When teaching came second

Eli Ginzberg

Taking "The Long View"

Social institutions have different time references. Unlike the news media, which are focused on today's headlines, or corporations concerned only about the quarterly bottom line, universities are uniquely configured to provide the long perspective on whatever the subject may be. Sometimes you can discern the trees within the forest only if you stand way back and take a good long look. Gives you perspective. So, in a new feature, 21stC will invite writers to provide the longest view possible on the sinew and being of these modern institutional organisms we call "research universities" and all the things that go on within them.

Our first contributor to this occasional column has one of the longest views around, since his career at Columbia spans six decades. No one can be at Columbia very long without hearing the name of the distinguished economist Dr. Eli Ginzberg. Nor are there many areas of academic life that haven't felt his influence in one way or another. In this retrospective reflection on life at Columbia as he has known it over 60 years, Professor Ginzberg recounts how the pendula of emphasis and prestige have swung between teaching and research -- a timely topic for introducing this issue's special section. -- The Editors

AS PROBABLY THE ranking member of the Columbia faculty in years of service, I have observed the changing preferences and obligations of my colleagues during the 61 years since my induction into the teaching staff in 1935 (plus an additional seven years as a student at the college and the graduate program). My appointment has been in the Graduate School of Business, with tangential relations to the Graduate Department of Economics, General Studies, Barnard College, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the School of Public Health. In most segments of the university, the pendulum of priorities has oscillated between teaching and research.

In the 1930s the Columbia faculty included a number of outstanding scholars, three of whom were awarded honorary degrees at Harvard's tercentenary in 1936: Franz Boas in anthropology, Robert M. MacIver in sociology and political science, and Wesley Clair Mitchell in economics. I studied with all of them, and while each was a leading contributor to his discipline, none was a memorable teacher. Boas engaged in field research for many decades, with support, I believe, primarily from external sources; MacIver was a theorist with little interest in empirical research; and Mitchell was a co-founder of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the first and still most productive center of quantitative economic analysis in the world.

Mitchell was always concerned about the amount of time and effort that classroom teaching might command, to the detriment of scholarly output. Columbia 's other outstanding economist in the prewar decade was John Maurice Clark, recruited from the University of Chicago with an agreement that he could teach as little or as much as he wished, even not teach at all. In point of fact, he taught about four hours a week, but his performance was so dreary that several of us took turns trying to stay awake to take notes. However, Columbia also boasted inspiring teachers such as Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren in the English department, Irwin Edman in philosophy, and Carlton Hayes in history.

As for research funding in those years, I.I. Rabi once told me that the Department of Physics in 1929-30 had a total research budget of $10,000, and that future Nobel laureate in chemistry Harold Urey shared his $5,000 research grant with Rabi to help him get started. A decade later I began my interdisciplinary research in economics and group behavior with two grants on a similar scale from the university's Council for Research in the Social Sciences.

World War II was the great watershed that divided the old Columbia and the new. Increasing external sources of support for basic research and expanded opportunities for selected experts (particularly in law, business, and engineering) to do outside consulting contributed to a downgrading of teaching responsibilities and a loss of institutional commitment by many faculty members. As a measure of how the research enterprise expanded, Walter Palmer of P&S estimated in a report to Vannevar Bush that U.S. medical schools could make constructive use of $5 million to $10 million a year for biomedical research. As of 1995-96, the total R&D funding (governmental and non-governmental) of P&S alone amounted to $200 million.

The growing preoccupation of research-oriented faculty members in the social sciences with quantitative analysis, and of the biomedical science faculty with basic research, had major effects on student selection, curriculum, and career progression. Economics was progressively transformed into econometrics, with mathematical skills the prerequisite for a career. No longer did a budding economist need to be acquainted with Adam Smith, Marx, or Veblen, much less with U.S. history, sociology, or politics. I recall Arthur F. Burns' dismay on his return to Columbia, after spending four years as President Eisenhower's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, with the singlemindedness of his graduate students in applying the new computer technology to manipulate data sets, with little interest in the policy relevance of the results. And P&S, like most other leading research-oriented medical schools, gave a low priority to undergraduate instruction, concentrating instead on the training of residents as subspecialists who could be absorbed into the research enterprise.

For more than a third of a century after my return to Columbia from service in the Pentagon during World War II, I led a tripartite professional life. I taught classes and seminars, usually three per semester, until my colleagues persuaded me to reduce my teaching load, since they were negotiating with the dean of the business school to limit their schedules to no more than two classes per week and he countered by noting that I seemed to have no difficulty with three. Most efforts were directed to overseeing the Eisenhower Center for the Conservation of Human Resources, an externally funded policy research unit comprising researchers from 10 or so disciplines. I was also busy consulting with the federal government, serving presidents from Kennedy to Reagan as chair of the National Commission for Employment Policy and its predecessor agencies.

Unquestionably, in the prewar and postwar eras alike, most of Columbia's outstanding scholars had a greater interest in research than in teaching. In the postwar era, however, in response to liberal external funding, the research enterprise expanded by orders of magnitude at the expense of the educational functions of the university.

It is time for a turn of the wheel. This appears to be under way, with increasing attention being given to teaching. Even more important is a retreat from specialization and subspecialization in favor of a university-wide social science policy consortium based on interdisciplinary cooperation. The problems confronting the advanced nations of the world cannot be solved by specialists off by themselves. Collaboration among the leaders of the various disciplines is a sine qua non, the critical challenge that Columbia and all other major research universities face. The real issue is not teaching vs. research but the faculty's capability to do both and the cultivation of an atmosphere that facilitates their effective cooperation.

ELI GINZBERG, Ph.D., is Hepburn Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Revson Fellows Professor, and Special Lecturer at Columbia's Graduate School of Business. publications.


PHOTO CREDITS: University Public Affairs (Rabi, Trilling), A. Tennyson Beals (Urey, Huffman).