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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Panel Discussion on
Research-Doctorate Study

June 22, 1999

I am very pleased to be here this morning to discuss the NRC's Research-Doctorate Study. It is an honor to serve with these distinguished panelists and our moderator. It bodes well for a lively and fruitful discussion. I hope my comments will help engage all the participants in a positive debate.

As an industrial and academic researcher, a dean, and NSF officer, I have been both a user and a patron of the NRC studies, and sometimes even a victim. From all of these perspectives, we have much in common and much to share.

Although the meeting agenda is focused primarily on improving the research-doctorate study, this opening panel poses the fundamental question, Why do another research-doctorate study? I will take the stand here that this is the most critical consideration.

Let me spend a moment to try to put this question in some context. We cannot speak of research-doctorate programs as if they were independent, autonomous entities, frozen in time. Despite their individual program-distinction, their larger context is, of course, the university and the higher education system.

Universities have evolved and changed throughout history; they continue to do so. Some critics have accused universities of changing far more slowly than other institutions. I have even heard the term "glacial pace" used.

However, one can document important milestones in our U.S. system of universities. The initial creation of the uniquely American research university stemmed from the three 19th Century European philosophies of advanced education.

We in America developed an amalgamation of:

  • the Oxbridge idea of a liberal education articulated by Cardinal Newman
  • the professional school concept developed in France and honed in Napoleonic logic and efficiency, and
  • the research university created by Wilhelm von Humboldt in Germany.

Later on, the unique U.S. Land Grant concept introduced a flavor of service that influenced the entire higher education scene in our nation. Still later, the very American GI Bill democratized higher education by vastly expanding the access and opportunities of a university education to a broader population. The GI Bill, which was actually written by the veterans' organizations at the end of the war and proposed to the Congress, left an indelible mark of transformation on American higher education.

Universities change both to survive and to meet the demands of an evolving society and civilization. Despite that, one cannot ignore the reality of glaciers and other frozen landscapes at times.

A new report, The Supply of Information Technology Workers in the United States, one of many on this subject, was compiled by 23 university and industry experts. It suggests that universities respond too slowly to be effective and reliable generators of the right kind of workers for a rapidly changing economy and society.

There are many who stoutly defend the need for universities to resist the very impulse of these demands which would perhaps dilute or divert the long-term mission of the university. That discussion will probably be an unresolved argument till the next millennium, 1000 years hence.

But today, as we speak, our society is a locomotive powered by information and interconnections, and driven by a knowledge-based economy. Rita Colwell said to the graduates in a recent commencement address, "As graduates, you are moving out into a high-tech, fast-forward work environment where skills and technologies have a turnover rate about as fast as you can flip a burger."

This is the context in which we must consider the value of another research-doctorate study.

By repeating this study, we must ask if we spend a great deal of time assessing and perpetuating the status quo in the midst of national and global tectonics that are literally redesigning society.

Obsolescence in many technologies occurs in a matter of months. The emergence of completely new research disciplines as well as diverse new industries is reframing our thought processes, redefining our lives, and restructuring our economy.

Are we rating the status quo when everything else in the larger context is changing?

Are we causing actual damage to the university system and the nation by perpetuating the credibility of old perceptions and players while the trendsetters and new tigers are sculpting the future?

Are we being reactionary or responsible in endorsing old reputations? These are just an initial set of questions we should be asking before we advocate a repetition of the research-doctorate study.

Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a commentary on this subject by Hugh Davis Graham and Nancy Diamond. In 1997, they co-authored the book, The Rise of the American Research Universities, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

In speaking about the evolving concept of departments and disciplines, they write in the Chronicle article, "As the number of professors has increased, so has the rate of specialization within academic disciplines. Our research networks now rarely involve more than one colleague in any department, and many of our fellow specialists are members of other disciplines."

Given this altered landscape for disciplines and departments, the research-doctorate study is, in reality, judging programs on their historical function instead of where their action is today. That "scholarly action" is, in fact, much more at the juncture or convergence of several disciplines.

Graham and Diamond offer us the example of a political historian whose network is more likely to include political scientists, economists, law professors, and historical sociologists. They comment that, "The researchers, whose work we know, no longer come from the directories published by our academic associations, but from our own collection of e-mail addresses."

That aside graphically tells us once again that our society, including our academic society, is being transformed by information technologies. The research-directorate study is, in some sense, measuring anachronisms.

This example is yet another reflection of our society's locomotion being powered by information and interconnections. The research-doctorate study gives us a picture of separate fiefdoms, which is increasingly becoming the historical model--the way things were. It does not provide an accurate portrayal of the way things are, and the direction in which they are moving. A moment ago, in my series of provocative questions, I asked if we are inflicting actual damage on the university system and the nation?

The majority of our policymakers are in strong disagreement with a university system that pays focused attention to the top 100 schools and has little interest in improving and strengthening all schools.

They are very aware of the challenges that America faces in the coming century that cannot be met by a "creme de la creme" elite and an across the board mediocrity below.

Just last week, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, astronomer Neil Tyson, addressed the group of elementary school science and math teachers who were this year's presidential awardees.

He implored them to recognize that the most rewarding challenge for them, as well as for the nation, would be to help the stragglers and the strugglers to soar. He cautioned them on the unreliability of IQ numbers and, SAT and GRE scores as firm indicators of success. Talent, capability, and excellence are not limited resources in a society, unless we portray them that way.

There are no regions, no states, no schools, no ethnic groups, and no programs that have a monopoly on good minds, creative thinkers, or outstanding teachers ... as a cruise through today's web net can reveal.

The world is a polyglot place, and America has been one of its finest examples. There is vast opportunity in our future demographics of ever-greater diversity. We must be smart enough to know how to seize that opportunity.

The National Research Council's prestige makes the research-doctorate ratings highly influential within a university, within the university system, in industry, and also among perspective student-customers for graduate programs.

We must think hard about what we want that influence to validate. If we allow that influence to defend value by reputational rank or graduate student numbers, we might be falling squarely backwards.

The NRC performs work of the highest caliber and service to the nation. There likely are assessments and evaluations that could better portray insight and meaning for our national direction.

As participants, we collectively represent a concentration of enormous knowledge and insight. Perhaps part of our responsibility is to stimulate other considerations.

In closing, I offer the wisdom of migrant worker, longshoreman, and well-known social philosopher, Eric Hoffer. He said, "In times of change, learners will inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

We have an important responsibility to insure that our work goes forth in the spirit of learners and not just the learned. I look forward to a constructive debate with all the participants.



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