Friday, June 09, 2006

UWM Research Initiative Gets the Nod

The UW Board of Regents and business leaders are lending their support to UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Carlos Santiago in his effort to simultaneously revamp research on the UWM campus and revitalize the economy in the Milwaukee area.

The latter of the two goals is what is really driving this initiative in terms of public acceptance. And it certainly is a worthy aim. A booming biotechnology sector, for instance, would be a major plus for the metropolitan area and the state as a whole.

The return for UWM on the deal is funding in an era where state aide to public higher education in the state has been stagnating at best and declining at worst. No one is quite sure what the '07-'09 biennial budget will bring the UW System, so campuses like UWM are striving for ways to become more self-sufficient in case the trend of the last two budgets continues into the future.

But as I have said before on this blog (here and here), there are consequences for this self-sufficiency. These consequences may not appear immediately, but over time they will likely have an indelible impact on the teaching and learning that takes place on the UWM campus.

The thrust of the new self-sufficiency movement is centered on the sciences and business. The sciences are important because their research has the ability to create products that are marketable, and business is important because it has the tools, expertise, and connections necessary to do the marketing and reap profits from it.

So where does that leave the other disciplines on campus?

Clearly the fields with the least amount of opportunity for marketable research are in the arts and humanities. These areas are more about driving thought than driving tangible outcomes like the sciences. And while unquestionably useful to a society, thought isn't the easiest thing to market.

The push toward self-sufficiency is already taking place at UWM.

I wrote last month about the results of the Research Growth Initiative (RGI) awards on the UWM campus. Whereas in the past public research dollars were doled out evenly to the various interested research projects across campus, this year the proposals were put in competition with each other for the funds. A significant determining factor in the the awarding process was profitability of the research -- in other words, how the research could generate money on its own.

This process largely left arts and humanities behind in its first year of implementation. Out of the 45 RGI awards granted a month ago, only 4 (9%) went to arts and humanities proposals, while the remaining 41 went to proposals from the various sciences (91%).

In time, what this impacts is who UWM is able to attract to campus in terms of faculty and, subsequently, students.

As word gets out that arts and humanities research isn't as well funded on the UWM campus as other disciplines, it could hurt faculty recruitment in the liberal arts. And since arts and humanities house among the most popular programs on campus for students, their quality is of great importance. (Although the intense competition for professorships in most liberal arts disciplines, which I wrote about here, may keep recruitment strong at least into the near future -- although not in the most just and fair way.)

But how much consideration is that concern being given in this rush to self-sufficiency?

Unfortunately, in the current era of public funding for higher education in Wisconsin, time for consideration is not at a premium.

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