Excellence and Diversity at the University of Montana

Fred W. Reed

[Note: This essay and Richard Drake's were presented by the authors on February 14, 1995 at the Philosophy Forum at the University of Montana-Missoula. The Philosophy Forum is a colloquium series of long-standing in which topics of campus and broader academic interest are addressed. The meeting of February 14 focused on two general topics - the function of research at a modern university and research at the University of Montana - Missoula and its relation to the twin objectives of pursuing excellence and diversity. Professor Richard Drake presented on the first topic and Professor Fred W. Reed addressed the second.

Reed's presentation makes reference to two reports prepared by subcommittees of The University Research and Creative Activity Committee. These two reports, one concerning the current status of scholarly research on campus and the other regarding the campus environment facilitating or inhibiting research, were produced as part of a larger effort to identify appropriate research objectives for the University's future. Some of the findings of the two reports are noted in Reed's presentation. Copies of the reports can be obtained from the Office of Research Administration at the University of Montana-Missoula.

As our regents have become insistent that faculty spend more time teaching, it has become clear, we believe, that the research mission of our university system is in a precarious situation. Excellence in the academy has traditionally been associated with the production and dissemination of knowledge. If increased emphasis on teaching obliges the teaching faculty to be only purveyors of knowledge produced elsewhere, our future relation to the larger academy may be jeopardized. Other campuses of the University of Montana system also may be addressing this issue.]

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to offer my thoughts and analysis concerning research at The University of Montana. I would like to thank the organizing committee and Professor Borgmann for the invitation. This occasion was an opportunity to examine my own ideas concerning this topic and to spend some anxious moments considering my own foolhardiness at taking on this issue.

My brief is to take up three topics. First, I will summarize and offer some evaluative comments on two reports from campus committees--a report from a committee chaired by Professor Borgmann (hereafter called the Borgmann Report) titled "Scholarly Publications at the University of Montana" and a report from a committee chaired by Professor Fetz (hereafter called the Fetz Report) titled "URCAC Subcommittee on Research Environment." Second, I was asked to offer some views representing a sociological interpretation of pressures facilitating and inhibiting research on our campus. Finally, I will offer comments concerning the tension between diversity and excellence.

Most social analysis is affected by our own biographies. My first trade was plastering and bricklaying. Later, after serving in the U. S. Army, the U.S. Peace Corps and graduating from the University of North Carolina, I joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. There, when I opened the catalog, the first words said that the University of Chicago was devoted to the "life of the mind." My first reaction was, "What have I got myself into now?"

I have provided this background to make several points. First, historically sociologists have been marginal to society either through their ethnic or class origins. Second, they have traditionally made a profession of examining claims that others make about their lives and organizations. Sociologists often think of others' assertions, claims and justifications as testable hypotheses. This habit of mind causes competent and active sociologists to be generally unpopular with those whose concerns they investigate. We may draw on this issue when discussing diversity versus excellence. I will now turn to the issue at hand.

The Borgmann report begins by asserting with Boyer that the primary mission of colleges and universities in the United States has not always been research and publication. Rather, research and publication have had primacy only the past sixty to seventy years. Borgmann tells us that research and publication gained primacy as America turned to the pragmatic production of knowledge in the pursuit of scientific and technological development. The academic reward structure was altered and those who were most successful in producing research were most highly rewarded. Borgmann points to several reasons why we should consider carefully whether research and publication should feature so prominently in our scheme of things. First, most of what is published is of dubious value. Second, while many faculty bow to the ideal of research as preeminent, most faculty regard themselves as teachers and most publish very little. Finally, outside academia some question whether faculty efforts would be better allocated to the classroom. These last voices come mostly from the political arena.

Using Boyer's scheme, Borgmann proposes that scholarship divided into the four areas of discovery, integration, application and teaching allocates useful roles to all in the academy. This scheme accepts the reality that many faculty do little research and there is little that can be done for it. Scholarship is important for Borgmann; perhaps a scholarship that more closely approximates the University of Chicago "life of the mind" or the possession of an academic agenda that would serve to enrich the academic conversation. We will return to this issue later.

Professor Borgmann's committee approached its task of assessing research publication at the University of Montana by using two independent data sources. The first source emerged because David Toppen, Deputy Commissioner of the university system directed all units to report on faculty scholarly productivity from 1986 through 1990. Some of you may remember the departments organizing a report in which we all provided totals of our publications. We will call this "the self report." The second data source was developed with the help of Barry Brown from a computerized analysis of The Science Citation Index, The Social Science Citation Index, and The Arts and Humanities Citation Index. We will call this the "citation report."

