March 25, 2011
Dear Regent Hall:
I’ve been thinking about our several discussions regarding the accuracy of claims made about my stance on university research. I appreciate your interest and have been delighted to answer your questions. Please let me elaborate a bit on what we have talked about.
Based on recent news coverage, it is clear that most people have focused on one or two white papers I wrote a number of years ago. That‟s understandable, especially since those papers represent not only a small slice of life but a slice from an environment designed to stimulate dialogue and
encourage debate. However, there is also the evidence from my actual work in higher education where my words and deeds clearly reflect my positive views about the role of research in the university and the role of the research university in higher education in America.
When I served as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, I was always a strong proponent of university-based research – both basic research and applied research. In fact, during my career in Colorado state government, I advocated for and assisted in the passage of financing for Colorado to build its new premier biosciences research center, the University of Colorado Health Science Center at Fitzsimmons. At the time, I was recognized by the President of the University of Colorado for the role I played in securing the Governor‟s support for debt financing for this massive project of hospitals, research labs, classrooms and adjacent private sector research park. My opportunity to help move this state-of-the-art health science center from the drawing board to reality was then and continues today as a source of enormous pride and a satisfying example of the many delights of public service.
Throughout my career in senior positions in Colorado state government I was always a strong supporter of investments in science and technology institutions and programs. I was honored to serve as chairman of the Colorado Institute of Technology, a public-private partnership to advance
undergraduate and graduate STEM education. My fellow board members, composed of the presidents of every public and private research university in Colorado and high technology CEOs, unanimously elected me to serve as chairman due to my commitment to the mission and ability to advance it with both public and private sector leaders.
The white papers at the center of recent attention have been used to suggest I don’t value university-based research. In fact, I wrote the white papers to initiate a discussion about approaches to assessing the value of research. That is the role of a white paper at any think tank, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). As a Senior Fellow at TPPF (an unremunerated honorific post), it was my responsibility to produce thought-provoking analytical pieces to advance a line of reasoning to further debate and discussion on important issues. I decided to focus on ways of measuring the productivity of dollars invested in research because I knew from experience that many state legislators and governors raise questions about investments in research and how those investments affect a university‟s teaching, training and public service functions. It was also my responsibility in those papers to offer public policy options that are an outgrowth of the line of reasoning put forward.
I knew my white papers would be controversial. The purpose, after all, was to generate debate. I knew the application of cost-benefit measures would both spotlight the value as well as the limitations of that methodology as well as point to areas where we need better measures of benefits.
I think my papers did that. Too often in cost-benefit analysis we measure what we can (i.e., where data are available) rather than measure what is important – like the old story of the guy looking for the keys to his car under the street light because that‟s where the light is. So, for example, I looked at
the return on scientific research as measured by available data – such as income royalties and licenses on patents. Are these adequate measures of the contribution of research to university-based innovation? No, I don’t think so. But this is what budget analysts will measure in the absence of other indicators.
I think my papers show clearly that we may be spending too much time under the street light – and that, indeed, measures of what is important are sadly missing. For instance, there is evidence that involving freshmen in research with primary investigators increases student engagement and retention. These are valuable outcomes and thus it is worth creating metrics to evaluate how many freshmen contact hours there are with primary investigators, if the trends are going up or down, if student engagement and retention differs by discipline or type of research with which they are involved, and what the costs are for these efforts. Measures such as these will provide guidance on how to craft strategies with the greatest cost-benefit for students and research.
There are many ways to measure and value research beyond that done in my white papers. Research capacity may attract technology-based companies and promote economic growth – one of the very reasons I supported the creation of the Fitzsimmons Health Science Center referenced above. Another value of research is that, particularly via graduate education, it helps prepare the next generation of researchers who, in the private sector, will conduct the vast majority of research done in America. But most of these lack ready metrics.
I hope my white papers and the discussions they have generated (including those over the past few weeks) will help produce new indicators and new measures that will make it possible for taxpayers, legislators, governors, university chancellors, deans, department chairs and institute directors to
develop a more valid dashboard of performance measures and thereby arm leaders at every level with the information they need to be better allocators and managers of scarce resources.
But, when all is said and done, it is clear that the public through their elected officials will, whether we like it or not, increasingly demand that we justify the way we allocate taxpayer funds that support higher education. They have a right and responsibility to do so and those of us in the university have an obligation to provide clear answers to questions that are being asked – especially if budget cuts require a reassessment of priorities and a reallocation of resources. My papers at TPPF, which are now so controversial, are one of many ongoing efforts to show the need for more refined ways to assess the value of the state’s investment in higher education. I am not the first to do this. In fact, I quote many leading academicians who have raised and are raising similar questions. Nor will I be the last. I think that many in leadership positions at every level in the U.T. System and its campuses are to be commended for seeing the need to get a better handle on how we allocate higher education dollars, not the least because there are inevitably going to be fewer dollars to allocate.
Put another way, it’s clear that research investments to facilitate student engagement and retention, advance knowledge, promote economic development or job training will not be free from accountability, including closer examination of their costs and benefits. For instance, Charles O. Holliday Jr., an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, former CEO of DuPont, and now chair of the National Research Council‟s Committee on Research Universities, a panel of 22 university and corporate leaders formed at the request of members of Congress to examine the financial, organizational and intellectual health of the U.S. research university, said, according to news reports, that “he wanted ways of measuring „the productivity of research universities.‟ It wasn’t clear he’d be getting answers.” At the same meeting, M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities “at one point mused about the value of developing hard figures on the cost of producing a graduate student. Mr. Berdahl [president of the
American Association of Universities] answered, “I‟m not sure we want to call attention to that.‟”
Whether we want the attention or not, it seems clear that questions on productivity, efficiency and accountability for our research universities and research expenditures are being asked. These questions may be controversial to some and seem to challenge the status quo, but they are raised from time to time, even within the scientific community. Not only have I been an agent of higher education reform as a state leader, I am very well acquainted with the literature. As long ago as the early 1970s, the National Science Foundation and others wrestled with if there should be an explicit focus on funding “research for national needs” and just how to evaluate that. Simply typing “research funding accountability” into Google yields millions of links to studies, books and conferences where others have raised similar issues for decades.
In a nutshell, I understand and support the value of research, including basic research, and the central role of research universities in the science and technology eco-system that is the backbone of America’s economic role in the world. I also am unafraid to look at the data, ask hard questions around productivity, cost-benefits and accountability because I think it is possible to measure the value of research to our common weal. Perhaps the best sense of my overall approach to research is what I said on my feet earlier this year as moderator of a panel discussion, where I mentioned that
research is an integral part of the university and economic resources of the state. You may watch the short clip of my remarks here: http://vimeo.com/21526494.
Let me conclude by quoting a recent remark of U.T. Austin President William Powers Jr. “We are committed to inventing and reinventing what it means to be a great public university. We want to make sure that we do it in a way that also advances great public research.” I am in total alignment with President Powers’ comments. I believe that process of reinvention requires us to ask hard questions that may challenge the status quo as we are held accountable for outcomes. That, after all, is how any great organization, including public universities, continually improve.
I hope this letter provides some context and helps clarify my views on the value of research and the research university. Please let me know if you have any further questions.
Like you, I look forward to strengthening the teaching, research and public service commitments of the University of Texas System and its intuitions.