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Nervous Researchers

02 Dec Posted by in Faculty, Research | 6 comments
Nervous Researchers

As many readers of the blog know (indeed, as all faithful readers should know), Mason recently sponsored a conference on teaching and innovation that came off quite successfully.

One side effect, however, seems to have been a certain level of anxiety among some of our many research faculty that we were changing the orientation of the University away from their cherished strengths and interests. So in this climate of innovation, we face yet another version of one of the oldest academic dilemmas, the balance between research and teaching.

The most important point should be clear: whatever the specific outcome of our current strategic visioning process, we will without question preserve a major emphasis on research, on the importance of growing research, and on the commitment to applying research to social good (including, as appropriate, economic development).

It is also true that, as in teaching, academic research faces some new challenges that will require adaptations. Conventional funding sources will shrink a bit. We’ll need new creativity in finding private as well as public sources of funds. I think the whole Northern Virginia region will benefit from University leadership in accelerating corporate sponsorship of research, which should, of course, help the University as well.

I do believe that the challenges to teaching, and its funding base, are more substantial than those to the basic research mission, but that does not mean we will stop paying attention to the latter. Indeed, several commentators at the Higher Education Forum properly noted research as one of the strengths universities like Mason bring to bear on students, by connecting them both to the overall excitement of new discovery and to specific opportunities, as in our new Students as Scholars initiative. Here, teaching and research are broadly complementary, not competitive.

We must, as I noted in commenting on the Forum, figure out ways to incentivize and reward teaching innovations more comprehensively than is now the case, but we must retain the reward system for research as well. Most Mason faculty, in seeking promotion within the tenure track, rely on research achievements as their primary justification, and I don’t either expect or want this balance to shift a lot.

Still, it’s appropriate to acknowledge a certain nervousness about change. There is no doubt that much of the current low-cost competition in higher education comes from outfits that have no research mission at all, that save on faculty costs by wiping out this segment of the portfolio. This is not a model for Mason to follow—we would jeopardize too many of our hard-won strengths—but it is a fact of life in higher education.

The obvious challenge—and again it’s not fundamentally new, just with some new particulars—is to build an institution that excels at innovative research and teaching alike, with many faculty adept at both ventures. Meeting the challenge unquestionably requires ongoing conversations about the research segment, and we’ll try to organize appropriate venues. Granted that I’m not in a heavily-funded research field, I’ve always enjoyed trying to meet both teaching and research goals, and to link them whenever possible. The same coordination will remain possible at the institutional level.