In response to my March 31 op-ed, “Texas Students Should Not Take a Back Seat to Research,” University of Texas-Austin President Bill Powers counters with “At University of Texas, research enhances teaching,” in today’s Houston Chronicle. His response is not so much a rebuttal as a defense for research. I have no quarrel with the value of his selected citations of research, but the picture is much wider than the one he paints.

In my 49 years of working in higher education as a professor and vice president, I have witnessed endlessly that departmental chairs, deans, presidents, and even trustees will never intervene to say that any topic of research has little or no value. Anything goes. No administrator will say, “We do not need to conduct research on how many angels can rest on the head of a pin.” The point survives my exaggeration. I could provide a voluminous list of real examples.

Harry Lewis, former dean at Harvard, writes: “Academic presses now publish books selling fewer than 300 copies. ‘The demands of productivity,’ a humanities editor says, ‘are leading to the production of much more nonsense.'”

The problem here is that such futile research costs taxpayers money and takes professors out of the classroom-leaving students to be taught by teaching assistants.

A few years ago the Texas Public Policy Foundation commissioned research on this problem. Researchers found, for example, that at Texas A&M in the Spring semester 2006, there were 28 sections of freshmen Composition and Rhetoric (English 104), 25 sections of which were taught by young, inexperienced teaching assistants. Professors were given release time from the classroom to conduct research.

The taxpaying public should demand transparency and accountability in all university research.

Retired, I teach at Lone Star Community College just for the pleasure of it; I enjoy seeing light bulbs turn on. Every year a senior faculty member sits in on my class to evaluate my teaching ability, providing me and the administration with a written evaluation. University professors are not subjected to this written evaluation process, either for their teaching or their research. Too bad for students.

A critical professor asked how I know that a professor is “good.” His logic is curious. He is implying that there can be “bad” professors-in which case, why are they permitted to teach? Should bad teachers, including those with tenure, be fired? I suspect that this critic approves of tenure-meaning that bad teachers can’t be fired. He argues in circles.

On the matter of accountability, another curious matter arises. Football coaches, who work with bodies, are subject to intense accountability. Professors, who work with minds, are not. Go figure.

Finally, it is often argued that if we question research, we are “anti-intellectual.” This is a non sequitur because research, as Dean Lewis asserts, can be valuable or it can be “nonsense.”

– Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D.Senior Fellow