The Myth of the Three-Legged Stool

By Lee Ligon (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

New faculty members at most (if not all!) research universities are given the same spiel: “your success here, and eventual promotion and tenure, is built on a three-legged stool, with one leg being research, one being teaching, and one being service.”  And shortly thereafter, well-meaning mentors and department heads will tell the newbie, sotto voce, “do as little service as you can get away with, preferably none, and the bar you have to meet for teaching is just, don’t suck!” And this advice is not wholly inaccurate. At most research universities, advancement is largely tied to research success, and in our current competitive scientific market, one must devote all one’s resources to achieving this success.  You can’t be a successful scientist by giving research only part of your attention. Hence the myth of the three-legged stool. A more accurate description would be a stationary unicycle that you have to balance on! But that doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

I’ve heard a lot of people arguing that we should reform the criteria for promotion and tenure to elevate service and teaching, if not to equal the expectations for research, at least to come closer. And while I don’t disagree that service and teaching are very important, it’s a complicated problem. Universities benefit from the strength of their faculty research programs, in both tangible and intangible ways. On the tangible side, research brings in money, through overhead costs and also research dollars spent on things like fee-for-service core facilities. Grants also pay graduate students, and can augment faculty salaries. While these tangible benefits are very important, the intangible benefits are priceless. Universities thrive on their reputation, and one of the major drivers of an institution’s reputation is the strength of the faculty scholarship. A well-respected research faculty gives an institution academic creds, and every press release and news story about a new finding or new big grant augments that reputation. Rankings rise, attracting more competitive students, more competitive faculty, more alumni donations, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So what is the solution? Should we abandon the myth of the three-legged stool and just be honest up front? Should we try to tweak the formula to make it more balanced? I don’t have an answer, but I know that simplistic solutions won’t work!