Should research really be part of the job description at liberal arts colleges?

Teaching-focused institutions need to concentrate on the aspects of faculty research that contribute to the student experience, says Neil Clarke

July 30, 2020
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Institutions need to set the bar for research achievement in ways which reflect their core mission

Colleges routinely assess faculty research, but few have thought carefully about why they want faculty to engage in research. They should. 

For 35 years, I was a student, postdoc and faculty member at top universities and research institutes, where “doing science” was at the top of the job description. Seven years ago, I switched gears and joined a new liberal arts college.

Founded by Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS), Yale-NUS College has an enrolment of just 1,000 students. We have heavy teaching loads, few on-site research labs, modest start-up funds and no graduate programmes. We also have the most talented, interesting, globally diverse student body I have ever known. For me, this is ample compensation for the inability to conduct research in the ways I have been used to.

For colleagues who are not yet tenured, it can be a different matter. Over and above the anxieties experienced by junior faculty everywhere, uncertainties arise from our organisational structure (tenure decisions have to be approved by the provosts of both parent universities as well as by Yale-NUS itself) and our short history.

As in most American institutions, our faculty are assessed on their teaching, service and research, the latter evaluated on the basis of publications and letters from outside reviewers. These criteria are almost universal; differences among institutions lie largely in where to “set the bar”. At Yale-NUS College, we have asked ourselves how much research we can expect. Of what quality and impact? What criteria do we use to evaluate these things? I suspect we are as far from a consensus now as we were seven years ago, when we opened our doors.

The problem is that we have been asking the wrong questions. What we should have asked first is why do we want faculty to do research? There is more than one possible answer, but most of them imply the need for assessment criteria that are different from those typically used.

For academia as a whole, the advancement of human knowledge is a primary mission. For private universities at the top of the research pyramid, it is arguably their single most important purpose. For colleges such as mine, though, the reason we exist is to offer the best undergraduate education we can. If we evaluate faculty research solely on how much it expands human knowledge, we lose sight of other benefits that are more important to our mission.

First of all, providing faculty with the opportunity to do research is simply what we have to do to recruit the best educators we can. Second, research improves the classroom experience of students, since faculty who are engaged in research are more likely to be attuned to new developments and unresolved questions in their disciplines. Third, research-active faculty are a model for students, showcasing the excitement about intellectual work. Fourth, faculty research provides opportunities for students to engage in research themselves, an especially powerful form of experiential learning. Fifth, faculty who share their research passions in an accessible manner, reaching colleagues and students outside their own discipline, enrich the intellectual culture of the college beyond their own classrooms.

Many institutions recognise these benefits of research but treat them as incidental. Mentoring students in a research project, for example, might count as supplemental teaching. Giving an accessible public lecture might be seen as a form of service to the college. Neither, however, is considered when assessing “research”.

This may sound like a mere accounting issue, but it can create incentives that are antithetical to the mission of the institution. If a college assesses research entirely in terms of publication metrics and impact, it should not be surprised that faculty are preoccupied with meeting those expectations, at the expense of communicating their interests in a broad and accessible manner. An emphasis on research productivity can also incentivise faculty to limit student involvement in research, or to spend inadequate time on mentoring and training students who are involved.

If colleges were to consider seriously the reasons why they want faculty to do research, many would realise that their promotion and tenure standards are poorly aligned with those reasons. There are a couple of options for realignment. One is to down-weight research in assessments and add to the teaching and service components the kinds of research-associated activities that the college now realises it has undervalued. This option has the advantage of retaining the research assessment criteria that the college has always used. 

However, down-weighting research could be anathema to institutions that use equal weights for research and teaching as a way of signalling that both are valued. A more palatable solution would be to continue to give the same high weight to research but to redefine how it is assessed. Colleges should explicitly include under the “research” umbrella all the research-related activities and behaviours that they deem relevant to their missions.

It is too easy for colleges to default to publications and peer assessments as the sole criterion for assessing the contributions of faculty research. Focusing debate on where to set the bar only makes sense if you want high jumpers. Most colleges need a track and field team.

Neil Clarke is an associate professor (science) at Yale-NUS College. 

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