Education’s broad value

Jul. 23, 2014 @ 05:57 PM

Colleges and universities are facing more and more scrutiny these days over the value of the education they provide and the degrees they grant.

That is understandable – college costs continue to rise, student debt has become a troubling burden for many graduates (and even greater burden for drop-outs), the recent recession darkened at least the short-term job outlook for many with those newly minted degrees.

And as many government leaders look to institutions of higher education, especially public ones, to help drive economic development, it is fair to question whether they could be doing more of that, more directly.

Hence, efforts by a trustee committee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to compare the school’s success in turning faculty research into new businesses are worthwhile. The committee’s finding that UNC ranks relatively low in such measures as licensing income and patents issued should be a spur to focus more attention on transforming research into real-world ventures.

But we found troubling one message from a memo by Phillip Clay, co-chair of the board’s Innovation and Impact Committee.

He wrote that the university’s research portfolio includes significant effort in areas such as behavioral and social sciences “where the commercialization potential is low.”

Surely, as important as commercial applications of research are, those ought not to the major metric for every field of study at our system’s flagship university.

Academic research can – must – be measured by far more than its point A-to-point-B translation into job-creating new enterprises.

Dean Randy Diehl of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin put it eloquently in a paper on “The Impact of Humanities and Social Science Research:

“Research in the College of Liberal Arts assists police officers in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. It helps predict post-traumatic stress disorders in our soldiers. It drives efforts to eradicate diseases. It guides governments and social movements. It informs health and immigration policy. And it makes language textbooks more affordable.

“This research promotes a vibrant intellectual community by attracting top students and encouraging them to explore topics in greater depth. It also ensures that our graduates have been exposed to the most up-to-date and relevant bodies of knowledge as they begin their careers or continue their educations.”

Too narrowly defining the economic value of research, tying it too closely to short-term job creation, runs the risk of eroding its ability to serve the long-term interests of society.

It worries us when the debate over research echoes Gov. Pat McCrory’s inelegant assertion to radio talk-show host Bill Bennett last year that he wanted universities funded  “not based on how many butts in seats, but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

Let’s work to make sure the vital research underway at our universities can be leveraged into commercially viable and economically robust products. But let’s also remember that universities’ research and teaching is about more than that, too.