Borgmann makes several observations in analyzing the self report. He reports that for the five-year period under consideration, 20 percent of the faculty published nothing at all and that the most productive 10 percent produced nearly half of the publications. An anomaly appeared in the self reports. Assistant professors are as productive as full professors, while associate professors are markedly less productive than either of the other two groups. This anomaly was attributed to high producers moving quickly from Assistant rank to Full Professor rank. The average productivity was somewhat higher for men than for women. This could be cause for concern, if productivity differences produce financial disparities.

After grouping the faculty into Biological Sciences, Business, Education, Forestry, Humanities, Journalism, Law, Library, Pharmacy, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences, Borgmann found that the Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Pharmacy clearly outranked Law and the remainder of the groups. He notes that this was to be expected given the national trends. Turning to the citation data, it is possible to compare UM with peer institutions. According to the comparative data, UM falls somewhat below average. This is especially true for the natural sciences. Compared to our peers, publication in the arts and humanities at UM ranks highly, once the comparative sizes of our faculties are taken into account. Of course, when salaries are compared, UM ranks unsurprisingly dead last.

Borgmann proposes, somewhat tongue in cheek that UM has successfully resisted, "The Tyranny of the Research Model," or perhaps we have simply been left behind. He proposes that a strategy for the future might be to dichotomize our faculty into a group called researchers and a group labeled attentive scholars (an odd euphemism.) Presumably, this latter group would consist of those who are in his words, "simply unwilling or unable to do research." This latter group would, in his scheme, be periodically subjected to exams to ascertain their continuing level of competence.

Fetz takes on the task of attempting to identify aspects of UM's research environment that are significant in aiding or inhibiting research productivity. He and his committee organized an interview schedule and set out to interview unit chairers about the campus research environment. Interestingly, two unit heads refused to participate due to their skepticism regarding the entire project. This is, in my judgment, one of their most important findings.

The Fetz interviews turned up the full set of the usual suspects. Respondents cited high teaching loads, heavy service commitments, low pay that makes summer teaching obligatory, lack of outside financial support, no departmental research culture, minimal opportunities for collaboration, UM's remote location, lack of travel money, a lack of departmental operations money, limited library holdings, and a lack of equipment such as PC's and laboratories. According to Fetz, "Virtually every dean, chair, and director interviewed asserted that the most important factor in research productivity, regardless of discipline, is the initiative, ambition, and desire of the individual faculty members."

My own evidence is consistent with this widespread, but mistaken, imputation of personal control. A senior administrator here told me and my collaborator, "We have given up on developing a graduate faculty or getting more research effort out of the present faculty. We'll let your generation die off or retire and put our efforts on new hires." The Fetz report ends with some usual recommendations beginning with the poignant plea, "To what extent is it reasonable or desirable to expect that all tenured or tenure-track faculty will be subject to similar expectations regarding research and creative productivity?" Borgmann responds, "A faculty member who is neither a productive nor an attentive scholar really has no place at a university."

Both the Borgmann and Fetz reports are written in a spirit of both thoughtfulness and generosity. They carefully report their findings. Borgmann offers them in a context of having a mature understanding of the academy and its role in the good society. If we ask some additional questions of the findings, some additional useful insights appear.

Borgmann finds it anomalous that both Assistant and Full Professors have high research productivity while Associate Professors' productivity is relatively low. This anomaly may be resolved when the data from the self-reports are compared with the citation data. In the self-report, the UM faculty report somewhere around 2000 publications (Figure 9 in that document) for the five-year period 1986-1990. The citation data base shows about 850 items. Roughly, 1100 items seem to be absent. Might our Full Professors have learned to claim many odd and even dubious items as publications? A review of several departments in the social and behavioral sciences shows that they enjoy high research productivity from new Assistant Professors. Once those faculty members' energy from graduate training has been exhausted they get tenure and their first promotion and finally come into equilibrium with the institution. A period of low productivity as an Associate is often followed by a Full Professor appointment and claims of any and all efforts being a publication.

