This article is published in the September 2008 issue.

Research, Teaching and Service: Dynamic Balance

Musings from the Chair

You are a newly minted Ph.D. recipient who landed a faculty position at a research university. The fall semester is just beginning, and you are simultaneously excited and a bit apprehensive. University life is unchanged and also surprisingly new—writing research proposals, teaching classes and serving on faculty committees. Your friends and new colleagues are giving you sometimes conflicting advice on time management and priorities. What really matters? How do you choose? How do you find your own path?

Research, teaching and service: they are the standard academic mantra, which one suspects Socrates himself whispered in Plato’s ear. The disquieting truth is that we honor them to varying degrees, but often in that rank order. All too often, those of us with graying hair whisper to our junior colleagues, “Focus on your research!” Or, we opine, “You need to be a decent (but not great) teacher to get tenure.” Then there’s service, where we inevitably say, “Make sure you serve on program committees for good conferences, but leave time-consuming service for later.”

These are the oft-unspoken rules for success and tenure at major research universities. They define our academic culture, creating expectations and defining behavioral norms that are passed across the academic years. I generalize and exaggerate, of course, and the relative emphases on research, teaching and service vary greatly across institutions. However, I find even the generalizations worrisome because the academic child becomes the adult, remembering the lessons of youth. I believe we need better balance, recognizing the criticality of the triumvirate to computing’s future.

Do not misunderstand my comments on balance; our emphasis on research really matters. As I testified to the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee in July, economic growth and innovation are fueled worldwide by information technology research, conducted by talented and engaged faculty at research universities. In my testimony, I urged Congress to fund the America COMPETES Act fully and to encourage greater risk-taking in long-term, innovative research in our universities and laboratories. The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is also working to foster long-term research agendas; I encourage you to participate.

Nevertheless, our passion and commitment to teaching and education are equally important. We have an image problem in information technology, and I believe we need to rethink our curricula and approaches to computing education, as well as the rewards and recognition we extend to committed educators, if we are to broaden the base of participation in computing and attract the diverse talent needed for the future. The CRA Education Committee (CRA-E), chaired by Andy van Dam, is hard at work on a set of best practices and suggestions for computing education. I know Andy would be delighted to hear your ideas and suggestions.

Remember, though, that Chaucer long ago captured the shared passions for research and teaching that define the best aspects of academic scholarship—“And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” We need to translate those passions into 21st century reality. Research and teaching are but two manifestations of the same quest. As every young professor has learned, sometimes to his or her chagrin, there is no better way to truly understand something than to teach it.

A final, worrisome cultural manifestation is our occasional reluctance to serve the discipline when the need and opportunity arise. Each generation owes a debt to the preceding one, a debt best repaid to the generation following. Whether it be community advocacy, service as a funding agency program officer, a term as department chair, dean, provost or chancellor, or a host of other important roles, service advances our field and ensures a vibrant, rich and attractive environment for a new generation of students and scholars. Each of us owes a debt to our mentors, our colleagues and our friends. We need to better honor those who serve our community.

Research, teaching, service; these three points define a plane of excellence. We need not sacrifice one for another. Teach, explore and serve—in balance. We will all be better for it.

Dan Reed, CRA’s Board Chair, is Microsoft’s Scalable and Multicore Computing Strategist. Contact him at Daniel.Reed @ or his blog at


Research, Teaching and Service: Dynamic Balance