Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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George E. Walker
George E. Walker
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller

Reflections On Research and Graduate Education

by George E. Walker

Having been a faculty member and administrator at Indiana University for more than 30 years, I've had the opportunity to get to know some outstanding scholars as well as be a part of the evolution of research and creative activity at this great university. As Research & Creative Activity magazine celebrates its 25th year of existence, I offer these reflections on the opportunities and problems faced by a research university such as IU.

One of the major changes in university research is the importance of technology in a wide spectrum of research endeavors. While investment in technology was always a necessity in the life and physical sciences, now many scholars in the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities require substantial academic equipment to engage in scholarship at the frontiers of their disciplines.

Although this equipment is not limited to highly sophisticated computers, the present pervasiveness of information technology is certainly impressive. This is a continuing budgetary challenge; cutting edge computers have short effective lifespans. This shorter lifetime is generally true for other kinds of equipment (including major accelerators), and it's good news too, because it means we are making substantial progress in developing new tools to advance the frontiers of knowledge. But the gap between the more wealthy research institutions (usually private) and other research institutions is likely to widen, unless public institutions can broaden their sources of funding for engaging in increasingly expensive world-class research.

In general, I have seen an increase in collaborative research that is either interdisciplinary or multidiscipli-nary. Many areas of interest at the frontiers of knowledge require a mastery of diverse content, procedures, and ways of thinking that is unlikely to be present in a single disciplinary culture. Unfortunately, this does not mean that scholars today, educated in an interdisciplinary program, are less narrow in their thinking than single-discipline scholars educated three decades ago, and that's a problem.

In many areas of research today, there is a shorter time to an application that can improve the quality of human life. That's terrific, but faculty attention to issues of intellectual property, start-up and spin-off companies, and venture capital can be a potentially divisive and seductive diversion that compromises ethical considerations, student-faculty mentoring, and university priorities. And that's a challenge.

At the same time that research and research opportunities are flourishing in the sciences, the arts and humanities at many institutions are starving for students, resources, and attention. Another problem. We are missing the mark as a culture, if it continues.

Faculty collegiality is also fragile. Security and ethical considerations require more regulation and oversight. While the academy understands this, we are inherently impatient with the outside scrutiny and bureaucracy that often seem to impede our path to new knowledge and educational insights.

At a time when our plates seem overly full, and we feel less appreciated than we deserve, we are asked to cooperate, be patient, and in some cases change! New paradigms, new ways of educating, even new disciplines are invading our collective intellectual body, and our mental immune system is not pleased.

What to do? It all relies on our attitudes, expectations, and individual educational odysseys. We have tremendous opportunities and responsibilities in educating the next generation of intellectual leaders and informed citizens. It's time to reflect deeply on what we are about.

What should our goals and priorities be? What kinds of developmental experiences should future scholars and researchers have in their formative years in graduate school? In thinking about these issues, our own experiences as faculty and researchers are both a strength and a limitation. So as we reflect, we need to listen carefully to others, such as current graduate students, faculty from institutions unlike our own, and those outside the academy who employ our Ph.D. graduates.

There are several major national efforts that address the issues associated with educating future generations of scholars. I have decided to spend the next few years leading one such effort, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID), sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The CID is a multiyear research/action project that seeks to explicitly link Ph.D. program goals, mechanisms, and desired outcomes. We have decided to focus on six disciplines or programs: chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics, and neuroscience. We will work with approximately six respected Ph.D.-producing departments/programs in each of these areas to conduct experiments in doctoral education.

We began by asking departments to think about how doctoral education should be conceptualized and delivered, given the nature of knowledge and research in their discipline. What are the desired qualities and skills of a Ph.D. holder? What mechanisms are required to develop such an individual?

The Carnegie project will, I think, provide some crucial clues about the balance research universities need to achieve in the 21st century. On the one hand, universities have great responsibility and potential for addressing immediate societal issues, including medical advances, defense, responses to terrorism, technical advances, and stimulating the economy. But universities also need to think about what's going to happen next and consider how to educate citizens to handle issues that haven't yet arisen.

In the future there will be significantly different ways of providing information to the human brain. There will be new issues about what it means to be human, and for how long and in what ways life should be prolonged. There will continue to be limited resources, and the distribution of those resources may be very unequal. Who gets the resources, and who gets to exploit whom? What are the situational ethics that will be dominant in a given culture?

Research universities need to be very much a part of society, helping to answer these important questions, but at the same time, they must remain somewhat separate and not overly dependent on society for their survival. This critical question of balance will play out in diverse ways over the long- and short-term future for research universities. I think one way for us to keep our balance in the 21st century is to take on the self-image of stewardship.

What does it mean to be a steward of an academic discipline? It has three important facets: generation, conservation, and transformation. As stewards, present and future scholars and researchers should generate new knowledge, conserve important ideas and findings, and transform new and conserved knowledge into powerful pedagogies of engagement, understanding, and application. Moreover, stewards should understand how their disciplines fit into the intellectual landscape, have a respectful understanding of the questions of other disciplines, and understand how their own disciplines speak to important questions.

With a mandate such as this, it's a good thing that mature minds embrace and thrive in situations charged with ambiguity! The mature minds that will lead us through most of the 21st century are being educated now at universities like Indiana. How they should be educated, and providing that education, must remain our most important consideration.

George E. Walker is vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School at Indiana University.