Case study: applying the theory of planned behavior as interventions to increase sponsored project proposal submissions from liberal arts faculty.

Author:Hartmann, Anita
Position:Company overview


The effects of economic turmoil have not spared many institutions. Tough economic times call for prudence in reducing costs, as well as creativity in increasing revenues. An organization's ability to move direct costs, such as faculty salaries, to sponsored projects, as well as to increase recovery of indirect costs, is critically dependent upon a principal investigator's intentional deliberate behavior to write and submit funding proposals. Senior officials in education, industry, and government

represent the group of research administrators most often charged to develop policies and devise strategies for the increase of funding proposals.

Ajzen's Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) is a powerful model with practical application to a variety of situations to predict and influence human intentions to perform a range of desirable behaviors (Ajzen, 1991). Evidence from narrative and meta-analytic reviews support its efficacy as a predictor of intentions and behavior capable of explaining 20 percent or more of the variance in prospective measures of actual behavior (Armitage & Conner, 2001). This theoretical model is particularly applicable to a variety of intentional human behaviors that are of importance to research management.

Theoretical Model

The Theory of Planned Behavior is a derivative of Ajzen and Fishbein's earlier Theory of Reasoned Action, in which they tried to estimate

discrepancy between a person's attitude toward a behavior and the actual performance of that behavior (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). Subsequent research indicates that behavior may not be voluntary or under control. Recognizing that human behavior can be both deliberative and planned, the initial theoretical model was refined to include the element of perceived behavioral control and published as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991).


The theory explains that the best predictor or immediate determinant of a behavior (i.e., whether a faculty member will prepare and submit a funding proposal) is the intention to act or not to act. This critical decision point of intending to act is influenced by three factors:

  1. Attitude toward the behavior, which reflects the individual's evaluation of the behavior, its personal value and desirability, and the perceived benefits or rewards for performing the behavior.

  2. Perception of subjective norm: Intentionality is also influenced by the individual's perception of the social pressure to execute, or not to execute, the behavior.

  3. Perceived control over the behavior, which is a person's perceptions of his or her ability to perform the behavior. An individual's perceived control is influenced by experiences with the behavior and ability to overcome associated obstacles.

    TPB predicts that a potential principal investigator (PI) is more likely to intend to pursue external funding for projects, and will actually follow through to write and submit a funding proposal, when that person:

    1. believes that submitting funding proposals is a desirable and valued behavior:

    2. sees other similar people successfully writing and submitting proposals: and

    3. perceives they are able to write and submit proposals, that obstacles can be overcome.

    Case Context

    The University

    The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) is located in the interior of Alaska, approximately 75 miles from the Arctic Circle. UAF is the main campus, and the research university, of the statewide University of Alaska system; UAF is the only doctoral-granting institution in the State of Alaska. UAF was originally founded in 1917 as the Agricultural College and School of Mines. Today, UAF is America's northernmost Land, Sea, and Space-grant institution, and in 2009 was named as one of the West's best colleges by the Princeton Review. UAF holds an RU/H Carnegie classification, and research expenditures at UAF have increased substantially from $56.4 million in FY97 to over $107 million in FY09. UAF ranks first out of 50 universities in the amount of research funds awarded from the National Science Foundation (websites of UAF and NSF).

    The College

    This context differs dramatically at UAF's College of Liberal Arts (CLA), whose faculty tend to view the College as a predominantly undergraduate teaching institution. This derives from the tact that the College provides a broad liberal arts undergraduate education with strengths in circumpolar teaching and research emphasizing Alaska Native peoples and languages; the College also bears a heavy general education service mission to provide over 68 percent of courses that meet core curriculum requirements for all UAF baccalaureate degrees. However, the College of Liberal Arts is one of the largest colleges in the University of Alaska statewide system, and is comprised of nearly 400 employees that include over 150 potential principal investigators, who are also all members of the faculty union, United Academics. The College's 28 academic units offer 20 undergraduate degree programs, 11 master's degree programs, and 4 doctoral programs.

    Problem Statement

    Given the College's self-concept as a teaching college, and institutional identity as a service provider to the other degree programs, there was very little sponsored project activity occurring prior to the year 2000, as can be seen in TabLe 1.

    In the Spring of 1999 the Dean of CLA realized that the College needed "to get this turned around." To meet that challenge, he implemented a plan to launch an Office for Research Development that included assigning one unrepresented faculty (this author) to serve as director, with two years to "prove up" by showing positive change and momentum. There was no provision for additional staff or budget beyond the director's salary and benefits. Two initial goals were set: increase recovered indirect costs to the College and increase sponsored project activity to 10% of College-wide overall faculty capacity.

    Methods and Measures


    The situation was approached from a cognitive psychological perspective, since this was a well-defined problem. All the necessary information was spelled out in the problem statement and there were clear criteria to determine when the goal had been achieved. As shown in Figure 2, a working-backwards heuristic via means-end analysis was used to break down the difference between the initial state and the goal state, to identify the most important differences, and then to find an operator that would tend to reduce that difference (Solso, MacLin, & MacLin, 1998).


    Indirect costs are enumerated as the total dollars distributed to the College of Liberal Arts in each fiscal year as the unit's proportional...

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