The Gray Area | A PURManent endowment
It’s time to set priorities straight — Penn needs to increase funding for undergraduate research
April 12, 2011, 4:40 am · Updated April 12, 2011, 12:00 am·
What makes a research university different?
It’s a key question because, at first glance, the research university would not appear to be the best model for undergraduate learning. After all, what is the advantage of being at a school where faculty members are focused on their research and their teaching rather than solely on teaching?
But at a research university, not only is the groundbreaking research supposed to permeate the classroom, but there is also supposed to be the opportunity to participate in that research yourself. That is what gives the research university value to undergraduates. However, theory has not always met practice.
The difficulty has always been getting undergraduates started with research at the university. Faculty want to have the most experienced researchers, so there is very little incentive to give novice sophomores and juniors a shot to become experienced.
That’s where the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program comes in. The program was established in the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships in 2006 to allow rising sophomores to be paired with a faculty adviser and receive $3,000 in summer funding.
To compensate for the faculty adviser’s time and effort in taking on a less-experienced research assistant, the program also transfers $2,500 to the mentor’s departmental research account.
PURM is important because it is the key way for freshmen to get into CURF early on in their Penn careers and get involved in research. Many times, students’ projects provide the contacts and skills necessary for the pursuit of other projects, which are then translated into successful fellowship applications. All of these things are positives for Penn.
The problem is that supply has simply not been able to meet demand. This year, 452 people applied for 58 spots. That’s a 12.8-percent acceptance rate.
Granted, the situation is not as bleak as it was in the past. This year, there were originally supposed to be only 46 spots for students.
However, 12 faculty members offered to use the $2,500 they receive from PURM for their central research fund and supplement it with $500 from their own budget so that they could fund a second undergraduate researcher.
In many ways, it disproves the myth that faculty need an incentive to take on undergraduate researchers. The quality of the undergraduates on their own is sufficient.
You can learn a great deal about an organization by looking at its priorities. So how do the different leaders at Penn stack up in their support for this program?
The Office of the Provost has put quite a bit into PURM. Former Provost Ron Daniels and Vice Provost for Education Andy Binns used the Provost’s central funds in 2006 to fund the program’s first 18 spots. Provost Vincent Price has only expanded it. In 2010, President Amy Gutmann used $200,000 of her Carnegie Award to fund 12 additional PURM scholarships for incoming juniors.
But despite this support, there is a missing link. The Provost and President’s offices set priorities for the University’s Development Office. Not enough is being done to expand PURM through private contributions.
Currently, there is no line item for funding more PURM scholarships in the Campaign for Penn, but there are efforts for large building projects, like the renovation of the ARCH building.
There is no question that funding a big item like the ARCH has a certain allure for the University as well as for donors, but in that prioritization process, smaller items like funding undergraduate research get left out. These experiences may be the most important of all.
It takes about $200,000 to endow a PURM scholarship in perpetuity.
It all comes down to this. What value do the University and its key donors place on undergraduate research, and do we really think that there are only 58 sophomores and juniors out of 452 who are qualified to engage in this summer research?
Charles Gray is a Wharton and College junior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is gray@theDP.com. The Gray Area appears every Tuesday.