Open Letter to Higher Ed Scholars

How can researchers who study higher education better influence the (often flawed) public debate about colleges and universities? Rhonda McClellan and Joshua Powers offer suggestions.

May 4, 2012

It’s nothing new to say that U.S. higher education is under attack. For decades now, policy makers, the media, and pundits have questioned the value of a college education. The critique has become especially sharp of late, often wrapped with explicit or implicit or else threats: rein in tuition increases; improve student retention and success, and innovate with technology, all with less external resources, or get state and federal regulation akin to No Child Left Behind, cause our country to fall into international irrelevance, and get eaten for lunch by upstart for-profit providers. Sound familiar?

As scholars who study higher education, we lament the shift in perception of postsecondary education as the solution to societal challenges to what is starting to feel like the cause of our perceived ills.  Furthermore, we wonder how this shift could have occurred given the plethora of research that speaks to the extraordinary public and private benefits of what college provides, warranting more, not less, investment.  Don’t these people know that education is priceless?

If we are honest with ourselves, however, most of us work at traditional public and private four-year universities where the sine qua non of our livelihood is research output written mainly for peer academics and not leaders that run our places, the practitioner associations to which they belong, or staffers that advise legislators. 

While we might privately enjoy an opportunity to publish a piece in The New York Times,  a call from a senatorial aide or an invitation to testify before a congressional committee,  and having our work covered by Time Magazine, NPR, or CNN, those sorts of outlets do not get us tenure.  While nice to cite as evidence for the worthiness of receipt of the full professor rank, the traditional scholarship of discovery is typically the ticket that also opens that culminating academic door. 

Simply put, we do not generally write for an audience beyond our academic associations and academic peers. We, and rightfully so, pursue what will help us keep our jobs.  Furthermore, institutional leaders are not always aware of our research; they have their hands full managing in tumultuous terrain and responding to criticism for being too costly or inefficient while also explaining why their institution is not more marketplace-responsive like BYU-Idaho and Southern New Hampshire University, as described in Clayton Christensen’s high-profile book.

Scholars among us as well as our professional academic associations have repeatedly called for making our research more accessible to the field.  Yet, critics within our ranks have argued that doing so lessens the quality of our scholarship.  Believing that our legitimacy is predicated on a new knowledge advancement platform akin to that of the natural sciences, we simply have not been able to break from Newtonian stasis.  Even the giant of our field, Ernest Boyer, could not move us far from this orientation to our work two decades ago when he championed moving from a singular focus on the scholarship of discovery to one that also legitimized the scholarship of integration, application, and teaching.

So what are we to do? We must keep our jobs, right? In keeping our jobs by following the P&T guidelines only, yes, we can secure our academic reputations and careers, but do we do so at the risk of sustaining the very questions and criticisms that feel unfair and unwarranted?  Would we “win the battle at the cost of losing the war?”

Could the answer lie in ferreting out answers to the following questions: what is the purpose of research?  Is the role of research to influence only the researcher?  Is that what we consider contributing to the field?  Do we consider important research only that scholarship published for our peers? What if we considered more intentionally the needs and perspectives of those who lead our institutions as well as those in the media and politics?  What if we joined them in greater collaborative dialogue, one that brings our research more effectively to their table? 

Granted, we can’t pitch it like we usually do. Granted, we would have to take it upon ourselves to go to them. We would have to reorient ourselves to their question: how does this information help me do my job better?  Against the strains of methodological purism, we would need to be more effective at offering actionable practice and policy recommendations.  We would have to be willing to take risk in the face of generalizability constraints and sometimes limited explanatory models.

We would have to be comfortable with what we present as being enough -- for now.   To bring what we know and open up, to engage and to work toward an end that influenced and perhaps was influenced by the critics who question our worth, we would have to become valuable to one another.  

Getting to that place has long been a challenge, but one we, the authors, believe must be pursued more vigorously in light of present circumstances.  We offer three suggestions for how this might be achieved. 

First, moving beyond laments and stasis will require serious introspection by our discipline. To start, let’s be real; few of us have ever been in the shoes of a senior college administrator or legislator.  We need to understand those worlds better if we are to be more effective in studying their challenges and offering implementable solutions. 

One possibility for doing so would be considering sabbatical leaves working directly with institutional and education policy leaders, using those experiences to inform better approaches to research study designs and execution.  One of the authors was also an American Council on Education Fellow, another potential route for better insights into the challenges of leadership for those who desire making the move to senior administration.  Writing about those experiences, including from the perspective of improving scholarship of application projects, would be of great benefit to our scholar colleagues and the field. 

Another suggestion would be to attend at least one practitioner conference each year as well as to participate in any number of webinars targeting institutional leaders.  Using those conferences and webinars to understand how they frame their challenges and to network on how we can be more helpful to them will do much to build the legitimacy and relevance of our work.

Second, as a discipline of study, we need to legitimize other forms of scholarship.  This would include raising the expectation that tenure in our field requires some applied scholarship, and at less research-intensive universities, perhaps mostly applied scholarship.  This kind of work could include publication in practitioner journals, book chapters that target field professionals, writing for blogs and related discussion forums, and producing policy briefs suitable for one’s state and federal legislators.

Furthermore, these do not have to be stand-alone works.  For instance, they could be natural spinoffs of work previously published in academic journals.  Another possible outlet exists through a partnership between one of our primary academic associations, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and Inside Higher Ed. Titled Learning Briefs, this outlet calls for scholars to write scholarship informed commentaries on Inside Higher Ed news articles suitable for discussion among collegiate administrators, legislative aides, and/or for use within the doctoral or master’s student classroom where the study of higher education administration or policy is the focus.  In the first three months of the year, the repository received nearly 900 hits, suggesting that this outlet is resonating externally. (The briefs are also available from the Inside Higher Ed website.)

Finally, we, the authors, suggest our own “or else” argument.  There are bubbling discussions on some of our campuses that perhaps what we provide is not needed as a dedicated field of study in these increasingly austere times.  Perhaps it is enough to have scholars that study higher education through the disciplinary homes of psychology, economics, and public administration and policy.  Besides, most college administrators don’t have a graduate preparation background in college administration anyway; why do they need it? 

Evidencing the value of our contribution through practical relevance, then, needs to be increased.  One way of doing this would be to actively seek out involvement in major interdisciplinary research projects that are being driven by large scale federal support for such endeavors vis-à-vis the individual PI. 

Another way would be for our scholarly associations to consider refocusing national conference tracks around vexing contemporary problems rather than topical themes or alternatively, to create other conference or webinar opportunities with that kind of framing.  Academics from outside of our field, as well as practitioners and policymakers, could be invited to co-present at such events.

Lee Shulman, Boyer’s successor at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said while nearing his retirement in 2007 as president, “The tension between stability and change can be uncomfortable, to be sure.” Arguably what higher education confronts today is substantial tension and discomfort sourced in a discourse of our industry as the problem, less so the solution.  We challenge our colleagues to consider ways to deploy more effectively energies to work on issues and challenges that inform the discourse, the betterment of institutions, and the broader society we all serve.


Rhonda McClellan is associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-editor of the ASHE-CAHEP Learning Brief Initiative. Joshua Powers is professor of higher education leadership and special assistant to the provost for academic initiatives at Indiana State University. He is also co-editor of the ASHE-CAHEP Learning Brief Initiative.

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