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This effort is designed to stimulate intelligent discussion around a topic that is more complex than many realize. We’re heading into a strategic planning process, and the subject of research will be central.

Mason is a strong and rising research university, though not in the top tier as yet. Funded research has grown by about 500% over the past decade plus. We have amplified research staffing, reducing a number of knotty problems in the process. We have expanded space, though not yet adequately. We have reduced teaching loads for active researchers in most units. We have readily assumed that growing research was one of our very top goals, important in itself, relevant to regional economic development and institutional reputation alike, and (properly handled) beneficial to teaching as well.

Much of this thinking can and should continue. Indeed I would argue (and I’m not alone) that the regional need for a top research university will increase as the federal role diminishes a bit. We need additional research engines in Northern Virginia with strong corporate involvement, and Mason can play a lead role both in the planning and coordination and in research itself. There are also promising opportunities for international research collaborations and funding, which we’re pursuing.  Not surprisingly, we have many friends of the University who want us to focus on research above all and who talk readily about quintupling our funding yet again, moving at last into the ranks of the big boys.

Nothing wrong with this, but there are complexities. First, it won’t be easy. There’s a slight tendency in some quarters to think that we snap our fingers, get in tight with DARPA and other defense-related research funders, and we’re almost there. I think the funding, even from defense, will become much harder to obtain, and I think we need a more balanced and possibly more modest approach, simply in the name of realism.

Second — and this is a key issue — research costs us money, even funded research. The funding is great. It helps cover salaries for talented faculty, and it pays for part of research staffing and facilities. But it doesn’t pay for all of it, and at a time when budgets are tight and strictures on tuition increasingly pressing, we need a more realistic calculation of the cost-benefit ratio, simply in fiscal terms. We will probably decide on  more research anyway, but we need a more accurate calculus and (probably) a more urgent appeal for some philanthropic supplement.

Third, we really are going to need more imaginative attention to quality teaching and educational delivery. The current higher ed situation demands this. Resulting priorities may detract from the research mission, institutionally and in individual faculty cases. I say may, not necessarily will. I really do still believe that good teaching and research can go hand in hand. But there will be new pressures on the equation, and it’s folly not to recognize them.

I do think we emerge, still, with a strong agenda for research growth. But it won’t be our only priority, and it won’t be easy. Planning amid complexity will become increasingly important.