Why are more colleges rewarding professorial research?

Dahlia Remler and Elda Pema are studying this question (do you know of an ungated copy?) but they don't yet have clear answers:

Higher education institutions and disciplines that traditionally did
little research now reward faculty largely based on research, both
funded and unfunded. Some worry that faculty devoting more time to
research harms teaching and thus harms students’ human capital
accumulation. The economics literature has largely ignored the reasons
for and desirability of this trend. We summarize, review, and extend
existing economic theories of higher education to explain why
incentives for unfunded research have increased. One theory is that
researchers more effectively teach higher order skills and therefore
increase student human capital more than non-researchers. In contrast,
according to signaling theory, education is not intrinsically
productive but only a signal that separates high- and low-ability
workers. We extend this theory by hypothesizing that researchers make
higher education more costly for low-ability students than do
non-research faculty, achieving the separation more efficiently. We
describe other theories, including research quality as a proxy for
hard-to-measure teaching quality and barriers to entry. Virtually no
evidence exists to test these theories or establish their relative
magnitudes. Research is needed, particularly to address what employers
seek from higher education graduates and to assess the validity of
current measures of teaching quality.

Here is an excellent summary of the piece, with discussion.

Can MR readers set them straight?  One hypothesis is that donors prefer to affiliate with research rather than with higher teaching loads and, until the financial crisis, donors have been rising in importance for many universities.

You might also claim that faculty prefer to do research, but why are faculty getting their way more than before?  (And why don't faculty just take the lower teaching load without the research requirement, if they are in charge of this evolution?)  Or are you wishing to claim that research ability is a good proxy (the best available proxy?) for teaching ability?  I doubt that.

My hypothesis draws on the tipping point idea.  Due to coalitional politics, it's hard to keep a happy medium, so the most valuable members of the department, whether defined in terms of teaching or research, push for higher research standards than they might otherwise privately favor, if they could have their way.  (This happens in both "research-teaching" departments and research departments.)  They fear that turning the keys over to "the barbarians" won't much improve teaching either.  Research prowess is one of the most efficient bases for organizing competing coalitions.  Didn't Dr. Seuss write a novel about this?

Ideally there should be a better way to keep down the losing coalition but it
is hard to find and implement in an incentive-compatible fashion.

One implication is that when growth is high, relatively tough research standards are needed to keep down the losing coalition.  When personnel is stagnant or shrinking, the emphasis on research may be less necessary because there is less chance of a shift in power.


The cost has fallen, at least for me, and for my college as well. 25 years ago, when I was hired at a teaching institution, research in English was difficult--no internet and Research I libraries were miles away. Now my college's library subscribes to databases that bring citations and full-text articles to the computer in my home. ILL does the rest. The price of subscriptions to those databases has fallen as well, and the expectation that they will be available has risen. Why, given that we are a teaching institution? So that we can teach our students how to...do research! A huge push for "information literacy." Undergraduate research looks very different now than it did 30 years ago.

I would seriously love to see more work on this. Some thoughts:

- If you are assigned to "research" you are not assigned to "teaching." Less teaching means more expensive education. More research means more prestige; any analysis that does not realize that colleges sell prestige is blind. There is some equilibrium at which prestige balances the expense to students. With the increasing demand for a college education, perhaps that equilibrium has been tilting toward the prestige end.

- The market for academics, at least in the humanities and arts, is a buyer's market and has been for decades. You can't measure teaching ability except to some threshhold of "good enough"; what separates candidates after that is research. So the researching productivity and perhaps ability of candidates has been a positional good for some time now. Colleges have no incentive _not_ to keep ratcheting up the requirements, since they can, and since they thereby get better hires (existing tenured faculty are often affected less).

I work at a college that traditionally has emphasized teaching. Over the past decade, there has been a growing emphasis on research.

"Can MR readers set them straight? One hypothesis is that donors prefer to affiliate with research rather than with higher teaching loads and, until the financial crisis, donors have been rising in importance for many universities"

I can certainly attest that the above statement is NOT true. Donors at our school care little about our research; however, they do care about whether the students do research. They have been sold our greater research emphasis as an opportunity for students to participate in research (since we have no graduate students).

