. As he observes, considerable political attention during the past presidential administration focused on ways in which community colleges might be better engaged in this challenge, but research universities—despite their considerable federal funding—were largely left out of the conversation.

I agree that they should be brought back in. For the nation once again finds itself in a “multiversity” kind of moment: just as the flood of Cold War, post-Sputnik federal spending spurred Kerr to reimagine the political and economic role of the university in American life, so does today’s politically fractured, software-saturated, and gig-and-flex-shift economic landscape point toward the need for better application of what research universities do well—and a finer understanding of where and how they might do better.

But just as in the age of Master Plans and moon shots, there are internal hurdles that must be recognized and surmounted in order for the research university to take on an even more productive and expansive role. Some stem from institutional history; others from the current political moment. And any prescriptions for engagement must reckon with these structural challenges.

One hurdle: the diversity of teaching and research disciplines within the research university. Stevens correctly identifies a crucial need to better map educational experience onto job skills, something made difficult by both the nineteenth-century-born disciplinary verticals around which the research university remains arranged, and the twentieth-century administrative structures that govern university operations. He moves beyond the tired break-down-those-silos arguments and proposes that instead of integrating disciplines we must integrate data in a more finely grained and responsive manner. Certainly, given how far artificial intelligence and machine learning have leapt in recent years, it is high time for research universities to apply deeper data science and data integration to better measure learning goals and outcomes.

But we should be careful not to further push the already sharp vocationalism that is driving so much of higher education right now, nor to further commoditize learning toward a “product comparison” model for students and their families. Yes, better information is good, but research universities and their allies must also make a qualitative, ethics-driven case for a broad-based liberal education as foundational and essential to workforce preparation. This goes beyond a better database: as universities already have discovered, quantitative measures that map well onto the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) do not necessarily capture the return on investment delivered by humanistic disciplines and the attainment of soft skills such as critical thinking, analytic writing, and evidence-based argumentation. Yet those skills are more valuable than ever in an era of data-privacy breaches, misinformation campaigns, and software-driven automation that drives up the value of creative thinking and tacit knowledge.

A second challenge with which to reckon: the sharpening inequities and economic insecurities consuming the modern workforce are also happening within higher education itself. The sharp disinvestment of state resources in higher education since the Great Recession has left most public research institutions, both flagships and non, reeling from budget cuts and turning increasingly to nontenured and temporary faculty appointments to address a still-surging demand for undergraduate teaching. The future of work is on stark display inside the research university itself, particularly the non-elite publics, and it is an ill-paid, insecure, and not at all pretty picture. It also is unsustainable, particularly if the research universities are to take a bolder role in redefining the terms on which the future of work might occur.

As Stevens reminds us, universities are unlike any other social institutions—and they also are products of the society that made them. Federal monies still flow into research university coffers, but they chiefly go for research and administration, not teaching, and they go disproportionately toward knowledge production in certain disciplines, not all. Reckoning with these disparities is a critical job for university faculty and leaders; remedying them is a critical challenge for policy-makers.

Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History
University of Washington

Cite this Article

“Amping up Research Universities.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 2 (Winter 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Winter 2019