Most members of the educated public probably think of America’s greatest universities in terms of undergraduate and professional education—in terms of teaching and the transmission of knowledge rather than the creation of new knowledge. This point of view is completely understandable. They are concerned about the education of their children and grandchildren or relate to their own educational experience.
But what has made American research universities the greatest in the world has not been the quality of their undergraduate education or their ability to transmit knowledge, as important as that is. Instead, it’s been their ability to fulfill one of the other central missions of great universities: the production of new knowledge through discoveries that change our lives and the world.
The teaching of undergraduate and graduate students is critically important and an integral part of the mission of great universities; some do this very well, others in a less distinguished manner. In many ways, such teaching is the faculty member’s first calling. At least at the graduate level, many of the great research discoveries are produced through a collaboration between a faculty member and her students. At the undergraduate level, there is, in fact, contrary to popular belief, a modest positive association between the quality of a professor’s research and the assessed quality of her teaching. But, the fulfillment of the undergraduate teaching mission is not what has made America’s universities the best in the world.