Let us turn to another approach to research at UM by linking research to broader concerns. While Boyer and other critics of the present academy argue that the university as a research institution is of rather recent vintage, they must acknowledge that the academy draws its only sustenance from faculty who have intellectual or scholarly agendas. Every element of the academy, in Pirsig's sense, should drive each of us to have a scholarly agenda and to participate actively in the conversation that sustains and brings life to the academy. Let me offer one or two crude bases of support for this argument. First, I cannot imagine any of us bragging of having our training from a graduate faculty that never published or put into print the evidence of their intellectual activity. Those of us who have earned Ph.D.s earned them by doing research and bringing a focused scholarly agenda to fruition. Our training focused on making researchers of us. When we stop pursuing an intellectual agenda and preparing papers, we simply turn our backs on what we were trained to do. Some time ago, in my own department, a senior (might I say aging) colleague upon seeing the publication records of two department members remarked that he had many fine papers in his desk drawer that would be published if only he could find the time to complete them. I assert that intellectual agendas that fail to be confirmed in practice (in this case in print) are at least phantom if not fraudulent. I propose that the professional climate on our campus is one that beseeches, "I won't examine your professional claims if you don't examine mine."

In the early 1950s when I was learning the plastering trade, I remarked to my father when we had finished a beautiful room that the owners would really love the job we had given them. He responded by saying that the owners would never know what they had. Only another competent plasterer could appreciate the quality of the work. I have found that plumbers, carpenters and other craftspeople have the same perception. In the academy, those of us who still claim membership know this to be true of our own work. Only another trained publishing sociologist is capable of adequately judging my professional efforts. Students, administrators, and my consulting clients may vary in their judgments of my professional fitness. They have, however, only untrained bases from which to judge. In the academy we depend on blind anonymous peer review to vouch for our competence. Deans and students at best participate in popularity contests in which professional competence is involved by happenstance at best.

Many of us are members of departments that offer graduate training. We should ask whether the training we offer our students is of the same quality as that which nourished us. Do we pursue our scholarly agenda as vigorously as our mentors did? In my own department, I think it is fair to say that our graduate students are mentored by faculty who, for the most part have exhibited no peer-reviewed intellectual efforts for a decade or more. Can our graduate students be healthy when their scholarly nutrition is provided by intellectual anorexics?

It is tempting to propose, as do Borgmann and Fetz, that a shortage of resources and poor salaries account for the paucity of peer-reviewed intellectual products. That argument is easily falsified. The Borgmann report, for example, aggregates many departments under the category of Arts and Humanities. Certainly, English, Foreign Languages and Literatures, and History have access to the same resource and salary pool. If resources and salaries are really environmental causes of poor productivity, we should see roughly equal scholarship among those departments. If we disaggregate that group, then, and assume that the resources available to the departments are nearly equal, we can ask whether the History faculty have the same average scholarly output as the faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures. If the respective outputs are the same (according to John Stuart Mill's canon of similarity) we can agree that the resource base is a probable cause of the low output. On the other hand, if one of the two departments seriously exceeds the output of the other, we are forced to concede that the resource base does not account for the difference. The claims that faculty make for why they don't publish are thus turned into testable hypotheses. Recently, a colleague who left the department of mathematical sciences for a job elsewhere proposed that the UM motto should be "publish or stay." This may point to departmental cultures that inhibit active intellectual agendas.

Some authorities propose that effective teaching may have taken the place of pursuing scholarly agendas and publishing. This is, again, a testable hypothesis. The Borgmann report cites work suggesting that just the opposite may be true. Our most active scholars often appear to provide high levels of both service and teaching as well as research. More to the point, on this campus, my own casual observation suggests that the best students form long lines to meet with the most intellectually active faculty.

Many years ago, B F. Skinner performed a series of experiments in which reinforcement was provided randomly to chickens in an experimental chamber. The chickens, through time, exhibited repetitive and ritualistic behaviors. Some hopped around on one foot, others spent their time turning in circles, while still others stared in fixation at one point or another in the chamber. Skinner termed this behavior superstitious. To a considerable degree faculty at UM work in an environment in which rewards, while not provided at random, are often capricious rather than being systematically related to scholarly effort or research productivity. (As an aside, let me note that the Borgmann committee reported a relationship between publication and pay. I know nothing of the procedures used.) During my stay here, merit pay increases have been given routinely for being Senate Chairer, for UTU activity and in one astounding instance, Dean Rinehardt announced that he was providing merit pay increases to "stars of second-order of brightness." Our lack of shared attention to research is not surprising given a twenty-year series of deans whose scholarly records and efforts clearly emphasize popularity over competence, whose assignments of merit pay increases exhibit no discernible scholarly objectives and whose own memberships in the academy have been tenuous. A learning theorist would not be surprised to see a faculty such as ours indulging such a wide variety of styles.

