Ky. Voices: Strong undergraduate programs ought to be state priority

The goal of the University of Kentucky becoming a Top 20 research university has evidently been accepted by the Board of Trustees, the university president and Frankfort lawmakers. This is not just in error, but absurd.

Being a top research university requires a lot of financial resources. Facility costs and labor costs for faculty and research assistants are high and are only within the capacities of our wealthiest states.

One way to envision the impossibility of Kentucky joining the Top 20 is to ask: Who will Kentucky replace as a top university? Will it be one of California's state funded universities, Michigan, Wisconsin?

The top universities are, with rare exception, from states with high income, whose societies can and are willing to finance these research universities. UK may beat the University of Wisconsin in basketball, but not as a research university. Kentucky is a state with low economic resources, and therefore tax base, and low potential possibility of private donations.

This does not mean that Kentucky cannot have outstanding public universities and colleges. We need to set goals that are reasonable given our economic base.

It is possible to reach not only national, but international, recognition in particular areas of study and research, but these will be limited in number. We could compete with wealthier states with graduate programs in a narrower area of knowledge, for example, a specialized area of biological research.

Our state universities should set as a goal to provide a top-quality undergraduate education and limit their graduate programs. Graduate programs are usually importantly financed on the backs of the undergraduates. Offering freshmen courses taught by Ph.D. candidates and offering freshmen courses with class size in the hundreds provides resources for graduate education at the expense of undergraduate students. Undergraduate tuition is, in effect, used to finance graduate programs.

Setting unreasonable goals has the consequence of having poorer quality graduate programs and it reduces the quality of the undergraduate programs.

If UK should not try to emulate Michigan or Berkeley, what should be its goals?

UK should set goals that are reasonable and in concert with its resource base. It is quite possible for a state school to have a top-quality undergraduate program, such as at William and Mary and Miami (Ohio).

The mission of UK should be to produce good quality undergraduates who will be a part of the ongoing process of improving the economic wellbeing of Kentucky's citizens.

Harry Landreth's most recent book is Professoring: A Critique of Higher Education.