By Published: Feb. 26, 2020

Excellent research fuels exceptional teaching, and vice versa

Classics Professor Elspeth Dusinberre’s students get a feel for Roman architecture, literally, by forming human arches; their locked fingers serve the same stabilizing function as the keystone of a Roman arch.


At the top of the page: Corrie Detweiler, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, is shown in her lab at CU Boulder, working on new ways to treat “superbugs,” antibiotic-resistant disease. On her right is Elspeth Dusinberre, professor of classics, helping a group of students get a literal feel for ancient architecture. CU Boulder photos by Patrick Campbell. Above: James W.C. White

Physics Professor Noah Finkelstein leads his class through a dizzying tour of quantum mechanics, charging up and down aisles, punctuating key points with physics simulations, clicker quizzes and fist pumps.

Both Dusinberre and Finkelstein are University of Colorado President’s Teaching Scholars and have amassed a string of other teaching awards. Both also have impressive lists of publications reflecting their scholarly work and research. 

Like our other tenured and tenure-track professors in the College of Arts and Sciences, they embody the fact that excellent research fuels exceptional teaching, and vice versa.

CU Boulder is one of 131 “Research 1” institutions, a group of universities with the highest levels of research activity. Producing about 5,000 peer-reviewed publications, books, chapters and creative works annually, our college’s faculty expand the frontiers of knowledge. This, in turn, manifests our campus goals of leading and innovating.

Our job is to broaden and deepen human knowledge and to convey the ability to analyze and discuss it."

But that work is just part of the picture. Alumni sometimes ask me if there is tension between research and teaching. The implicit assumption is that one must take precedence over the other. But can we be excellent at both? 

The answer is a resounding “yes.” We can excel at both. And we do. While research is critically important to the university, so is teaching. Our faculty describe these activities as two sides of the same coin; they feed on each other and in turn fuel the motivation and success of our faculty and students.

That said, if I’m honest with myself and with you, there are times when research seems to overshadow teaching. Without denigrating research one iota, it is worth noting that the university of the future must take the educational lives of students ever more seriously. 

Dusinberre and Finkelstein are superb examples of our commitment to do just that. Those who dedicate themselves in equal measure to teaching and research or scholarly work not only reflect the needs of the students but also the mission of the university.

The four-campus University of Colorado system’s mission is to show “leadership in high-quality education and professional training, public service, advancing research and knowledge, and state-of-the-art health care.”

CU Boulder’s mission, grounded in state law, compels the university to be a consummate graduate research institution that offers “a comprehensive array of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degree programs.”

Further, in 2020 and beyond, CU Boulder pledges to “shape tomorrow’s leaders, be the top university for innovation, and to positively impact humanity.” And it vows to address “the humanitarian, social and technological challenges of the 21st century.” 

Pursuing all of these lofty goals requires both brilliant research and inspired teaching.

That’s because excellent research and teaching are synergistic. Our job is to broaden and deepen human knowledge and to convey the ability to analyze and discuss it. That idea is as stable and enduring as a fine Roman arch.

James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.