Some years ago, I read an essay by Montaigne in which he bewailed his fate at being born in a time when trickery and dissimulation were valued over integrity. One sometimes imagines our environment at UM to be the moral inverse so cursed by the French essayist. We are guilty of gross elitism, a perverse creation of a privileged caste, by giving the greatest prestige to those who have been here longest and who are the most agreeable independent of their academic contribution. Only recently, I asked to review the CVs from two or three departments. I was told that faculty consider the CV to be a confidential document only to be released by the individual faculty member. Perhaps, we at UM need a "reality check" to put us back in touch with the academy.

Watching the CAS from an outsider's point of view has been interesting during those times when we have had an external review of departments. In my own department, for example, peer-reviewed publications have seldom been held in high regard. At our last outside review, however, the high publication rates of two faculty were touted by our department. The outside reviewer reacted by noting the absence of publication from most faculty resumes. The CAS dean, presumably seeing the disruption caused by peer review has discontinued outside reviews in favor of internal reviews conducted by those who are more in equilibrium with the institution.

I propose that rather than looking at the environmental factors that we invoke to grant ourselves indulgences, we should rather look at the emphases adopted by our deans and other administrators. Also, we might carefully analyze those departments in which scholarly activity is high to learn what it is that maintains such intense effort without systematic external rewards.

Boyer, Borgmann, and Fetz all ask whether we might not usefully assign those who can't, don't, and won't pursue and maintain a scholarly agenda to teaching primarily. We could then check from time to time to see if the "teachers" are still in touch. Such a suggestion has, I think, little merit but is unfortunately the direction in which the University of Montana is now headed. While I cannot offer precise figures, inquiries on the floor of the faculty senate make it clear that an ever increasing proportion of our courses are taught using last minute street-side recruits, graduate students of unknown skills, adjuncts and others who have not yet fully joined the academy. These are the teachers who are shaping our student culture. Do we want those who have not offered evidence of their skill, academic agendas, and respect for the pursuit of knowledge representing the academy to future taxpayers? Such would not be my wish. The CAS dean reports that these semi-citizens of the academy are hugely successful as teachers. Since no measure of teaching adequacy has been applied in these cases, other than popularity measured in ISES items, I can't imagine how their skills are assessed.

I was asked to offer some comments on how excellence can be pursued vigorously and diversity as a value can be achieved simultaneously. Several slogans might be offered and each has its own grain of truth. One might say that minority status is certainly not a reason to exclude someone from the academy and minority status for certain is the last reason for inclusion. Some years ago, a judge by the name of Carswell was nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice. It was well known that Carwell's legal skills were mediocre at best. Senator Roman Hruska from Nebraska made the case for diversity when he said, "most Americans are average they should have an average person on the court to represent them." Happily, Carswell's nomination failed.

With regard to tradesmen, we, as consumers, seek one thing only. We seek excellence and competence. If we were hiring a plumber and were told that a candidate had only met the minimum requirement, but had the added advantage of being of minority status, most of us would ask for another plumber. Similarly, none of us would care to start out on a long automobile journey after someone who just met the minimum requirements had serviced our car. Rather, we want someone with unquestioned competence. Would you choose to have your child educated by someone who only met the minimum or less? Most UM faculty do their best to get their kids into Notre Dame, Columbia, or another prestigious school. What sense should we make of that? Are they seeking admission to Notre Dame because of the Church's fine record in the area of gender? I think not.

Finally, I must propose that the search for diversity on this campus has been largely fraudulent. At a university, diversity would reasonably be related to differences in the world of ideas. If we seek those who actively pursue a scholarly agenda and who can ably articulate different views in a marketplace that is open to vigorous debate, we should not have to concede valuable faculty positions to those whose skills and potential are modest but whose primary value is their minority status. The recent forced retirements of those whose attitudes and utterances did not fit UM and the hires without searches reveal nothing so much as attempts to dilute intellectual diversity and to recruit acolytes and cronies. Sadly, a potential consequence will be to compromise the integrity of new "diversity hires," to establish a protected class of faculty not subject to the same evaluation criteria as their colleagues, and to besmirch the academic competence and commitment of minorities who are hired.

Are there no competent or excellent minorities who could lend racial and gender diversity to our institution? I believe there are. We will not recruit them by paying substandard salaries and engaging in non-searches. I propose an alternative approach. If Borgmann, Fetz and the administration can identify those who can't, won't and don't do what they were trained and hired to do, then let us do what the public wishes and send them on their way. The most debased version of elitism is keeping nonproductive faculty just because they once earned terminal degrees. If the faculty lines occupied by "attentive scholars" were cleared, they could easily be filled by those with the intention and desire to be productive members of the academy. The search for diversity will compromise excellence only when diversity means appearances not ideas.

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