As an American University in Austria, with a multi-national faculty and accreditation in both countries, Webster Vienna is at the centre of one of the oldest debates in academia, a debate about the very nature of the university.
Is a university there primarily to educate students?
Or is it there to provide a setting for academics to do the research that will advance human knowledge and lead to new insights in the sciences and humanities?
In the United States, as in Great Britain, good teaching can be found at large research universities, like those in the Ivy League, or at Oxford or Cambridge. But more often it is found in so-called "teaching universities," often smaller private colleges, whose long tradition of small classes and personal involvement with faculty emphasises the development of the students and the passing on of knowledge.
In the continental European university system, the concept of a teaching university doesn’t really exist in the same sense. There, the large government-supported universities are all research institutions, and research is the basis of any assessment of their quality. It follows what is called the "Humboldtian ideal" of a university, where research is the foundation of university education – both the precondition for teaching and its basis – along with guarantees of academic freedom for faculty as a defense against tyranny. This remains the European ideal today.
"Webster Vienna finds itself in the difficult position of having to meet the requirements of both educational philosophies," according to William Fulton, Webster’s Academic Director. It is now in the process of hiring one senior and two junior research faculty members in each of six departments, in accordance with the requirements of the Austrian accreditation Council.
Webster has had Austrian accreditation for six years, and has just completed reaccreditation.
The Anglo-American tradition of teaching universities does not of course preclude research, but the emphasis is different, and the responsibilities of faculty to be effective classroom teachers are taken more seriously.
"And that’s our focus as well; Webster is a teaching institution," Fulton emphasizes. And while Webster has always believed research is important and provided moderate support to faculty research projects, the hiring of research faculty on this scale is a significant change of direction and something not originally foreseen as part of the university’s plans, unlikely had it not been for the push from the Austrian accreditation Council.
Under these new terms, the research faculty will be expected to spend half of their time on research and the other half on teaching.
"We see that as an advantage for students, because it means more presence of full-time faculty, and their research naturally informs their teaching," Dr. Fulton said.
The primary hurdle for the university is not to find good research professors, but to find ones who are just as interested in teaching. Webster’s main concern is to hire faculty who have strong and active research agendas and are also effective in the classroom.
The importance of upholding the values of the teaching university is supported by surveys of student attitudes. In a recent study cited by Andrew Hacker in "Truth About the Colleges" in The New York Review of Books, American colleges that considered themselves teaching institutions were compared with those that considered themselves primarily research institutions. The quality of teaching was rated by students on a scale of 60 to 100, and the results clearly show that teaching universities were considered superior.
At research universities, a professor will bring results of current research to class, so that students are aware of the latest developments in their field.
However, because the nature of academic research is in many cases very different than it was 200 years ago, this research is often arcane and not necessarily relevant to what is needed in the classroom. Nevertheless, involving students in research can also be a very effective teaching tool.
"What is also very good about research is that professors can involve their students in their research, and we have had many faculties who did so," Dr. Fulton said. Last summer term, for example, International Relations professor Dr. Gregory Weeks took two of his students to a conference in Bosnia about genocide. Each presented an academic research paper on aspects of topic, an important professional opportunity for the students involved.
"If Webster were not required to hire research faculty, we would nonetheless continue supporting research on a project basis," said Dr. Fulton.
With financial help from Webster Vienna, faculty members have for many years carried out research projects and presented their results at professional conferences.
In the end, Webster seems pleased to have this opportunity to hire research faculty members, and thus to expand their long-time commitment to research.
"But having said that, it is important that we continue to focus on teaching," Dr. Fulton said, "because that is where I think Webster can make the best contribution to the Austrian educational landscape."