Clusters of Excellence initiative criticized by instructors

In order to raise the University of Oregon’s profile among other research universities, provost Scott Coltrane announced last month 34 new tenure track positions, mainly in the sciences. While these projects are undoubtedly rewarding and beneficial for UO’s image, some are questioning whether this is the best use of the expected cost of tens of millions of dollars.

From the onset, UO wants to hang onto its membership in the American Association of Universities, an organization that ranks 62 public and private research institutions across the country. The rankings are compiled by numerous factors such as grant money and teacher-student ratio. Currently, UO’s ratio is 35-1 — dead last compared to the 23-1 average of AAU’s other public schools. And UO produces only half the MAs and a quarter of the Ph.Ds as the others.

However, the “Clusters of Excellence Faculty Hiring” process aims to attract top-notch researchers to secure UO’s reputation, creating 40 tenure-track positions in 10 research focuse, from genetics to volcanology. The proposals are mostly in science and psychology, plus one in sports products and one in architecture.

This didn’t sit well with the 36 departmental heads of the liberal and fine arts, social sciences and humanities. After Coltrane’s announcement, they signed a letter criticizing the administration for ignoring their fields. Of the rejected projects, almost half focused on the humanities.

“The reaction of surprise and dismay from faculty in these areas has been swift and widespread,” they wrote. “Wasn’t there a single proposal from these disciplines that would help the university achieve the stated goals?”

Coltrane said that the decision was out of his hands, since faculty panels chose the 10 winning proposals.

Another criticism is that undergraduates won’t see many benefits from these new tenure-track researchers. There will still be classes of 500 people. The winning research proposals are so narrowly focused that they aren’t likely to benefit the vast majority of undergraduates.

Many universities say that research benefits undergraduates by trickling down to the classroom, but according to a 2007 study, it doesn’t. First appearing in the Journal of Engineering Education, the meta-analysis of over 50 studies found that good research and good teaching require different goals and skill sets. “There is no positive correlation between any measure of teaching we have and any measure of research,” said Michael Prince, one of the authors of the study, in a phone interview with the Emerald.

Coltrane said that these cluster hires are mostly “to really make a difference in terms of our prestige and our ranking.” UO’s student body grew so fast in the last five years that tenure-track hiring has lagged. This initiative is to bring UO closer to AAU’s tenured faculty to student ratio. Furthermore, prestigious research also helps fundraising.

Ed Awh said the new hires will help create a collaborative climate to tackle his research. Awh coordinated one of the winning proposals, focusing on neuroscience research that will study the connection between neurons and minds. “Bridging the gap between human and animal models of neural function is a challenging goal,” he said. “Because it requires people with very different training and theoretical backgrounds to put a lot of energy into finding common ground.” Awh also said that undergraduates will get to participate with the new research.

In the end, Coltrane said the clusters will benefit students. “The opportunity to learn from someone who’s creating the knowledge is huge.”

Author – Rebecca Brewster

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