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Rankings goals may conflict with education

Beth Erickson | Monday, September 8, 2003

In a concerted attempt to improve its national academic rankings, the University has recently made several departmental changes within the College of Arts and Letters.

This change has sparked controversy between those who feel that becoming a nationally accredited research university is critical for Notre Dame’s future as a top academic institution and those who fear that this goal will encumber the University’s mission of excellence in undergraduate education.

Mark Roche, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said an increase in faculty research is necessary for superior undergraduate education.

“Having as teachers as researchers who can bring to the classroom not only an interest in other subjects but the most recent knowledge in their fields, and the critical skills and passions of active researchers, is ideal for students,” he said.

David Ruccio, professor of economics, said that some feel pressure put on faculty in terms of research and publication will stifle their academic freedom.

“The administration’s campaign against the majority of members of the old [economics] department certainly had a chilling effect on academic freedom,” he said, “to the extent that faculty members were literally told that they should abandon their existing research and teaching in order to focus on one approach, ‘neoclassical’ economics.”

Richard Jensen, chair of the new Economics and Econometrics Department, said that faculty were merely encouraged to “to do any type of research that had a significant impact on the discipline.”

The Department of Economics was split into two this year in part to make it a more attractive contender in the battle for prestigious academic rankings.

“Academic rankings depend on excellence in teaching as well as research, so to improve our academic rankings we must excel in both teaching and research,” Jensen said.

Ruccio, who was vocal in his opposition to the Economics Department split last year, said that he believes that the University’s decision to divide the department was not based on a concern for teaching, but rather to further Notre Dame’s status among peer universities.

“The single goal of the [new] department is to obtain a higher academic ranking,” he said.

The push to increase the University’s national rankings is becoming ubiquitous throughout the College of Arts and Letters.

It has introduced an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which serves to enhance undergraduate education by providing financial support for independent and creative research projects. Many departments within the College have also implemented departmental honors tracks.

The psychology department plans to pursue a new graduate program within the next ten years with the intent of enhancing its national rankings.

“The decision to pursue a joint Clinical/Counseling program will have positive effects at both the graduate and undergraduate levels in terms of the types of classes, research opportunities, and internship options available to graduate and undergraduate students,” said Psychology Department chair Cindy Bergeman.

They said that the number of undergraduate classes within the psychology department will increase with the growth of prominent graduate faculty.

According to Jensen, increased hiring of eminent faculty will only enhance the variety of undergraduate course offerings within the economics department.

“We will offer more undergraduate electives this year than we have in my previous three years here,” he said.

During the 1990-91 academic year, students rated 82 percent of Arts and Letters classes as “good” or “excellent.” After ten years of increasing investment in research, the figure has improved to 86 percent, which was the highest among the University’s colleges and schools.

Since the University’s recent push for improved rankings at all costs, many students and faculty have said that they perceive less evidence of the University’s traditionally strong interest in teaching social justice in an undergraduate education.

“The goal of improving academic rankings can be and has been used to marginalize the concern for economic and social justice and to undermine schools of thought that are more in tune with Catholic values and commitments,” Ruccio said, regarding the split in the Department of Economics.

Roche said that the new Economics department will offer greater breadth in its approach towards such issues.

“Sophisticated research is important to social justice issues,” he said.