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Research at Its Best

What institutions can do to create an environment conducive to optimal faculty output

January 30, 2015
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The mantra of “publish or perish” still lingers in the halls of higher education, so how might institutions best support faculty when it comes to making time for and funding their research?

In myriad and creative ways, it seems, according to the responses captured in a white paper issued by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

As part of its “Benchmark Best Practices” series, COACHE surveyed faculty at its member institutions — more than 200 colleges and universities across the United States — about their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the ways their employers encourage their research, from the amount of time spent, expectations for external funding, availability of course release time, and other institutional supports.

“I’ve heard many senior faculty admit that they couldn’t have earned tenure under today’s standards, so institutions have a responsibility to put their money where their expectations are,” says Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of COACHE. “Yet, the campuses where faculty are most satisfied with research aren’t necessarily the wealthiest, but those who protect professors’ time and foster engagement with students and colleagues.”

While different institutions received high marks from faculty for their own means of support — from the provision of travel to additional funding to the emphasis of quality over quantity — key recommendations garnered from institutions with “exemplary results” included the following:

  • Provide leadership from the top. Presidential and provostial leadership in stressing the importance of excellence in research is critical substantively and symbolically, especially in the face of external forces skeptical of its value. This means that resources directed at supporting faculty work — across the creative lifecycle — are crucial, as is the messaging that goes along with the financial support.
  • Establish formal offices and programs to support faculty research. Visibly dedicating resources to support faculty work clearly demonstrates how important faculty members are to institutional success. This study identified the following areas of focus for full-time college staff:
    • Grant support. Many universities offer pre-award support to faculty preparing proposals for outside funding. What is less common, but equally important, is post-award support.
    • Internal grants. Faculty are grateful for internal funding, even in small amounts. Well-designed programs can foster interdivisional collaboration, extramural mentoring, and other innovations.
    • Research institutes. Such institutes may be a source of internal grant support, but beyond that, they are places where faculty can find collaborators and engage in interdisciplinary work—something many find fulfilling.
    • Colloquia, workshops, and seminars. All faculty, and especially pre-tenure faculty, appreciate opportunities to present their research at colloquia on campus, receive feedback, and fine-tune their work prior to presenting at a national conference. Workshops and seminars for writing grants, running a lab, getting published, mentoring undergraduates and graduates, getting tenure and “getting to full” are all programs that support faculty collaboration and engagement in fulfilling work.

In addition to offering general advice on how to best support faculty and research, the white paper cites specific programmatic examples from a range of institutional types: Hamilton College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, College of the Holy Cross, Kenyon College, Loyola University Maryland, Middlebury College, Stonehill College, Tulane University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and University of St. Thomas.

Read the full COACHE benchmark report on the Nature of Work: Research, with examples of successful initiatives by member institutions.

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