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What are universities for and how do they work?

Posted by on in Keith Devlin
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Exactly 30 years ago, I and my family arrived in the U.S. from the U.K. to take up a one-year visiting position in the mathematics department at Stanford University. (We landed on July 28, 1987.) That one year was subsequently extended to two, and in the end we never returned to the U.K. A very attractive offer of a newly endowed chair in mathematics at Colby College in Maine provided the pull. But equally significant was a push from the U.K.

The late 1980s were a bad time for universities in Britain, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched a full-scale assault on higher education, motivated in part by a false understanding of what universities do, and in part by personal vindictiveness stemming from her being criticized by academics for her poor performance as Minister for Education some years earlier. My own university, Lancaster, where I had been a regular faculty member since 1977, had been a source of some of the most vocal criticisms of the then Minister Thatcher, and accordingly was dealt a particularly heavy funding hit when Prime Minister Thatcher started to wield her axe. A newly appointed vice chancellor (president), with a reputation for tough leadership as a dean, was hired from the United States to steer the university through the troubled waters ahead.

One of the first decisions the new vice chancellor made was to cut the mathematics department faculty by roughly 50%, from around 28 to 14. (I forget the actual numbers.) The problem he faced in achieving that goal was that in the British system at the time, once a new Lecturer (= Assistant Professor) had passed a three-year probationary period, they had tenure for life. The only way to achieve a 50% cut in faculty was to force out anyone who could be “persuaded” to go. That boiled down to putting pressure on those whose reputation was sufficiently good for them to secure a position elsewhere. (So, a strategy of “prune from the top,” arguably more productive in the garden than a university.)

In my case, the new vice chancellor made it clear to me soon after his arrival that my prospects of career advancement at Lancaster were low, and I could expect ever increasing teaching loads that would hamper my research, and lack of financial support to attend conferences. As a research mathematician early in my career, with my work going well and my reputation starting to grow, that prospect was ominous. Though I was not sure whether he would ever actually follow through with his threat, it seemed prudent to start thinking in terms of a move, possibly one that involved leaving the U.K.

Then, just as all of this was going on, out of the blue I got the invitation from Stanford. (I had started working on a project that aligned well with a group at Stanford who had just set up a new research center to work on the same issues. As a result, I had gotten to know some of them, mostly by way of an experimental new way to communicate called “e-mail,” which universities were just starting to use.)

In my meeting with the vice chancellor to request permission to accept the offer and discuss the arrangements, I was told in no uncertain terms that I would be wise not to return after my year in California came to an end. The writing was on the wall. Lancaster wanted me gone. In addition, other departmental colleagues were also looking at opportunities elsewhere, so even if I were to return to Lancaster after my year at Stanford, it might well be to a department that had lost several of its more productive mathematicians. (It would have been. The vice chancellor achieved his 50% departmental reduction in little more than two years.)

Yes, these events were all so long ago, in a different country. So why am I bringing the story up now? The answer, is that, as is frequently observed, history can provide cautionary lessons for what may happen in the future.

Those of us in mathematics are deeply aware of the hugely significant role the subject plays in the modern world, and have seen with every generation of students how learning mathematics can open so many career doors. We also know sufficient mathematics to appreciate the enormous impact on society that new mathematical discoveries can have—albeit in many cases years or decades later. To us, it is inconceivable that a university—an institution having the sole purpose of advancing and passing on new knowledge for the good of society—would ever make a conscious decision to cut down (especially from the top), or eliminate, a mathematics department.

But to people outside the universities, things can look different. Indeed, as I discovered during my time as an academic dean (in the U.S.), the need for mathematics departments engaged in research is often not recognized by faulty in other departments. Everyone recognizes the need for each new generation of students to be given some basic mathematics instruction, of course. But mathematics research? That’s a much harder sell. In fact, it is an extremely hard sell. Eliminating the research mathematicians in a department and viewing it as having a solely instructional role can seem like an attractive way to achieve financial savings. But it can come at a considerable cost to the overall academic/educational environment. Not least because of the message conveyed to the students.

As things are, students typically graduate from high school thinking of mathematics as a toolbox of formulas and procedures for solving certain kinds of problems. But at university level, they should come to understand it as a particular way of thinking. To that end, they should be exposed to an environment where tasks can be approached on their own terms, with mathematicians being one of any number of groups of experts who can bring a particular way of thinking that may, or may not, be effective.

The educational importance of having an active mathematics research group in a university is particularly important in today’s world. As I noted in an article in The Huffington Post in January, pretty well all the formulas and procedures that for many centuries have constituted the heart of a university mathematics degree have now been automated and are freely available on sites such as Wolfram Alpha. Applying an implemented, standard mathematical procedure to solve, say, a differential equation, is now in the same category as using a calculator to add up a column of numbers. Just enter the data correctly and the machine will do the rest.

In particular, a physicist or an engineer (say) at a university can, for the most part, carry out their work without the need for specialist mathematical input. (That was always largely the case. It is even more so today.) But one of the functions of a university is to provide a community of experts who are able to make progress when the available canned procedures do not quite fit the task at hand. The advance of technology does not eliminate the need for creative, human expertise. It simply shifts the locus of where such expertise is required. Part of a university education is being part of a community where that reliance on human expertise is part of the daily activities; a community where all the domain specialists are experts in their domains, and able to go beyond the routine.

It is easy to think of education as taking place in a classroom. But that’s just not what goes on. What you find in classrooms is instruction, maybe involving some limited discussion. Education and learning occur primarily by way of interpersonal interaction in a community. That’s why we have universities, and why students, and often their parents, pay to attend them. It’s why “online universities” and MOOCs have not replaced universities, and to my mind never will. The richer and more varied the community, the better the education.

Lest I have given the impression that my focus is on topline research universities, stocked with award winning academic superstars, let me end by observing that nothing I have said refers to level of achievement. Rather it is all about the attitude of mind and working practices of the faculty. As long as the mathematics faculty love mathematics, and enjoy doing it, and are able to bring their knowledge to bear on a new task or problem, they contribute something of real value to the environment in which the students learn. It’s a human thing.

A university that decides to downgrade a particular discipline to do little more than provide basic instruction is diminishing its students educational experience, and is no longer a bona fide university. (It may well, of course, continue to provide a valuable service. The university, my focus in this essay, is just one form of educational institution among many.)

Original author: Mathematical Association of America
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