Promoting Research While Advancing Instruction, Part 3

In this three-part series, Jeffrey L. Buller explores how colleges and universities can encourage substantive research without detracting from excellence in teaching. Parts 1 and 2 considered how the ways in which faculty roles are defined, evaluated, and rewarded contribute to a false impression that teaching and research are distinct activities.

Re-evaluate the idea of the university
Perhaps the most fundamental reason why teaching and research are viewed as competing rather than interrelated activities—and a key cause of why it’s so difficult to reunite these processes in faculty load assignments and evaluation systems—is that colleges and universities themselves are structured as though instruction and scholarship were utterly distinct enterprises.

Examine the mission statement of almost any institution of higher education, and you’ll discover that teaching and research are listed as important but not necessarily related functions of the organization. In other words, relatively few mission statements present learning as a goal achieved through independent inquiry and research; even fewer describe discovery, integration, and application as results actively sought through teaching. Once again, the focus is on the activity rather than the result, and that perspective shapes everything that is familiar about the modern university.

  • Departments are organized around disciplinary methods (activities) rather than important questions being asked or issues being explored (results).
  • Individual courses are defined by “seat time” and contact hours (activities) rather than competencies gained and knowledge developed (results).
  • Degrees are granted largely by the number of credits earned (activities) rather than the amount of growth achieved or improvement attained (results).

That same emphasis on the processes of teaching, research, and service rather than the outcomes of learning, innovation, and academic citizenship that we saw fragmenting faculty roles in Part 1 of this series ultimately fragments the university itself. In order to promote research while enhancing instruction, not even as separate yet complementary activities but as a single, integrated approach to fulfilling its mission, it’s necessary to reevaluate the entire idea of what a university is today, what value it adds to society, and what purposes it is trying to serve.

That re-evaluation is unlikely to be successful if institutions merely attempt to adapt their long-standing emphasis on teaching, research, and service to the evolving needs of a new century. It’s important at the university level, too, to define its mission and to determine its structure, not by all the effort that people are putting in, but by all the benefits that stakeholders are taking out.

Young institutions tend to define themselves on the SAT and GRE scores of their incoming students, the number of Nobel laureates and Guggenheim fellows they hire, and the international reputations of the administrative team. Truly world-class institutions tend to be defined in terms of the placement rates of their graduates, the number of Nobel laureates and Guggenheim fellows they produce, and the international contributions of the administrative team. See Salmi (2009). Cutting-edge research can seem to be a distraction from highly effective teaching as long as the institution is structured in such a way that academic affairs are administered in one unit, research in another. That distraction begins to disappear (and those competing administrative units become less necessary) once the institutional focus is on innovation rather than on all the different ways in which innovation might possibly be achieved.

Don Chu has described the tendency of faculty members to view departments as “closed systems” where professors provide the labor and where students and academic disciplines reap the results. See Chu (2006) 3–6. More accurately, Chu says, an academic department should be regarded as an “open system” in which both the stakeholders and beneficiaries are numerous: faculty members, students, alumni, parents of current students, accrediting agencies, legislatures, the local community, the individual disciplines, the higher education community, prospective employers of graduates, nongovernment organizations, funding agencies, and so on. In the 21st century, that same sort of approach needs to be applied to the institution as a whole.

Re-evaluating the idea of the university will mean approaching it not as a closed system in which professors teach and conduct research, but as an open, organic network that includes a vast system of constituents and stakeholders. It’s the same mind-set that both defines faculty load as, for example, 50 percent teaching, 40 percent research, and 10 percent service, and student achievement as 120 credit hours earned in 50-minute classes conducted over 15-week semesters. It is rapidly becoming accepted that there are alternative models for describing how students learn. It should be equally clear that alternative models also exist for describing how universities and university systems produce benefits for society.

Six strategies for promoting research while advancing instruction
In what is perhaps the most comprehensive approach to promoting research while advancing instruction to date, Alan Jenkins, Mick Healey, and Roger Zetter described six effective strategies that institutions can adopt in order to make timely progress in attaining this goal.

  1. Work through individual disciplines to develop a clearer understanding of how teaching and research intersect in their own practices and methods.
  2. Review areas where current culture seems to inhibit the cross-fertilization between teaching and research, and revise policies where appropriate. Assessment data, student surveys, organizational audits, and comprehensive program reviews can all provide helpful information in this regard.
  3. Develop an institution-wide set of curricular goals for promoting research among all students, even at the undergraduate level.
  4. Modify staffing policies so that future hires are likely to support the full integration of teaching and research.
  5. Revise strategic planning goals and categories so that teaching objectives and research objectives better support one another.
  6. Incorporate a fully integrated approach toward teaching and research into institutional culture. For instance, incorporate assessment of research knowledge into curricular assessment, encourage research clusters to become teaching teams, and give research wide visibility to students at all levels of the institution. Jenkins, Healey, and Zetter (2007) 52–61.

In other words, by shifting the mission of the university from “educating students and conducting research” to “educating students through conducting research,” institutions do a great deal more than merely create better synergy between two essential functions of the modern university; they also go a long way toward reintegrating their fractured identities. As the university of the 21st century ceases to define itself as the place where teaching, research, and service occur as quasi-independent activities and begins to define itself as the place where innovative learning promotes more engaged citizenship, more fundamental changes will be possible throughout higher education. We may even find ourselves wondering why we ever thought it necessary to speak about teaching and research as though they were unrelated and competing endeavors.

Chu, D. (2006). The Department Chair Primer: Leading and Managing Academic Departments. Bolton, Mass.: Anker.

Jenkins, A., Zetter, R., and Healey, M. J. (2007). Linking Teaching and Research in Disciplines and Departments. Heslington: Higher Educational Academy. Retrieved October 2, 2010, from

Salmi, J. (2009). The Challenges of Establishing World-Class Universities. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Academic Leadership Day by Day: Small Steps That Lead to Great Success (2011) and other books on higher education administration, all of which are published by Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 27.3 (2011): 3,7.