Great universities should be great dispensers of knowledge, but they also have to be great creators of knowledge. New knowledge comes from research, and one of our reasons for doing it is that good teaching and good research go together.
When I was a business school professor, I would sometimes say to the class, “For the next 20 minutes, I would like to talk about some of the research I’ve been doing with a couple of companies.” And it would change the whole mood of the class. I used to love to watch the body movements, how the students shifted in their seats. It was as if they were getting a personal look into the future.
It is one thing if you are teaching about what someone else is doing or did, but if you start talking about your research, you are talking about something new, something that is cutting edge and might have a major impact. There’s a value added for the person listening.
One executive who was a student of mine said to me, “When you start talking about your research, I may learn something that I can apply next week that my competitor won’t read about in Business Week for about two years. That’s why I want to know what you are doing, and I want you to tell me about other people’s research.”
Here at Mason, we have an excellent teaching reputation. When I am at a gathering and a Mason student or alumnus walks up to me, they always talk about the quality of the teaching. Now the challenge we face is to not in any way give in on teaching excellence for research excellence. So far we’ve been able to do that.
Why were so many of our faculty in the media during the recent presidential election? Were they there because they were good teachers? I say they were called on because they were good researchers and able to communicate. Whether it was Richard Norton Smith talking about elections from decades ago or Peter Pober analyzing the debates—the intellectual property, the knowledge of our faculty members is highly used because of their ability to talk clearly about their area of expertise.
When we talk about research, we often mistakenly concentrate on federally sponsored research, but great universities, while having a sizable amount of sponsored research, also have a large amount of unsponsored research. This research is often performed by a faculty member in his or her office, which results in academic papers, scholarly books, or presentations, but there is no external agency, part of the federal government, or corporate entity that pays for it.
What we need in this country and this state is more long-term investment in research, recognizing that the big bang might not be months off but years, even decades, off. Research of all kinds is taking place at Mason—in laboratories, the offices of scholars, the performing arts studios—and this creative atmosphere enriches the learning experience for our students inside and outside the classroom.
Alan G. Merten
President, George Mason University