University officials, state lawmakers and a UT alumni association have all voiced their support for University research after the UT System hired a controversial academic adviser last month who questioned the prominence of research at the University.
Rick O’Donnell raised concerns because of his affiliation with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that emphasizes the value of teaching rather than research at state universities. O’Donnell wrote policy statements questioning the emphasis universities place on research.
David Guenthner, a spokesman for the foundation, said as tuition rates and student debt loads increase, Texas students deserve a renewed commitment to “instruction, fiscal discipline and accountability.”
He said the Legislature encouraged state universities to produce world-class research but issued a longer-standing mandate to graduate future Texas leaders. We believe they can accomplish both, but the universities have to be much more diligent about funding excellence in both teaching and research and not allowing professors to fall back on research as an excuse not to teach,” Guenthner said.
He said the foundation’s view is that more state universities’ resources should go toward funding teaching rather than research. Juan Sanchez, UT’s vice president for research, said the University earned $642 million last year in research grant money, 60 percent of which comes from federal sources.
“It’s money that wouldn’t otherwise come to Texas,” Sanchez said.
He said the money funds research work and goes to faculty, technicians and students involved in research. Students benefit from an institutional focus on research as well, he said. By funding and supporting research, he said the University attracts teachers at the forefront of work in their respective fields.
“The teaching skills you can learn,” Sanchez said. “You can’t learn being creative and innovative without a lifetime of work.”
The Texas Exes alumni group president Richard Leshin sent an email to more than 200,000 members and alumni Thursday affirming the importance of research to the mission of the University.
The UT System Board of Regents chair and vice chairs responded to the alumni association’s email with a letter Friday demonstrating the board’s commitment to academic research and offered to meet with the Texas Exes executive committee.
After receiving the regent’s letter, Leshin sent a second email to members and alumni, announcing his intentions to meet with the board and explaining the importance of protecting the value attached to a UT degree. An organization spokeswoman Erin Huddleston said the executive committee will continue to support UT’s mission and core values of balancing leading research with quality teaching.
She said the organization is concerned because neglecting either side of the mission would hurt the quality of the University.
“Without emphasis on research you won’t have the same level of faculty,” she said. Physics professor Roy Schwitters said he came to work at UT because of a high-profile research project the University was involved in. The project, which would have built the world’s largest particle accelerator outside Waxahachie, was abandoned in 1993, partially because of increasing costs.
Schwitters, who is teaching an introductory physics course this semester, said his research over the past few years has focused on building detectors that track particles which penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and surface. He said with long enough exposure times the devices create images of large areas.
Schwitters is exploring whether the technology could benefit safety efforts in Japan. He said the detectors could be used to create images of the inside of nuclear reactors possibly damaged in the recent earthquakes offshore.