Eight years ago, recently installed as the president of a research university, I became increasingly concerned about the quality of undergraduate education at my university and at our peer institutions. American research universities had become the envy of the world for the remarkable quality and quantity of research. Our graduate programs produced the leading future scientists and scholars here and abroad. And although we numbered only 6 percent of the bachelor's degree–granting institutions, 32 percent of all undergraduates got their bachelor's degrees from us.
But because both reputation and substantial federal dollars depended on research, many faculty viewed undergraduate education as an unwanted and tedious obligation, neither intellectually rewarding nor important (although financially essential to the university).
Faculty members, engaged in research, willingly bought the argument that liberal-arts colleges were best for undergraduates because they could provide smaller classes and more individual attention. We did not question whether one size fit all; we did not offer an alternative vision created from our own strengths. Our undergraduates had chosen to attend research universities, but we rarely invited them to partake of research. (There were certainly notable exceptions. Some universities developed undergraduate research programs for the best students, and the National Science Foundation provided early encouragement for integrating education and research.)
The complaints from undergraduates at research universities were myriad—classes were too big, undergraduates did not have enough class time with professors, teaching assistants had impenetrable accents. Meanwhile, after commencement, students were forsaking their undergraduate majors in droves to head for MBAs or immediate jobs rather than pursuing graduate work in arts and sciences. We had to import increasing numbers of graduate students to meet the needs in science and engineering.
I believed it was essential for us to integrate the research, graduate and undergraduate missions of our universities, and we needed to do it fast. So I went to see Ernest L. Boyer, then head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Ernie agreed with me, and together we established the National Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, with Ernie, an old hand at such reports and a wise and determined leader, as the chair, and with distinguished scholars in various fields as the members.
Under Ernie's guidance, our commission began discussions, often passionate, from many points of view. At least one member questioned whether research universities should consider undergraduate education a priority at all. The discussions were energetic, heated, stimulating. Sadly, Ernie died long before we had completed our work, but the commission continued in his memory. We realized by then the importance of the discussions we had started.
Renamed the Boyer Commission in honor of Ernie, our panel released its report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities, four years ago. We recommended 10 ways to change higher education, detailed in more than 50 specific recommendations. Most of the recommendations were research-related: A research university ought to provide research experience for every student, beginning with an inquiry-based freshman year and culminating in a capstone experience. Students should become experienced with interdisciplinary approaches, collaboration, creative use of information technology, and writing and speaking skills, all necessary components of professional research.
The Boyer Commission recognized that the report, a call to action that was not couched in overly cautious language, would be controversial. We knew that some would protest that the recommendations were unreachable or impractical while others would assert that their institutions were already serving undergraduates well and needed, if anything, only minor adjustments. We wanted the report to stir new debate, encourage experimentation and result in widespread change, whether that change took the direction of our specific recommendations or not.
The Boyer Report evoked an immediate and explosive response. Once the furor died down, it interested far more than research universities—actually every segment of higher education as well as government officials, boards of trustees, disciplinary associations and scholarly publications. Not everybody loved it, but most felt compelled to examine their own requirements and needs, to evaluate their own individual directions. And that, of course, was what we were aiming for.
The intervening years have seen extraordinary attention to undergraduate education and new inventiveness in pedagogy. Undergraduate research has become a byword. Every research university at least claims to have it, whether it is available to large numbers of students or not. Freshman seminars, as an introduction to research, are multiplying, even if they are still too often reserved for only the top students.
Crucial to the movement has been the attention of funding agencies, particularly the National Science Foundation, which had become concerned about undergraduates before the Commission went to work, and of Sigma Xi and other disciplinary and interdisciplinary societies. Faculty now feel first allegiance to their discipline rather than their institution; when the disciplinary associations host sessions on undergraduate education at their annual meetings, faculty members begin to focus on it. When NSF requires undergraduate participation for grants, investigators want undergraduates in their laboratories.
One improbable measure of the new view of undergraduate experience turned up in the 2002 college-ranking issue of U.S. News and World Report, that arbiter of collegiate excellence. A new section listed universities that excel in "Programs That Enhance Learning." The eight programs sounded very familiar to the commission, since all but one appeared in the Boyer Report:
- Freshman seminars
- Internships or practicums
- Senior capstones
- Undergraduate research/creative projects
- Learning communities
- Study abroad (the exception)
- Writing in the disciplines
When even the popular press recognizes these programs as desirable, when our rhetoric encompasses them, things are at least beginning to change.
From Words to Action
But beyond the rhetoric, are students really doing undergraduate research- To determine exactly what the current situation is, we commissioned a survey for the Boyer reunion meeting in 2001, which we decided to publish as Reinventing Undergraduate Education: Three Years after the Boyer Report.
Interviewers contacted deans, vice provosts or vice presidents working with undergraduate programs in the 123 Research I and II universities (according to the old Carnegie classification) that offer baccalaureate degrees. Representatives from 91 institutions (74 percent of the total) responded. Follow-up telephone interviews with 40 academic administrators added to the data. It became clear that on many campuses no precise data exist—many of the answers were approximations, perhaps even guesses; in most universities, a lot may be happening, but no one is charged with keeping score. So the collected information must be considered approximate.
"Undergraduate research" is as much a catchphrase now as "student-centered research university," whether or not the practice at a given university lives up to the prose. In fact the institutionalization of undergraduate research is by no means complete. All research universities offer opportunities for supervised undergraduate research or creative activities. About half of them, according to the survey, enroll half or more of their students, including 16 percent that have "all or most" students involved. The other half have about a quarter or fewer of their students participating.
In most institutions, at least the most promising students have research opportunities, but those possibilities vary significantly from field to field. The laboratory sciences and engineering by far outstrip the social sciences and humanities. Sixty-two percent of the survey respondents reported engaging half or more of their laboratory-science students in research, and 44 percent reported half or more of their engineering students. On the other hand, only 25 percent of social science students and 21 percent of humanists engage.
Do we have hard evidence that undergraduate research creates a better educational experience? Not yet; it is too soon to measure. But anecdotal evidence is strong. Students claim it is their most important educational experience. They work with the best professors in real-life research situations; they have the exposure and attention from major professors that large classes and sections taught by teaching assistants lack. Some get the opportunity to present papers at conferences and author or share authorship of articles. The real question will be whether they then turn toward careers in science.
The answer is crucial. As of 2000, according to National Science Foundation data, 29 percent of graduate students in science and engineering were imported from other countries. The percentages ranged as high as 53 percent in electrical engineering and 47 percent in physics.
But now the world has changed radically. No longer can we take for granted the uninterrupted flow of doctoral students from around the world. The USA Patriot Act of October 2001 created at the very least serious bureaucratic obstructions, and it carries the threat of visa denial for international students. Besides, we know that security dangers could in fact prove real. Inevitably, recruiting from certain nations will become increasingly difficult. We therefore need to get serious about growing our own graduate students, starting with freshmen or even high school students. That is the way to ensure future graduate enrollments. There is an irony in this need to bind together research, graduate study and undergraduate study, since that is supposedly our mission in the first place.
But we are fooling ourselves if we pretend we have already succeeded in transforming undergraduate education. Although administrators claim commitment and although small cadres of researchers have embraced the cause, many faculty still do not believe—perhaps with good reason—that undergraduate teaching will count significantly in tenure and promotion decisions. And the real commitment of administrators, financial and philosophical, remains to be proven.
Better undergraduate education will not be free, and economic times are tough, far more stringent than when the Boyer Report was published. But budgets are a matter of priorities; if undergraduate programs are considered important enough, they will be supported. For the continuing strength of science in this nation, that support will be crucial; but will it be recognized?