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The advantages of a liberal arts college in a research university

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By David Marshall | Guest Opinion | November 9, 2011

As Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science—the college that teaches 94% of the undergraduates at UC Santa Barbara—I often talk to prospective students and parents about the advantages of studying in a liberal arts college in a great research university. The opportunities are remarkable. The College of Letters and Science offers 80 majors and 38 minors. Internationally-recognized scholars and artists teach undergraduates as well as graduate students and advance their fields with innovative research, publications, and artistic work that both preserve our traditions and map new fields of study.

I was surprised to read Todd Borden’s assertion (in his recent Charger opinion piece) that students applying to college should avoid the University of California because “the teaching of undergraduates is an inconvenience that gets in the way of the real business of the university—professors’ research.” That would be news to our faculty. In 2010, in the College of Letters and Science, we had 17,620 undergraduates and 1,740 graduate students. In other words, 91% of our students are undergraduates. Teaching undergraduates is a major responsibility of our faculty. (We even welcome some Dos Pueblos students into our classrooms.) Faculty spend hundreds of additional hours every year on committees that oversee and safeguard the quality of our undergraduate education. We are a research university, and we have a great interest and investment in educating 18-22-year-olds.

In 2010, 66% of our upper-division student credit units were taught by our professorial and Academic Senate faculty. Another 28% were taught by Lecturers—but these are not “part-time faculty members with no job security and continuity,” as Mr. Borden states. They are highly-qualified academics and artists with doctorates or the equivalent, almost all of whom teach full-time with a good degree of job security. Many spend their careers at UCSB. These faculty are appointed as Lecturers to teach writing and foreign languages and some other areas (such as the arts) precisely because their jobs focus on teaching, although many of them also contribute original scholarship or work as professional artists. By the way, only 6% of these student credit units were taught by graduate student instructors (and these instructors are trained and supervised by professors). In sum, 94% of student credit units were taught by dedicated, valued faculty with excellent credentials. In the lower-division courses, the percentage of professorial faculty is slightly lower, 56%, but many freshman courses are in areas (such as writing and languages) that are typically taught by our full-time Lecturers.

Yes, we have some large courses, but most are taught by professors, many of whom are our distinguished senior faculty. Chancellor Henry Yang teaches an undergraduate lecture course. All great universities have lecture courses; this is a tradition that goes back to Bologna, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. In 2010, the percentage of lower-division courses in the College of Letters and Science that had enrollments over 100 was 4%. The percentage of upper-division courses in the College of Letters and Science that had enrollments over 100 was 4%. The percentage has been higher in some years, but it is not excessive. The severe budget cuts imposed on us by the State Legislature have increased class size in some cases, but we still have freshman seminars and Honors seminars, and many faculty oversee one-on-one independent study projects and senior essays.

Over 50% of UC Santa Barbara graduating seniors report that they have collaborated with a professor on a research or creative project. Our College of Letters and Science Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities office promotes the scholarly work of undergraduate students and even provides funding for students to pursue independent research and artistic activities under the guidance of faculty mentors. Carol Greider, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology, got her start as a UC Santa Barbara undergraduate working in a professor’s biology lab. In our Physics Department, undergraduates working with the “high energy group” helped build components for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Cern, Switzerland, that you’ve seen described in the international media.

In a research university, even the classroom is a laboratory for new ideas and discoveries.

Students learn firsthand new interpretations and new ways of thinking from scholars and artists who define their fields. In a research university, students work with faculty who produce as well as impart knowledge. Working across disciplines with innovative scholars, students can research the ethnic and religious diversity in our multicultural state and global society; explore new media and the dynamics of information technology and society; map the earth and the oceans with scientists at the crossroads of discovery; learn about nanotechnology from faculty who helped to invent it; and discover the political, cultural, artistic, literary, and intellectual traditions that have shaped our world. You can’t get this from textbooks alone. By the way, some of our professors have written those textbooks, after years of research and classroom teaching.

In the University of California, we also take very seriously our role as a public university. The scholarship of our faculty informs public policy and public debate about the most compelling issues of our times. Mr. Borden mentions that he took a large course in Campbell Hall with the late Walter Capps, a beloved Professor of Religious Studies who later was elected to the United States Congress. Walter Capps’s course on Vietnam was legendary, profiled in the national media at the time, and still talked about today. I wish that I had been there. Over the years, many alumni and community members have told me that this course changed their lives.

We prepare students for a wide variety of careers while providing them with the skills of critical thinking, analysis, communication, and expression that will allow them to participate in society as informed and engaged citizens. Many students tell us that what gave them the edge when they applied for jobs or professional schools was their undergraduate research experience.

There are many excellent colleges and universities, both public and private. Mr. Borden is right that prospective students should look at more than dorms and dining halls when selecting a college. Finding the academic environment that makes sense for you is important. My advice, especially when you consider the University of California, is to do your research.

David Marshall is Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts and Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also a Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

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5 Comments

5 Responses to “The advantages of a liberal arts college in a research university”

  1. Ralph Arnell on November 9th, 2011 6:54 PM

    Wow. Thanks for clearing that up David. This was a remarkably clear and logical article. I’ll definitely be sending my 9 children to the UCs! (the oldest is 17, and we’re ALREADY talking about college [I know, I know, but his childhood needed to end at some point]). But really, great article, its difficult to find reason these days.

    [Reply]

  2. Dave on November 10th, 2011 10:14 AM

    With all due respect, my experience at UCSB is closer to what Mr. Borden says than what Mr. Marshall says. I took some courses at SBCC at the same time I was at UCSB and the educational experience at SBCC was much stronger and more satisfying. At SBCC the instructor actually read my papers; at UCSB, a grad student was in charge of reading and grading the work.

    In upper division classes, the experience was better, but for what you pay at the UCs now, it’s harder to justify the cost when for roughly the same price you could be in smaller classes at a private school (or at SBCC and paying a lot less for a better experience.)

    [Reply]

  3. Catherine on November 10th, 2011 8:07 PM

    I agree with David’s comments 100%. I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies at UCSB. I was privileged to collaborate with professors on 4 research studies as an undergraduate. It changed my life; I love research and learned the importance of bridging the “scholar-practitioner divide” as I left the ivory tower and joined the world of work. I was absolutely thrilled to be taught by professors who were engaged in ground-breaking research and were well known in their academic fields. To this day, I will never regret the time I spent at UCSB. It was integral in helping me to reach my true intellectual potential.

    I was very disappointed by Mr. Borden’s remarks. It appeared that he was using hearsay as a basis for his article. I would expect an English teacher to have done more research when writing a non-fiction commentary.

    [Reply]

  4. TW Borden on December 16th, 2011 9:28 AM

    Here is a link to an article from the New York Times regarding, essentially, the same topic that I wrote about. It is entitled “Our Universities, Why Are They Failing?” Well, it’s similar if I was better read, a deeper thinker, and a more accomplished writer. But it basically says the same thing; the University of California (and all public universities) were an acceptable deal-with-the-devil when they were cheap, but now that they are expensive, better educational experiences abound where students can actually receive individual attention from tenured faculty members for not much more (and in some cases less!) money.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/our-universities-why-are-they-failing/?

    [Reply]

    Catherine Reply:

    Mr. Borden,

    I have read quite a bit and listened to friends who are sending their kids to college. I have reversed my opinion! Many high school grads are now able to receive a higher caliber education at a liberal arts university than a UC. Many are paying LESS, as well!

    My experience at UCSB decades ago is not the same as typically
    experienced today.

    Thank you for the many references. This helps us as we are now looking at colleges!

    [Reply]

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The advantages of a liberal arts college in a research university