I graduated from a larger private university in 2006. At the time, the administration was pushing undergrads to participate in research through a series of new programs, including micro-grants for undergrad research assistants and school-funded teacher-student lunches.

The university was marketing undergrad research opportunities in the same way they would market study abroad: once in a lifetime chance, unique quality of life enhancement, provides a professional edge, etc. The general attitude was, “undergraduates should do some research even if they don’t plan on making a career out of it.†

Perhaps, undergrad research opportunities, like state of the art facilities and high study abroad rates are now considered key competitive factors in the race to recruit top students and justify higher tuition. To provide as many of those research opportunities as possible, schools are encouraging undergraduate professors to do relatively modest research projects and bring their students along.

Here is my subjective experience, from a non-economic
point of view. I have not taught since 1984
but I began at the University of
Pennsylvania in 1960, where it became quite
clear to me that if one wished to read widely
before deciding what exactly one wished to write
about one had better look elsewhere. And so I went
to a liberal arts college, which in the earlier years
gave me the freedom I wanted. But it too switched
to a research model in the 1980s. Forunately by
about 1976, I knew what I wanted to do. Academics
who concentrateon research in universities are good at training
students to do research, which is often like
their own, but not much good at inspiring
students in the manner of George Lyman Kittredge at Harvard, who was a magnificent scholar as well.Research at liberal arts colleges is even more problematic, often being undertaken principally
by those wishing to move to a university. Some even
took on undergraduate teaching-assistants, to free up
time for their own research.

I have to say I find the last sentence of that abstract rather amusing in context. "Research is needed ..." ... of course it is, of course it is.

Many state governments are pushing technology transfer and new company formation as economic development engines (for the last few years, and especially now). The tech transfer folks have been trying to change the culture at the university-tenure level for quite some time (currently almost no universities consider technology commercialization in tenure review), but are now getting some backup from university administrations, who are motivated by state gov. Just in the last few years I've seen my own university (U of Colorado) bringing research and tech commercialization to the top of the list of talking points about how it contributes to the community.

Having observed this for a couple of decades as both an insider and an outsider, it is an amazing mob psychology phenomena, or perhaps a herd mentality.

Careers are made on research and publication, teaching is hard to quantify, so research is now the thing even at small "teaching" colleges, just about everywhere but community colleges.

This raises issues of resources and support, and how there can possibly be enough publication venues (the answer is not healthy).

As an ABD in economics (I am just waiting for that to become a formal distiction :) ), I have had many conversations with current and former classmates on this topic. I am definitely more interested in teaching than in research as a main career path, and I have been a bit frustrated by the notion that research plays a not insignificant role in tenure decisions even at liberal arts colleges, where the teaching load is much higher than at research universities. This doesn't seem to be an attractive value proposition for new faculty, not only because of the teaching load but also because of the lack of graduate students to assist with research.

Tyler (or anyone else):
What's your take on how the new dept at Notre Dame fits into this theory? They seem to have made a successful transition from the no-research equilibrium to the research-intensive one.

I agree with Dan C, that colleges want to brand themselves as more respectable. Part of it may just be pure consumption value--for college presidents and academic deans there may be personal utility in it, and many of the faculty are likely to be supportive because they want to think they're respectable, too. As my college's outgoing Dean said, "The difference between high school teachers and professors is research. If you don't want to do research, being a high school teacher is a perfectly respectable job." Except, of course, the implication is that it's not.

But why would that have changed from the past? Perhaps because as we encourage an ever larger proportion of the population to go to college it gets harder and harder to distinguish between high school and college, so we small college profs need a stronger signal that we really are "better" (with apologies to all K-12 teachers out there, whose job, I know, is much tougher than mine).

I'd hardly describe the Notre Dame econ dept's previous situation, JC, as "no-research." You can look up CVs as easily as I can.

Why do big banks own hugely expensive towers in cities. My belief is that it demonstrates prestige.

Research functions the same way. Its a very visible way that universities can demonstrate prestige. And more prestigious universities win out in the end.

bjk has a good point too - the growth of adjunct faculty needs to be taken into account. Academia is a two-tiered system.

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