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The belief that research is the only sure path to higher status has devalued teaching and learning at the undergraduate level.

Campus leaders wishing to elevate the stature of their institutions typically believe the surest strategy is to invest in high-profile scholars and research centers and in the doctoral programs that top scholars inevitably want as complements to their work. Faculty who are productive researchers in their disciplines typically experience smooth sailing during tenure decisions while faculty whose strength lies in teaching are much more vulnerable.

This is both wrong and unfortunate.

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Among top-tier universities there is actually significant variation regarding the degree of emphasis on research. There is room in this tier for institutions with a strong commitment to excellence in undergraduate education. Within that elite framework, the decision to prioritize research over undergraduate teaching and learning is an institutional choice, not a competitive necessity.

I offer my experience as president of Northeastern to illustrate my argument. I was appointed in 1996, a few years after the university experienced a disastrous decline in enrollments that pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. This crisis led the university’s leaders to conclude that a radical change in operating strategy was required.

Long admired as a large, unselective, locally oriented commuter school in Boston and best known as a leader in cooperative education, the campus now sought to reposition itself as a “smaller but better” school that was much more regional and national in scope, much more selective in admissions and much more ambitious academically.

To accomplish this transformation my team and I embraced the concept of the “student-centered research university,” by which we meant that our priority would be excellence in every aspect of the undergraduate experience.

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We put further development at the graduate level on hold, limited our investments in research and made clear to the faculty and staff that undergraduate teaching and learning was job one, an emphasis that most of them readily embraced.

“There is room in the top tier for institutions with a strong commitment to excellence in undergraduate education.”

By the end of my presidency, Northeastern had become a selective university drawing well-prepared students from a steadily expanding geographic pool. With our finances now significantly strengthened, we were able to make selective investments in research and doctoral education but still within the “student centered” framework that we had adopted at the beginning.

The Northeastern story parallels the trajectory of Syracuse University under the leadership of Ken Shaw between 1991 and 2006. Indeed, it was through President Shaw that I first became aware of the idea of the student-centered research university, which he had used to guide Syracuse out of an enrollment and financial crisis comparable to the one we confronted at Northeastern. And, like Northeastern, Syracuse under Shaw not only became a more selective undergraduate institution but also secured its position in the rankings as a top tier, but still student-centered, research university.

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The Northeastern and Syracuse examples are not unique. Among schools that define themselves as student-centered research universities, the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Arizona have both significantly enhanced their standing in recent years.

Yale, Brown, Georgetown and Tufts have all adopted the “student-centered” concept and have increased their selectivity in recent years while maintaining their high ranking.

I do not write as a critic of research. Indeed, as someone who has spent a career in upwardly mobile institutions eager to enhance their standing in the academic pecking order, I fully understand the conventional wisdom about its importance.

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I share the view that the development of the modern research university in the years after World War II is one of the great triumphs of American higher education and has served our country well. But during the same years that we were building the world’s most productive research enterprise, we were also expanding enrollments to include a much larger percentage of our young people from far more diverse backgrounds, including many from families and secondary schools that rendered them ill-prepared for university-level study.

This democratization of higher education called for an emphasis on strengthening our educational capacities in a manner that paralleled the growth of our research industry.

This did not happen. Instead, there is ample evidence that we are failing to produce the kind of college-educated citizenry that will keep our country competitive and our democracy strong in the years ahead.

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The pursuit of a reputation for excellence is in the DNA of academia. This is a source of our strength. But this also means that it will be difficult to rebalance the priorities of our universities in the direction of teaching and learning until campus leaders believe that the pursuit of educational excellence is a viable path to the upper echelons and constitutes an alternative to investments in research and doctoral education.

It is no good to say to institutions of modest standing that they should stress education while the top-tier institutions stress research; as long as research is uniquely valued at the top of the academic pyramid, that value will influence the competitive strategies of ambitious campus leaders at every level.

It is rightly said that the genius of American higher education is the diversity of our colleges and universities. Yet the dominant value attached to research productivity drives us toward a unitary ideal.

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My purpose is to offer encouragement to colleagues throughout higher education who share my view that educational excellence is as important to our country as research productivity, and that there is more than one pathway to the top.

Think of it as completing a virtuous circle, linking institutional success to the success of the undergraduate students.

Research may be the coin of the realm in higher education, but a university can indeed compete on educational quality and win.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

A senior consultant at Maguire Associates, Richard M. Freeland is president emeritus of Northeastern University and a former Massachusetts commissioner of higher education.

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  1. Well; that “research obsession” has to do with monies from the government for military purposes; that is all.

    That “research” will continue, whether it is good, bad or neutral to universities: Money rules.

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