The acclaimed research universities of the United States are shortchanging their undergraduate students, particularly freshmen, according to an unusually candid report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, one of the nation's leading education-policy organizations.
It said universities consigned undergraduates to classes taught by graduate assistants and failed to provide students with "a coherent body of knowledge" by the time they graduated.The report, by a commission whose members included officials of research universities, says there is a long-standing division between research and teaching that should be ended and that un-i-ver-si-ties should involve undergraduates in research - whether in medical laboratories or humanities projects - beginning in the freshman year. The report was released Monday.
"What we need to do is to create a culture of inquirers, rather than a culture of receivers," said Shirley Strum Kenny, the president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and chairwoman of the 11-member commission that wrote the report, "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities."
The report describes the situation for undergraduates in stark terms: "Too often the freshman curriculum is a bore and freshman instruction inadequate. Senior professors, when they teach undergraduates, tend to teach majors in advanced courses." It added: "As a result, freshmen - the students who need the very best teaching - may actually receive the worst."
Robert Diamond, director of the Institute for Change in Higher Education at Syracuse University, applauded its recommendation for linking education and research more closely.
"It makes a lot of sense pedagogically and from the standpoint of serving the community," he said. "Learning will be improved. Students will have a better sense of how faculty work and think. And it relates the classroom to the real world."
The accusation that research universities fail their undergraduates by putting research ahead of teaching was a constant theme of Ernest Boyer, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation, who established the commission shortly before his death in 1995.
The commission argues that the nation's 125 research universities have as important a role in education as in research, since they grant nearly a third of all baccalaureate degrees though they represent only 3 percent of colleges and universities. "To an overwhelming degree, they have furnished the cultural, intellectual, economic and political leadership of the nation," the report said.
The universities covered in the report emphasize graduate education and research and receive significant federal research money. They range from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Kent State University.
Many of the report's proposals are familiar - rewarding faculty members more for good teaching, using technology more creatively and fostering more interdisciplinary work - but the commission tried to weave them into a plan to transform undergraduate education, and it offered examples of model programs.
The report makes a variety of other recommendations, including placing freshmen in small groups where they live together and take courses together. At Duke University, for example, freshmen sign up for interdisciplinary programs in which they take two related seminars and a related writing course. Enrollment is limited to 30 students.
Another proposal calls for getting students involved in research with senior faculty members. At MIT, more than half the undergraduates earn academic credit or hourly wages for work on research projects.