Making Higher Ed Research Matter

November 7, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. -- Discussions about the immediacy and relevance of scholarly research take place in virtually every discipline. They are probably most common in the sciences, where debates about the relative health and ascendancy of basic vs. applied studies are a battleground not just of prestige but, often, of big money, too.

But tensions over how much researchers should (or must) address practical and public policy questions, as opposed to philosophical and esoteric ones, arise in social science and humanities fields, too. Debate tends to crop up most visibly when there are flashpoints over a typical type of research, as when anthropologists argue over the propriety of doing research for the Pentagon or scholars of disability studies disagree about whether they should weigh in on a controversial legal issue. In most disciplines, though, questions about the relevance and public visibility and application of research simmer rather than boil over (as in this recent discussion at a meeting of sociologists), ebbing and flowing with the years.

Scholars who study higher education have been grappling with the connection between research and practice intensely for a while now, so much so that the annual meeting this year of the Association for the Study of Higher Education here is entitled, well, "Research and Practice: Embracing Connections." (Last year's was "Informing the Public Agenda: The Role & Relevance of Research," if you sense a theme.)

In her address to the association Thursday, the group's current president, Linda Eisenmann, wrestled with the relevance of higher education research to institutional decision making, exploring the extent to which her background as a historian of higher education informed her work as dean of the college of arts and sciences at John Carroll University.

But the question of how scholars of higher education should ensure that their work "matters" -- and the attendant question of whether, to do so, they should do different kinds of research, or merely do a better job of making existing work on timely subjects and problems accessible to policy makers and the public -- came up most directly in a session Thursday sponsored by the association's board. Its focus was on the special committee that ASHE has created on "linkages," whose charge, over the next five years, is to "institutionalize" connections between the group's members, their research, and "policy makers and practitioners."

"ASHE has promoted scholarship about higher education for all of its existence," said Barbara K. Townsend, a professor of higher education at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "We can sometimes run the risk of doing rather esoteric scholarship that is only seen and heard by other researchers, but really has no effect on policy and practice. It's important that we are trying to live in the real world."

Townsend and others made clear that plenty of higher ed researchers do work that is relevant to and used by public policy makers, and that there have been times in the past when higher education researchers have been actively involved in federal and other policy discussions. But that has happened much less commonly since the 2005 demise of the American Association for Higher Education, from which ASHE sprang. AAHE was primarily a policy group that worked directly with other such groups and helped keep higher ed researchers engaged in those discussions.

The major thrust of the ASHE task force's initial set of recommendations focused on finding ways to publicize and translate to lay audiences the politically relevant work they are already doing on important issues such as college access and affordability, the higher education work force, and the like, by increasing the group's ties to policy groups and writing for general interest publications as well as for scholarly journals.

But participants also discussed the need for higher ed researchers to spend more time talking to policy makers about the problems they are trying to solve and, in turn, doing scholarly work that helps them. "Those discussions can help inform our research and make sure that it is used more by those outside our community," said Adrianna Kezar, associate professor for higher education at the University of Southern California.

The suggestion that higher education researchers should spend significant time reaching out to policy makers or write for nonscholarly audiences brought a common practical complaint from some in the audience: that the reward system for professors, particularly those pre-tenure, is structured to devalue any work that is not traditional and published in a scholarly book or journal. "It's not just not encouraged, but actively discouraged" in tenure and promotion standards, said Marc Cutright, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas.

Patrick T. Terenzini, a distinguished professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education, said that while writing "policy briefs" or other sorts of nontraditional publications is "not going to get anybody promotion and tenure," there are types of writings -- such as "careful and rigorous reviews" of previous studies on a research topic -- that are both acceptable scholarship and helpful to politicians or other policy makers.

Terenzini, who is one of the deans of research on higher education, expressed the view that the field is "not a discipline" but more a "professional area of study" that should focus on the "practice of the profession," not theories about it. "If we have nothing to say to the policy makers who shape the thousands and millions of students and make decisions where to spend, and not spend, public funds, then we're just wasting our time," he said.

That pragmatic view of higher education research -- or what it might become, if scholars were urged to abandon "foundational" research in lieu of more applied work -- took some in the audience aback. "I worry about what might happen by moving too quickly," said Rebecca Ropers-Huilman, professor of higher education and editor of the National Women's Studies Association Journal. "If we only do research that we see has an immediate outcome or effect or practical implication, what are we losing?"

Susan Twombly, a professor in the department of teaching and leadership at the University of Kansas, recalled that ASHE had originally been a part of the American Association of Higher Education but had broken off to become a separate organization because it feared being " too focused on policy." While there is value in having higher ed researchers do work that is practical, she said, "we need to make sure not to throw the baby out with the bath water."

"Nobody is suggesting that you should abandon what you're doing," said Kezar, of USC. What the association is mainly seeking, she said, is to "make more systematic" the links between higher education researchers and public policy makers. "We need more intentionality," she said.

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