Implementing a Research Mission at Your Teaching-Intensive University

Picture of a lecture hall at a university

When it comes to implementing a research mission, the devil is in the details.


As a dean at Middlestates Territory University (MSTU), you are charged with creating, funding, and implementing a vision and action plan for bringing the “research” portion of the institution’s statutory mission to the forefront.  After many years of negotiation, lobbying, presentation of historical data, and handshaking behind closed doors, the state legislature has finally allowed MSTU to include the words “research-focused” in its official state statutory description and mission. Although the upper administration views this as a victory, the institution has extremely limited financial, laboratory, and human resources, and as the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, you know a long slog lies ahead. You oversee a college comprised of 16 small departments with no more than 10 tenured faculty members in each, and of the total 145 tenured and tenure-track faculty (TTF) in your college, only 15% have or have had external grant funding for research. Research productivity is variable in the college, not only because the disciplines represented range from English to Music to Psychology to Chemistry to Women’s Studies, but also because the standard teaching load for TTF is 5 courses per academic year. Upon convening your advisory board to discuss this mandate (this board is a representative group of department chairs, college staff, students, and community members), you are taken aback by the lack of consensus regarding what a research vision for the college could be. After several sleepless nights considering this task, you seek an audience with the provost for more specific guidance about how to move forward—and to share with her the angst caused by this task in your college.

Do any aspects of the above vignette strike a chord with you?

Increasingly, institutions that have not traditionally had a reputation as “research universities” are charged with developing one. There are many reasons to pursue this. Research can elevate the reputation and attractiveness of a place like MSTU in a way that attracts both stronger faculty and students. A strong research reputation can support student retention and engagement, create opportunities for partnering with the community and funders around specific issues, and making an explicit commitment to research and following through on it can do wonders for faculty retention, morale, and performance.

That doesn’t make it easy. It is often the case that faculty at institutions such as MSTU are already engaged in research and creative work, perhaps because they are already being evaluated on it for tenure, promotion, and annual merit determinations, but they may be getting this work done on top of a heavy teaching load, in the absence of solid support for the research they do, and commonly, at the expense of their personal lives. The time required to competently teach 5-6 courses per academic year, advise students, hold office hours, and do all the other components of their faculty jobs related to teaching and service easily consume all of a “40-hour work week.” I place “40-hour work week” in quotation marks be cause most effective, high-functioning tenured and tenure-track faculty easily work at least 50 hours per week. Sometimes these hours include research, but often faculty at institutions such as MSTU work even more hours than these if they are attempting a serious research program on top of a heavy teaching load.

The issue of faculty workload is but one of the many challenges you may be facing if you are charged with developing and/or implementing and supporting a research culture at your institution. The clash between a largely teaching-centered mission and research (even if research is a stated part of your mission) can be substantial at a university like MSTU. It is hard enough to develop a course schedule that meets the needs of a diverse group of students and staff, and the thought of adding a serious research agenda into the mix can seem daunting.

Where to Begin?

So where to begin? Regardless of your position in the food chain at your institution, if you are charged with building a sustainable research agenda and structure, there are some fundamental issues to consider and navigate. Let’s consider the MSTU example further.

Upon discussing options for increasing faculty research capacity with the department heads and faculty governance leaders at MSTU, the consensus is that reducing the contracted teaching load from 5 courses per year to 4 would be transformational. This would free faculty time to increase research activity, and because of the student population and the focus on experiential learning, it is highly probable that faculty would be engaging students, perhaps even for academic credit, in their research. However, after further consideration, because the financial model for MSTU depends on increasing headcount and tuition revenue each year, reducing the amount of teaching time for all TTF would not be a viable option. Nevertheless, it’s clear that to grow research output and support research-active faculty, some concession needs to be made to create more time for that activity. This is not impossible, but it requires consideration of costs and benefits, overall institutional impact, and perhaps most importantly, identifying likely unintended consequences, both bad and good.

There are several strategies that can help create a change like this in a teaching-intensive environment, and typically, more than one strategy is needed. Here we’ll explore one of the most fundamental steps an institution like MSTU (a regional teaching-heavy university serving non-traditional students with limited resources and a medium-sized TTF population) must take to elevate faculty research.

Given that space, funding, research personnel, and faculty workload are major constraints at MSTU, to move its research agenda forward, the institution must identify a few “areas of distinction” or “areas of research focus” that will receive what investments are possible, including reduced faculty teaching loads. Once identified, these areas will see investment of increased faculty research time, seed grant and graduate student support money, and increased space—with the expectation that faculty in these areas will be much more research-active. These faculty are also expected to bring in, when the discipline provides the opportunity, strong graduate students and external research funds with accompanying facilities and administrative (F & A) payments to the institution. The F & A from these projects will then be split between the institution’s central administration (and reinvested in research activities more broadly), the PI, and the PI’s unit(s).

Key messaging about the process for selecting and supporting these focus areas must be frequent and transparent, and there needs to be opportunity for faculty to ask questions. In the end, however, the decision about which areas are selected should be made by leadership and be based on productivity, critical mass of TTF (the definition of critical mass will vary across institutions), potential for and track record of funding, and connectivity across the institution. In other words, interdisciplinary or team-based research areas touch more faculty and students than single discipline research areas.

The Catch

The need for this approach may be understood at an intellectual level, especially by those in leadership roles, but communicating and implementing it is something that even the most committed, transparent, and fair leader tends to avoid. This is because however real the need to take this approach, putting it into action means that there will be research “haves” and “have nots”; some faculty’s research will receive more institutional support while the work of other faculty will not be supported explicitly in the same way, at least not fully and not initially.

Although it is paramount to communicate the logic behind making such a distinction and commit that the F & A generated by external funding for these areas of focus will be invested more broadly to support all research and creative work on the campus, there will undoubtedly be units and faculty who feel slighted and disenfranchised when their programs or research areas are not selected as “areas of distinction” for targeted research development investment.

This sense of being passed over is hard to avoid, but it is a good idea to reach out explicitly to faculty from areas you know are not likely to be selected as areas of research focus. Reach out during and after the selection process and have personal discussions with them about the “why”—the rationale and the long-term objective (including the intent that other programs will be identified as areas of distinction and as areas for additional research investment later in this process). This outreach can go a long way toward getting support. It also provides opportunity to gather ideas from these faculty about other ways to do things that will benefit them as well as the whole institution. Remembering that you are all sailing on the same ship, regardless of post or appointment, can help tremendously in this or in any other decision-making and change management process.

Failing to make this decision—that research support is going to be, by necessity, concentrated in some specific areas—is where institutions with a research mission and limited resources commonly miss an opportunity to really move the ball down the field. It is understandable because such a decision comes with repercussions, such as those described above, but the long-term benefits can be enormous, and if handled well, identification and support of areas of distinction can be very beneficial to the institution, its students, and its faculty. Communication and vision are essential in doing this, but more than that, there must be real commitment from leadership to following through on what is promised and reinvesting funds into research more broadly.