While the University of Utah has an excellent reputation for graduate education and research - the fusion discovery is just the latest example - the school cannot afford to ignore its basic duty, namely, the teaching of undergraduate students.
Unless more attention is paid to this crucial role of any university, the U. of U. could lose the support of the local community. If the U. becomes an aloof institution that lacks links to the public - a perception that already exists to an alarming degree - then the school is in danger.To their credit, officials at the U. of U. recognize the problem and are making a major push to streamline and put more emphasis on undergraduate education to make it more rewarding, meaningful and effective.
As Dr. Chase N. Peterson, U. president, pointed out to the school's faculty and staff this week, undergraduate education is the "heart and soul of university life." Yet it is no secret that there are serious problems and that being a student at the U. can be frustrating. For example:
-Students are required to take certain courses for graduation, yet many students are unable to get in the required classes because they are too crowded. Or worse, a key course may be canceled. As a result, students can lose a year or two or more in pursuit of a degree.
-Many courses are taught largely by graduate teaching assistants or TAs, instead of the professors. Many of those TAs are foreign students whose command of English leaves something to be desired, making it difficult for class members to grasp some details in technical subjects.
-There appears to be a feeling, at least among some students on campus, that the entire system exists for the convenience of the faculty, with the needs of undergraduates coming in a distant second.
-Many undergraduates never have the opportunity to privately interact or consult with professors. More than 60 percent of U. freshmen have spent no time with a professor outside of the classroom.
-Too often, the most illustrious names at the U. seldom teach undergraduate courses and never teach freshman or sophomore classes.
-High-demand majors, such as computer science, are so crowded that qualified students are turned away. These and other obstacles adversely affect career choices by young people, including many already enrolled at the university.
These and a host of other problems are being tackled head-on by Peterson and other U. officials who have set up a task force to foster improvements. Six working groups have been assigned to focus on the undergraduate experience and come back with recommendations.
Part of the difficulty with undergraduate education can be traced directly to budget crises that have hampered the school for the past 10 years. But some of the difficulty also is simply an erosion of the commitment to undergraduate students.
Public support - the ultimate source of money for the U. - will depend on how well the school answers the personal question posed by individual taxpayers: "What have you done for my son or daughter?"
The U. certainly must keep up its brilliant work in various fields of research; the campus is one of the top two dozen or so in the nation in this regard. But if this lofty reputation is to be maintained, it must be built on the solid base of excellent undergraduate education.