Brown is wrong on research

UNIVERSITY ISSUES: Recent comments from the governor demonstrate that he fails to fully grasp the importance of the UC as a research institution.

Apparently, Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t understand the critical role of research at the University of California. In an article published last week in The Washington Post, Brown said professors should spend more time in the classroom and less time doing research, claiming that “the faculty’s primary role is teaching.” He then took aim at particular kinds of research, specifically devaluing the necessity of “producing new knowledge.”

Brown’s comment reflects a seriously misguided understanding of California’s higher education system. Most significantly, his remark is couched in a false dichotomy: that research and teaching are somehow mutually exclusive. Under Brown’s view, it would seem, time professors spend conducting research is time they could instead be spending in the classroom.

But as many professors can attest, that is not the case. At this university, research and instruction go hand in hand. The work a professor does outside of his or her lectures in many instances directly contributes to the courses he or she teaches. Professors do not isolate themselves when they conduct research — students are often involved in the process.

The university’s stress on research traces back to a legislative commitment from the state. The California Master Plan for Higher Education — which created the framework of the UC, CSU and community college systems students experience today — clearly established the UC system as the research branch of state higher education. Brown’s views, no doubt stemming from an admirable desire to create a more efficient university, would in practice represent an unforgivable departure from that promise.

Also disturbing is Brown’s value judgment about the worth of certain kinds of research. In singling out “academic novelty” as an inferior or less worthwhile endeavor, Brown unfairly pitted different academic fields against each other.

By creating a distinction between “novelty” and “research into reality,” Brown undermines the potential for groundbreaking research in lesser-known fields. Following Brown’s advice would only constrain innovative research projects that could have a profound influence on UC students and the state as a whole. And if academic novelty isn’t valued at a university, where else will it be pursued in earnest?

Beyond the need for ingenuity in academics, it is important to remember that research is part of what gives the university such a strong appeal. Many UC campuses, especially UC Berkeley, derive much of their prestige from the notable research conducted by their faculty members. This is a huge draw for students, but more importantly, it attracts stellar professors. A strong, dynamic faculty gives campuses like UC Berkeley the elite academic reputation they deserve. And those professors didn’t come here solely to teach — the importance of research at this university is an alluring characteristic.

In the context of the UC system, it should be impossible to prioritize instruction over research, because the two are not opposed to each other. They are equally important. That dynamic is embedded in the character of this university, and it must not change. Research is part of our very essence.