Undergrad education gets

Brian Bakst

and Jeremy Taff

A branch of a respected think tank slammed American research universities in a report released Monday, suggesting undergraduates are shortchanged at the expense of faculty research.
University officials reacted to the Carnegie Foundation-sponsored report by attempting to distance themselves from the 125-school group in which they were clustered.
Administrators cited undergraduate initiatives, such as University 2000 and computerized registration, as areas where the school excels.
Still, the stinging report — which goes so far as to scold universities for practices that border on deceptive advertising — surfaces as Congress deliberates over the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. The legislation governs federal funding levels for student aid and other outlays for university programs.
While acknowledging the importance of research advancements, members of the 11-person commission that wrote the report said not enough has been done to make sure undergraduate education has kept pace.
“Baccalaureate students are the second-class citizens who are allowed to pay taxes but are barred from voting, the guests at the banquet who pay their share of the tab but are given leftovers,” the report states.
The report, the third in a series of Carnegie studies on higher education since 1990, said university focus on research rankings and productivity puts student learning and critical thinking in the backseat.
“There are a lot of people who want to pose this as a dichotomy: That either you’re in favor of research or in favor of undergraduates,” said Marvin Marshak, who juggled the delicate balance as former University President Nils Hasselmo’s chief academic adviser.
“I don’t believe that’s how it works.”
Commission members recognized that schools are attempting to remedy perceived problems, but offered 10 areas where they could improve. For instance, from freshman year on, students could be included in research traditionally aided by graduate students. To graduate, students would be required to complete a major research project.
Many of the suggestions encompass programs in the making or in place at the University. These include: the University Research Opportunities Program, courses and seminars geared specifically toward freshmen, and teaching workshops for graduate students.
Many of these initiatives are part of the larger U2000 plan instituted under Hasselmo. The Board of Regents approved the measure in 1994.
Regent Tom Reagan said he thinks the plan kept the University from falling into many of the traps identified in the Carnegie report. “We have recognized that an undergraduate institution has to be treated properly if you want to succeed at the higher levels,” Reagan said.
“I’ve seen an uptick, a move in the right direction, in the past few years,” he added.
In 1996, the average class size numbered 27.7 students, down from 32.6 in 1986. During the same span, the number of class hours taught by full professors rose to 40 percent, up from 23 percent.
Since assuming the presidency last July, Mark Yudof has spoken emphatically about moving the school into the top five research universities in the country. The University ranks 20th among all institutions in the National Research Council rankings and is ninth among public universities.
This has resonated with regents, who periodically have discussed the University’s mission and direction, said Patricia Spence, the board’s vice chairwoman.
Whether a vault in rankings can take place without sacrificing undergraduate education is unclear. It’s something students should watch closely, said Jigar Madia, Minnesota Student Association president.
“Nothing is set in stone; anyone can draw up plans,” he said. “It’s a matter of students getting on the administration to actually execute these plans to keep undergraduate education on top.”