Dr. Joseph Bordogna
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Panel Discussion on
June 22, 1999
I am very pleased to be here this morning to discuss
the NRC's Research-Doctorate Study. It is an honor
to serve with these distinguished panelists and our
moderator. It bodes well for a lively and fruitful
discussion. I hope my comments will help engage all
the participants in a positive debate.
As an industrial and academic researcher, a dean, and
NSF officer, I have been both a user and a patron
of the NRC studies, and sometimes even a victim. From
all of these perspectives, we have much in common
and much to share.
Although the meeting agenda is focused primarily on
improving the research-doctorate study, this
opening panel poses the fundamental question, Why
do another research-doctorate study? I will take the
stand here that this is the most critical consideration.
Let me spend a moment to try to put this question in
some context. We cannot speak of research-doctorate
programs as if they were independent, autonomous entities,
frozen in time. Despite their individual program-distinction,
their larger context is, of course, the university
and the higher education system.
Universities have evolved and changed throughout history;
they continue to do so. Some critics have accused
universities of changing far more slowly than other
institutions. I have even heard the term "glacial
However, one can document important milestones in our
U.S. system of universities. The initial creation
of the uniquely American research university stemmed
from the three 19th Century European philosophies
of advanced education.
We in America developed an amalgamation of:
- the Oxbridge idea of a liberal education articulated
by Cardinal Newman
- the professional school concept developed in France
and honed in Napoleonic logic and efficiency,
- the research university created by Wilhelm von
Humboldt in Germany.
Later on, the unique U.S. Land Grant concept introduced
a flavor of service that influenced the entire higher
education scene in our nation. Still later, the very
American GI Bill democratized higher education by
vastly expanding the access and opportunities of a
university education to a broader population. The
GI Bill, which was actually written by the veterans'
organizations at the end of the war and proposed to
the Congress, left an indelible mark of transformation
on American higher education.
Universities change both to survive and to meet the
demands of an evolving society and civilization. Despite
that, one cannot ignore the reality of glaciers and
other frozen landscapes at times.
A new report, The Supply of Information Technology
Workers in the United States, one of many on this
subject, was compiled by 23 university and industry
experts. It suggests that universities respond too
slowly to be effective and reliable generators of
the right kind of workers for a rapidly changing economy
There are many who stoutly defend the need for universities
to resist the very impulse of these demands which
would perhaps dilute or divert the long-term mission
of the university. That discussion will probably be
an unresolved argument till the next millennium, 1000
But today, as we speak, our society is a locomotive
powered by information and interconnections, and driven
by a knowledge-based economy. Rita Colwell said to
the graduates in a recent commencement address, "As
graduates, you are moving out into a high-tech, fast-forward
work environment where skills and technologies have
a turnover rate about as fast as you can flip a burger."
This is the context in which we must consider the value
of another research-doctorate study.
By repeating this study, we must ask if we spend a
great deal of time assessing and perpetuating the
status quo in the midst of national and global tectonics
that are literally redesigning society.
Obsolescence in many technologies occurs in a matter
of months. The emergence of completely new research
disciplines as well as diverse new industries is reframing
our thought processes, redefining our lives, and restructuring
Are we rating the status quo when everything else in
the larger context is changing?
Are we causing actual damage to the university system
and the nation by perpetuating the credibility of
old perceptions and players while the trendsetters
and new tigers are sculpting the future?
Are we being reactionary or responsible in endorsing
old reputations? These are just an initial set of
questions we should be asking before we advocate a
repetition of the research-doctorate study.
Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education
published a commentary on this subject by Hugh Davis
Graham and Nancy Diamond. In 1997, they co-authored
the book, The Rise of the American Research Universities,
published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
In speaking about the evolving concept of departments
and disciplines, they write in the Chronicle article,
"As the number of professors has increased, so has
the rate of specialization within academic disciplines.
Our research networks now rarely involve more than
one colleague in any department, and many of our fellow
specialists are members of other disciplines."
Given this altered landscape for disciplines and departments,
the research-doctorate study is, in reality, judging
programs on their historical function instead of where
their action is today. That "scholarly action" is,
in fact, much more at the juncture or convergence
of several disciplines.
Graham and Diamond offer us the example of a political
historian whose network is more likely to include
political scientists, economists, law professors,
and historical sociologists. They comment that, "The
researchers, whose work we know, no longer come from
the directories published by our academic associations,
but from our own collection of e-mail addresses."
That aside graphically tells us once again that our
society, including our academic society, is being
transformed by information technologies. The research-directorate
study is, in some sense, measuring anachronisms.
This example is yet another reflection of our society's
locomotion being powered by information and interconnections.
The research-doctorate study gives us a picture of
separate fiefdoms, which is increasingly becoming
the historical model--the way things were. It does
not provide an accurate portrayal of the way things
are, and the direction in which they are moving. A
moment ago, in my series of provocative questions,
I asked if we are inflicting actual damage on the
university system and the nation?
The majority of our policymakers are in strong disagreement
with a university system that pays focused attention
to the top 100 schools and has little interest in
improving and strengthening all schools.
They are very aware of the challenges that America
faces in the coming century that cannot be met by
a "creme de la creme" elite and an across the board
Just last week, the director of the Hayden Planetarium,
astronomer Neil Tyson, addressed the group of elementary
school science and math teachers who were this year's
He implored them to recognize that the most rewarding
challenge for them, as well as for the nation, would
be to help the stragglers and the strugglers to soar.
He cautioned them on the unreliability of IQ numbers
and, SAT and GRE scores as firm indicators of success.
Talent, capability, and excellence are not limited
resources in a society, unless we portray them that
There are no regions, no states, no schools, no ethnic
groups, and no programs that have a monopoly on good
minds, creative thinkers, or outstanding teachers
... as a cruise through today's web net can reveal.
The world is a polyglot place, and America has been
one of its finest examples. There is vast opportunity
in our future demographics of ever-greater diversity.
We must be smart enough to know how to seize that
The National Research Council's prestige makes the
research-doctorate ratings highly influential within
a university, within the university system, in industry,
and also among perspective student-customers for graduate
We must think hard about what we want that influence
to validate. If we allow that influence to defend
value by reputational rank or graduate student numbers,
we might be falling squarely backwards.
The NRC performs work of the highest caliber and service
to the nation. There likely are assessments and evaluations
that could better portray insight and meaning for
our national direction.
As participants, we collectively represent a concentration
of enormous knowledge and insight. Perhaps part of
our responsibility is to stimulate other considerations.
In closing, I offer the wisdom of migrant worker, longshoreman,
and well-known social philosopher, Eric Hoffer. He
said, "In times of change, learners will inherit the
Earth, while the learned find themselves equipped
to deal with a world that no longer exists."
We have an important responsibility to insure that
our work goes forth in the spirit of learners and
not just the learned. I look forward to a constructive
debate with all the participants.