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MIT gets some praise in report criticizing research universities

MIT was one of 20 universities that was singled out for some praise last week in a study that sharply criticized undergraduate education at America's 125 research universities as an afterthought to graduate education and research.

The report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities," called on universities to "make research-based learning the standard" for undergraduate education and to create a community which emphasizes and rewards teaching and which graduates students who are articulate in writing and speaking.

MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), now in its 30th year, was the first positive "Signs of Change" example cited in the report. MIT's Information Systems also were commended for using information technology creatively by developing "a large-scale computer service agency that, among other functions, provides an on-line teaching assistants' program to answer student queries, distributes lectures through a cable-television network and provides genetics-modeling software for biology course."

Other universities who were praised for innovative developments included Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Stanford, SUNY-Stony Brook, Syracuse, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Universities of Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri-Columbia, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

"In a great many ways," the report began, "the higher education system of the United States is the most remarkable in the world. The speed with which it developed, its record of achievement, the extent of its reach, the range of its offerings are without parallel��������������������������� the system has reached a higher proportion of the national population than that of any other country���������������������������

"In the higher education system in the United States, the research universities have played a leading role: the country's 125 research universities make up only 3 per cent of the total number of institutions of higher learning, yet they confer 32 percent of the baccalaureate degrees��������������������������� Their graduates fill the legislatures and board rooms of the country, write the books we read, treat our ailments, litigate our issues, develop our new technologies and provide our entertainment. To an overwhelming degree, they have furnished the cultural, intellectual, economic and political leadership of the nation.

"Nevertheless, the research universities have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate populations��������������������������� An undergraduate at an American research university can receive an education as good or better than anything available anywhere in the world, but that is not the normative experience," the report asserted.

The report criticized research universities for too often using badly trained or untrained teaching assistants, and for allowing some tenured professors to deliver "set lectures from yellowed notes, making no effort to engage the bored minds of the students in front of them.

"Many students graduate��������������������������� without knowing how to think logically, write clearly or speak coherently," the report said. Although there have been innovations, "for the most part, fundamental change has been shunned."

The report outlined these 10 ways to change undergraduate education at research universities:

1. Make research based-learning the standard
2. Construct an inquiry-based freshman year
3. Build on the freshman foundation
4. Remove barriers to interdisciplinary education
5. Link communication skills and course work
6. Use information technology creatively
7. Culminate with a capstone experience
8. Educate graduate students as apprentice teachers
9. Change faculty reward systems
10. Cultivate a sense of community

The complete text of the report is available on the web.


Although the report criticized research universities as a whole, it did not comment negatively on any single university. However, news reports on ABC World News Tonight and WBUR radio inaccurately attributed the negative general comments to leading universities, such as Harvard and MIT. At MIT, the report generated a flurry of comments via e-mail.

Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind Williams said the MIT Task Force on Student Life and Learning "is actively studying these same issues. We welcome the 10 recommendations. We are already doing many things along the lines that are proposed and are making specific progress on others, such as integrating communications skills into the entire curriculum.

"The challenge is how to accomplish the main recommendations of the Carnegie report, especially developing mentoring relationships around research-based learning, without driving up further the cost of higher education, which is already too high."

Iddo Gilon, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science and a member of the task force, said, "There is a lot of room for us to embrace this report and commend it for independently coming to the conclusions which we have as well after a nearly two-year effort. We are already initiating its recommendations at various levels of progress. We are far ahead of this report's assessment."

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Leslie Perelman noted that MIT was moving ahead on integrating communication skills into the curriculum, such as the undergraduate biology journal required in Professor Paul Matsudaira's introductory biology class.


"I believe we look very good when examined with regard to the undergraduate teaching of highly regarded faculty. We have many excellent examples of stars teaching undergraduates," said Professor R. John Hansman of aeronautics and astronautics, another member of the task force.

"The one area I think we need to explain is the use of graduate (and undergraduate) teaching assistants. I would argue that this actually improves the quality of teaching by giving the undergraduate students access to several levels of support. In most cases, graduate TAs always work as part of a team which is led by one or more faculty members who normally do the lecturing. The students can then go to the graduate teaching assistant or to the faculty member for clarification. Graduate teaching assistants are often more effective since they can relate to the student at more of a peer level.

"Viewed from a systems perspective, this approach also provides a basis to educate the graduate students as apprentice teachers as the Carnegie report suggests. By the way, it also reinforces and motivates the learning of the graduate students who must really master the material to teach it," Professor Hansman said.


Jeremy Sher, a senior in mathematics, task force member and a tour guide for prospective students, commented, "I emphatically agree that the use of graduate students is a benefit; they are often very effective at teaching. Yes, in some cases the quality of our teaching could be improved, but by and large, and especially in the introductory classes, MIT does very well in this area.

"Some excellent teachers who spring immediately to mind from my experience across a range of departments are [Professors] Don Sadoway [materials science and engineering], Arthur Mattuck and Gian-Carlo Rota [mathematics], Ned Hall [linguistics and philosophy], Pauline Maier [history], Robert Fogelson [urban studies and planning], Stuart White [political science] and Julia Scher [architecture]. Also, all (really!) of my TAs have been excellent, but two who stand out in my memory are Mike Shin [materials science and engineering] and Sang Chin [math]."

Professor of Chemistry Robert A. Silbey, who is one of the 31 professors named as MacVicar Teaching Fellows for their excellent teaching, said, "On the issue of graduate TAs, I would add that a number of departments run TA training in a very serious manner, thus accomplishing two objectives of the report: graduate student teacher-training and improvement of recitation teaching.

"In addition, our freshman class lecturers are senior professors. And when I speak to my friends at Columbia, Berkeley, Stanford, Wisconsin, this is true in chemistry classes throughout the US. When I spoke to the Cost Commission (set up by Congress to investigate the rising cost of higher education), they were not surprised to learn this, and they spoke about how the universities and colleges were rapidly changing. I suspect that the Carnegie study is aiming at a quickly moving target."


"The biggest flaw of this study -- fatal, in my opinion -- is its total disregard for the economics of a modern research university," said Professor Jesus Del Alamo of electrical engineering and computer science, also a member of the Task Force. "Throughout the report, there are not even passing mentions to limited resources (faculty time, student time) nor cost of setting up and maintaining facilities. I find this shocking.

"They are very generous in proposing all kinds of nice new programs. You can certainly do that when resources are plentiful and money is no object. Nowhere in this report do the authors feel forced to make choices. They do not provide any suggestions for what should be curtailed to enable the implementation of their proposals.

"The second fatal flaw of this study is the assessment of the current undergraduate education in research universities. They use terms such as 'crisis' and 'failure' and refer to undergraduates as 'second-class citizens.' They provide no data, not even anecdotal, to back this assessment.

"There are surely areas in need of improvement. The world is also moving fast and we might not be adapting quickly enough. However, 'failure' strikes me as a grossly unjust term to characterize undergraduate education in research universities in the US," Professor Del Alamo said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 29, 1998.

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