Before each Board of Trustees meeting, President Michael Roth poses a question to spark discussion among trustees. After conversations with Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) Chair of the Finance and Facilities Committee Andrew Trexler ’14, Roth extended the question for this month’s meeting to the student body, first in the form of an email and then at an open discussion in the Public Affairs Center on Thursday, Feb. 28. The question addressed the importance of research at the University.
“We often talk about the scholar-teacher model as being at the heart of Wesleyan’s educational experience,” Roth stated in an email sent to students on Feb. 11. “I believe very strongly that much of the work that our faculty do to advance their own fields makes their teaching sharper and more vital. But not all research finds its way into the classroom, and at many universities there is a strong feeling that research serves some larger cultural good—not just the good of the students…. What is Wesleyan’s obligation to subsidize this research?”
Approximately 12 students attended the forum. Roth explained that his goal in posing the question was to encourage students and members of the Board of Trustees to think critically about both the costs and benefits of research.
“My question was meant to provoke, but also to make people aware that [research] is not something that’s free,” Roth said.
Roth spoke at length about his own experiences as an undergraduate student at the University. He explained that he benefited from the research his own professors performed. He also commented on the timeless nature of research.
“[Research is] a cultural good that you can keep working on,” Roth said.
According to Roth, of the roughly 10 email responses he received, only one student had expressed displeasure with using tuition dollars to subsidize research. Students who spoke at the discussion all expressed pro-research arguments.
Daniel Blinderman ’14 explained that in his view, professors who complete research tend to be better teachers.
“The effort you put into staying current and staying sharp lends itself to teaching not becoming muscle memory,” Blinderman said.
Blinderman also noted that by consistently engaging in research, professors have an approach to learning that is in some ways closer to students’ approach.
“Doing research contributes a certain amount of humility because professors are constantly reminded that there are still things to learn and that knowledge is never complete,” he said. “Professors who believe this are more likely to engage with new ideas and encourage students to challenge established conventions.”
Some of the students who spoke at the forum noted that professors who complete research and help advance their respective fields add to the University’s prestige and thus to the value of a University education.
Overall, approximately eight students added their voices to the conversation.
“I felt like the conversation was what I had hoped it would be,” Trexler said. “I wish there was a little bit better turnout, both in the written responses and in attendance here, but I felt like it was a good conversation. It’s helpful for President Roth to hear student opinions on these sorts of questions from the horses’ mouths, as people say. It’s also helpful for students to hear what Roth is thinking.”
Trexler explained his hope that similar discussions with the President will occur in the future.
“President Roth and I have been discussing over the last couple of weeks some other questions we might ask, ones that are a little more student-oriented,” Trexler said. “This one was chosen because it’s the one that was put to the board for the meeting this weekend. I’m hoping that in mid-to-late April we’ll have another one of these things with a more student-oriented question.”
Blinderman was encouraged by Roth’s willingness to engage directly with students.
“I’m glad we got a chance to talk to Professor Roth and to hear what he thinks,” Blinderman said. “He talked about trying to inspire conversation and [here he’s] actually doing that, [giving] us…the chance to talk to him about what we think research is and why we think it’s important, even if there are trade-offs. I think it’s good that he gets to hear from us.”