What Is the Duty of Public Colleges?

03/02/2015 02:15 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

In his recent budget proposal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sparked a national debate on whether institutions of higher learning should primarily focus on classroom teaching to promote workplace readiness or public service and conducting research with a global impact. As part of his proposal, Walker changed the language of the 100-year-old mission of the University of Wisconsin System (UW), known as the "Wisconsin Idea," removing the portion that calls for extending "knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses."

Walker, who has been widely criticized by UW President Ray Cross for his remarks and proposal to cut $300 million from UW, has stepped head on into the debate about the roles of our institutions of higher learning and how funds should be allocated to meet the needs of today's rapidly evolving and global marketplace.

The situation in Wisconsin points to an essential question about the role of public universities -- is the primary purpose of a public institution to be a world-class research institution and a wellspring of innovation, or to provide high-quality, low-cost education to reduce economic disparity? Should colleges adopt the model emphasizing research to improve the human condition, one that has long been in place at UW, or one that focuses mainly on classroom instruction?

This is not a new quandary; it is a question that college presidents and academics struggle with every day. All colleges and universities have the dual responsibility to educate students and to advance knowledge for all. The ideal balance of the two is legitimately worthy of discussion.

There are, of course, many examples of schools that excel in both. New York's CUNY and SUNY systems focus on producing outstanding, workplace-ready graduates, but the schools also turn out cutting-edge research. The University of California, Berkeley, on the other hand, though it provides first-rate classroom instruction, clearly considers research its raison d'etre. At Touro where we make no secret that our primary goal is to offer students a superb and affordable education, we still encourage the faculty to delve into in high-level research.

Instead of approaching this argument head on, we might consider a more circuitous route. Rather than listing the virtues of education or academic research, perhaps, we should ask ourselves if we are meeting the needs of the next generation in an increasingly technical, complex and competitive world.

Although cultivating industrious citizens might not solve many of the pressing problems of our time, turning out graduates who are prepared to be engaged in the world at large, pursue careers and become solid members of society is a worthy goal for all institutions. It's not a matter of which model works best, but a question of whether the there is a way to allocate state funds to meet the needs of our students today, and make a real difference for society in the years to come.

Notwithstanding the incendiary tone of his remarks, to his credit, Governor Walker took an argument that has lived almost exclusively in academic circles to the forefront: education or research. Is there an answer?

Let the debate rage on.