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Approaching the Campus Budget - Part II

[posted October 23, 2003]

The Nature of Research

Teaching and research, the two major imperatives of this and every other top American public research university exist in close connection. But, beginning in the middle of the twentieth and continuing into this century, research increasingly defines the fundamental quality of major public institutions. Although everyone expects a flagship university to provide excellent teaching, fine student programs and activities, and the other attributes of an effective undergraduate experience, research quality and productivity identify a campus as belonging among higher education’s premier institutions.

Academic research is one of the most competitive environments in America, and every university must identify, recruit, and retain talented faculty and staff who can perform at nationally competitive levels. Research comes in many forms from the creative work of artists to the basic and applied laboratories of the sciences; from the literary and historical work of the humanities to research on management; and from publications in the social sciences to the professional work of nursing or education. These and every other discipline and field cultivated by a university gain their reputation from the quality and productivity of research. While the discussion below is couched in terms of research, we must also recognize that research and advanced graduate education are inextricably entwined. It is virtually impossible to do advanced graduate education without research; nearly all major research university research is coupled with strong graduate programs.

The goal of all research is to produce work that reflects original thought, creativity, and new information, that becomes a part of the international conversation about the subject studied, and that earns for its authors the right to participate fully in that national and international conversation. The shorthand we use for this participation is publication, although sometimes the participation takes the form of an art exhibit or a musical performance. The competition in academic research occurs because the high quality participants in this national and international conversation insist on reviewing the work for quality and significance. They do so either through a peer-review process that accompanies publication in a high quality journal or academic press; or through the reviews that lead to an exhibit in a major gallery; or through the examination of work that precedes the award of a foundation or federal grant.

Research and creative talents are rare, and the competition to attract and retain this talent on a university campus is the key component of every significant research university’s strategy. The more a university campus can support high quality and high productivity research faculty, the more competitive the institution becomes. The number of high quality and high productivity faculty in the national and international research competition on each campus defines its comparative ranking among America’s top research universities. Faculty will go where they find the support that allows their talent to grow, their work to proceed rapidly, and their creativity to find expression.

The national research competition plays out in many forums. Some occurs in the intense competition for grants and contracts from federal agencies such as the NSF and the NIH. Some appears in the competition for publication in prestigious journals or university and academic presses. The markers of successful competition for physicists are different from the markers for historians, and the competition that defines a first rank composer is quite distinct from the competition of engineering researchers. Universities that participate in the national research competition measure the success of their faculty and programs not within the university but relative to the best faculty and programs of the same type at other first rank research universities.

Effective research universities differ in detail on their strategies for the competition to produce academic research, but all end up doing much the same thing. They create incentives for nationally successful departments, programs, and individuals by allocating their research support to those departments, programs, and individuals who compete successfully. Although it may appear obvious, the more money a campus has to allocate to research, all other things being equal, the more nationally competitive research the campus can support.

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