Remarks at STARS Symposium

April 11, 2012

I would like to make some observations about the place and purpose of research at UNF, particularly within the context of what appears to many of us to be a paradigm shift that we find ourselves in the midst of in higher education.  One recent examination of how we got where we are, collectively speaking, and why we are not likely to remain there, is presented in a book that I recommended in the faculty newsletter that I sent out on Monday.  The title of the book is The Innovative University, by Christensen and Eyring.  The book makes the argument that the great majority of universities in the United States share a very similar deep structure based upon the model of Harvard University.  The biologists among us today may or may not find the metaphor to be apt, but the authors refer to this deep structure as “institutional DNA.”  While Harvard originally was founded as and for many decades did not grow beyond its legendary liberal arts undergraduate college, arguably its reputation has been greatly accelerated over the past century and a half by grafting onto this profoundly American institution aspects of even more venerable European universities.  In particular, what was borrowed from abroad was the concept of dedicated faculties whose primary occupation was not to teach but to conduct research.  To the extent that these faculties did teach, it took the form of mentorship of graduate students who served first as apprentices to and then as collaborators in the research agendas of their distinguished senior colleagues.  The pursuit of distinction resulted in ever more narrow disciplinary focus and the production of ever more esoteric knowledge.  What tended to get lost in this process was purposeful and caring attention to introductory undergraduate education the responsibility for which more often than not was displaced onto junior faculty whose real purpose was to allow senior faculty to remain undistracted by the fundamental educational needs of novice students.


Lest you remain skeptical regarding the veracity of Christensen’s and Eyring’s argument, you have only to consider for a moment the ambitions of some of our sister institutions in the SUS.  Six of them now have medical schools and more than a few have law schools and other affiliated professional schools as well.  In our zero sum economy the funding for all of these very expensive, very specialized, and arguably very duplicative programs has to be extracted from whatever—or whomever—it is that gets relegated to the category of lesser priorities. 


Perhaps this evolution is justified for those institutions.  The question I would like to pose is whether it is justified for UNF.  If we are honest with ourselves I believe we need to acknowledge that we too have some of Harvard’s DNA in our own cells.  Regrettably, what we lack is the $36 billion dollar endowment or the robust state funding that make full-scale pursuit of this agenda conceivably feasible for Harvard but highly futile and delusionary for less well-supported institutions.  Surely we do not need to depend upon the analysis of Christensen and Eyring to know that it is illusory to believe that we can sustain what is essentially a self-indulgent guild model of research across every discipline in the university, particularly if the allocation of resources required to do so comes at the expense rather than to the benefit of the students whose education has been and I trust will remain UNF’s highest priority.


Fortunately, it is precisely because student learning is at the core of UNF’s mission that our research enterprise is justified.  Whereas some of our sister institutions, and indeed many comprehensive universities across the country, pursue research as an end in itself, we can and must support a research agenda at UNF first and foremost because engaging students in discovery is among the purest forms of learning.  While I am enormously proud of those of you who are making significant and innovative contributions to knowledge, and who are producing applied research that will contribute to the advancement of the regional quality of life, I think the strongest argument we can make for sustaining and even increasing the level of support that we provide for research at UNF is that it is an inextricable part of our teaching mission.  It is by remaining true to our own genetic composition that we will naturally achieve a level of institutional quality that will set us apart in an admirable way from institutions that seek to become what, as a consequence of their own genetic disposition, they should not.  And what will set us apart, ultimately, over and beyond the new ideas or applications that those of you in this room will produce, or the grant dollars that you will be awarded to support these efforts, will be our graduates, who will leave UNF better prepared to think imaginatively and analytically by virtue of having engaged with you in your own work of imagination and analysis.


I look forward in the weeks and months ahead to conversations with you about the perspective on research that I have offered, regardless of whether you agree with me or have a very different point of view.  In the meanwhile, I want to congratulate you for the success that you have achieved and that has led to your inclusion here today among UNF’s finest faculty.


Thank you.