A question about university administrators & governing boards

This question arose for me at the end of the question period after Gladwell’s talk.  Gladwell, who has three best sellers and is a writer for the New Yorker, is an extremely high quality journalist with a great eye for both trends and details.  What shows up in Outliers is pretty clearly very important for social  policy, as he is beginning to say.

His talk was before the typical ‘intelligent, reading audience’ in a large US city that isn’t New York City.  At the end one man asked him if he had been contacted by President  Obama.  Gladwell laughed and explained that he didn’t do the research that he was reporting; Obama might contact him about writing a book, but the research was really from others (as he is very clear in the book).  If you didn’t know much about research, it would be easy to miss this, I would bet, given Gladwell’s erudition and wit.

The difference between those who do the research and others who may make money off of it in various ways is, many think, very important when one thinks about research excellence and being a very good university (‘Tier One,’ as some jargon has  it.)  But how does one tell the difference and who can tell the difference?

For those of you in colleges and universities:  do you think the people running the place can tell the difference?  Remember, you do not have to give your real name!

5 thoughts on “A question about university administrators & governing boards

  1. I’m not sure this distinction (doing vs “making money off of” research) is all that crisp to begin with, so I’m not sure I would want university administrators insisting on it. For example, I think Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel is an awesome synthesis and interpretation of a lot of other people’s research. Yes, he made tons of money off of it. But Jared Diamond surely adds luster to his university (UCLA, is it?). Richard Dawkins books are similar (not his research, lots of money made) but he adds luster to Oxford.

  2. Nice point about the distinction. But I think Diamond and Dawkins are both well respected in their fields, are they not, as doing important research? (Gladwell is immensely respected as a journalist, but not as a researcher in psychology.) So the imprecise distinction I’m looking for is that between people advancing knowledge in their field and people who are not, despite fan fare they might get in terms of money and support. It is, for example, perfectly possible to crunch numbers in light of others’ theories while you are doing a kind of community service. Depending on the field, that might bring in big grant money. If your administrators cannot tell the difference between that and faculty who are internationally respected for theoretical developments in a field, then it can get problematic, especially if they make major academic decisions without consulting faculty.

    Once in a similar discussion, someone at another university said “Our VP for research cannot tell the difference between research and buildings.” That’s the kind of problem I’m thinking about, though with obvious differences.

    Note that I didn’t say that the administrators should insist on it, but I think you can be in trouble if they have control of the research directions of the institution and can’t see the distinction.

    So the question might be: can your administrators understand enough about research to make good major decisions? It doesn’t matter as much, of course, if they don’t make major decisions.

    Now someone recently from a fine science group at UC London said to me that they have the same problem, but I somehow doubt it. What do you all think?

  3. I think Jared Diamond has done original research about gallbladder physiology and birds (strange combination!), but that research doesn’t play into his book Guns Germs and Steel, much. Yet I think that book would do any university proud. There is original thinking in there, even if the research he gathers together wasn’t done by him. (I think it’s much the same with Richard Dawkins.) I think Malcolm Gladwell does the same kind of thing, but doesn’t deserve as much credit only because he isn’t as interesting and original. So…. administrators need to have an eye for what is interesting and original, whether an academic is riding piggyback on other peoples’ research or not. At least, that would be my sense of things.

  4. If you write an excellent review paper, where you synthesize the work of others, it’s quite similar to writing a book in which you don’t do the original research. A review can either have excellent new thought as concerns the synthesis of information, or it can be just a pile of nonsense pulled together without much thought. I think whether a book or review, the synthesis of information is a very valuable contribution to the overall picture, and should be highly regarded as a unique skill that complements outstanding original research. After all, sometimes (especially in this day and age) research results can get lost in the shuffle, but if they are highlighted in a critical review they may come back to the forefront.

    Besides which, how “original” is original research these days? Einstein had original thoughts. Modern academics make incremental advances.

  5. If I remember correctly, one of the things that endeared Margaret Thatcher to scientists in the UK was her decision that Britain didn’t need to be doing basic research; that could be left to other countries. That attitude may be one of the reasons why Britain’s share of Nobel Prizes has plummeted (I think I am right in saying).

    That sort of decision-making is repeated in universities a great deal of the time. Even in poor state universities, administrators may have millions to spend on their projects, and how they do it can make a huge difference to the quality of education and research at a university. So that’s the decision making I’m wondering about, however poorly I’ve managed to articulate it.

    Notfromaroundhere: I wonder if in part we should consider what the incremental research looks like when it is put together. There’s a new science of the human being that is being vigorously developed across a large number of universities today. Some of it is quite transformative, and not all of it is very high tech. (It would be great to have more feminists involved in it.)

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