A YALE committee has urged the university to downsize its faculty and shrink or disband some departments. That may seem a startling suggestion. Yet to those who follow the fortunes of American university-based research, the advice is hardly unexpected.
America's great research universities are entering a new era. Its hallmarks are sharply rising research and teaching costs coupled with growing public pressure to help solve the country's economic and social problems. This new reality has generated a consensus within the academic community that individual universities no longer can do everything they have done in the past.
University priorities have to be more sharply defined. But how?
A National Academy of Sciences panel spelled all this out last year in a paper titled "Fateful Choices." It lamented that "few academic institutions have engaged in any kind of long-term planning necessary to set priorities for conducting and supporting research."
This can't continue. The congressional Office of Technology Assessment issued a study of its own last year laying out why university-based research can't go on growing as it has in the past. Hard choices have to be made both by the universities and by those who fund their research, mainly the federal government.
In this context, the Yale faculty committee's recommendations seem less startling. They probably are only the first of many similar recommendations at other universities.
Much is at stake in this reassessment of priorities. Past university-based research underlies much of America's present economic strength. What wasn't discovered on campus was discovered and developed in industrial and government facilities by scientists, engineers, and managers educated on those campuses.
We don't know to what extent Yale will adopt the suggested changes. Certainly, the Yale report will be widely discussed throughout academe. But this is not only a university matter. It concerns a vital aspect of national strength. Every US citizen, therefore, has a stake in it.