The Mystery of Faculty Priorities

Does it make economic and public policy sense for professors to spend more time on research? Two scholars review the evidence and find more theories than answers.
May 28, 2009

One of the much debated trends in higher education in the last generation or so is the increasing emphasis on research. Of course the very concept of the research university is based on faculty members who view research as central to their jobs.

But research expectations have grown at many institutions where the missions -- at least until recently -- have been primarily focused on teaching. And as Dahlia K. Remler and Elda Pema note in a provocative new paper, the emphasis extends beyond research that pays for itself.

“For faculty who engage in funded research, there is no economic mystery: research is the product being sold and it makes sense to emphasize it. However, the rewards apply to unfunded research also,” they write, in an analysis released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Moreover, the phenomenon of faculty rewards for research is prevalent and growing in the humanities, law schools, and other disciplines with little or no funded research -- a trend that has persisted for decades, across schools and across geographical boundaries. “

Remler, associate professor of public affairs at Baruch College of the City University of New York, and Pema, an assistant professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School, decided to review the literature and economic theories that might explain the reasons more colleges and departments are encouraging their faculty members to focus on research, at the expense of teaching time. And they found an abundance of theories, some of which may overlap and some of which may conflict with one another. The authors suggest that higher education would benefit from figuring out just why this phenomenon has taken place, given its expense in money and faculty time.

Further, they note that the trends appear to run counter to the desire of many experts on higher education who would like to see teaching receive more emphasis -- not to mention the many critics of higher education who argue that the research emphasis drives up costs and denies students the attention they deserve.

Among the theories that the authors say could be at play, a number of which challenge conventional wisdom and most of which the authors find still need evidence to back them up:

  • Students gravitate toward research orientations. The authors note, for example, that institutions such as Boston University, New York University, and the University of Texas at Austin have gained in popularity with students as they have gained research eminence. And top business schools, which were once content to boast that their faculty members did some consulting with companies, now perceive faculty research as a key measure of institutional attractiveness to students.
  • Research makes professors better teachers. In fields “undergoing rapid evolution … perhaps only faculty who do research are capable of possessing and communicating up-to-date content,” the authors write. Or, they say, “research could make faculty better selectors of course content, and also better at conveying knowledge in its appropriate context. Specifically, they could be better at spotting and choosing to teach deeper concepts or more important topics.”
  • Research-oriented professors help sort students by being poor teachers. Applying what the authors call a “cynical” approach, they consider the possibility that higher education is less about actually teaching than about sorting students by “signals” of who is admitted to and completes various programs. In this take, professors who have little patience for students may be performing a key role. “Researchers may be poorer teachers to low-ability students and thus better screeners,” the authors write. “Researchers may be unwilling, or even unable, to ‘spoon-feed’ their students. Basic concepts may appear so obvious to researchers that it does not occur to them to explain those concepts. Those students who do not find the same ideas intuitively obvious and require explanation will be left behind. Thus, researchers might make it much harder for the students to learn the material, ensuring that only the most intrinsically able students are able to acquire the education or acquire it at a reasonable ‘psychic cost.’ In this case, research quality would be a proxy for lower teaching quality and consequently a proxy for higher screening quality.”
  • Research quality has become a proxy for teaching quality. Here the authors note that the primary forms of evaluating teaching -- student reviews -- are widely questioned, in particular on the grounds that students reward faculty members who are more generous graders. At the same time, students want a degree that signifies something, and so research -- the quality of which is measured through rigorous peer review -- becomes a substitute measure for teaching.
  • Altruism. "Knowledge is a classic public good," the authors write. "To the extent that research produces socially valuable knowledge, it too is a public good. Being a public good might persuade school administrators, donors, government and others to support research, including support for cross-subsidies from education to research, implemented through both social norms and government policy." Further, they suggest that "it could be argued that unfunded research has more pronounced public good attributes than funded research. In particular, unfunded research cannot be patented, restricted in circulation, or influenced by the agendas of the donors."
  • Faculty members like to do research. "Research could be a consumption good for faculty. If faculty enjoy engaging in research, then, faculty could be paid partially ‘in kind’ with research opportunities. Such in-kind payments are consistent with the observed compensating differential -- lower pay in academia compared to the private sector for similar skills," the authors write.
  • Envy and prestige. While much has been written about "wannabe" research universities, the authors suggest theories that could apply to departments and disciplines as well. Citing the sociological theory of "institutional isomorphism," they speculate that if disciplines see other disciplines earning more money and prestige with research, the impact can be powerful.

The authors both explain why these theories may apply and poke at them a bit. But they suggest that higher education has real risk in not understanding why more individual professors, disciplines and institutions are embracing the research model. There is a growing teaching-only model, they note, and it involves trends that many in academe view with some skepticism: for-profit higher education, for example, or the use of those without doctorates to teach.

"Higher education is very costly and the costs have been rising rapidly," the authors conclude. "Higher education is also widely believed to be highly beneficial to our economy. Both private willingness to pay for higher education and public support for public financing are certainly substantial. With stakes so high, the question of the impact of faculty research on education is not one that we can afford to ignore."

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