Growing faculty research for students' success: best practices of a research institute at a minority-serving undergraduate institution.

Author:Godreau, Isar


Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain for ~400 years until 1898, when the US occupied the Island. Transformations ushered in by World War II changed the overtly colonial relationship between the Island and the US to the current Commonwealth status as a non-incorporated US territory. Island-born Puerto Ricans are US citizens and most wish to maintain close political and economic ties to the US. However, most Puerto Ricans also view themselves as a distinct group with common history, culture, and heritage (Davila, 1997; Duany, 2002; Morris, 1995). Both Spanish and English are official languages in Puerto Rico, but mainly Spanish is spoken. Because the Island's economy is heavily dependent on US industry and federal funds transfers, mainland events such as the recent economic recession adversely affected this US territory. Currently, Puerto Rico's per capita income is ~$15,200 (half that of Mississippi, the poorest state), and the unemployment rate is 15.4 percent (Alvarez, 2014). The resident population is estimated at 3.6 million (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013), while almost 5 million Puerto Ricans are now living in the US (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

Since 1903, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) has been the sole public institution charged with the mission to "develop the latent intellectual and spiritual enrichment of our society fully" so that "the intellectual and spiritual values of exceptional personalities that surge from all its social sectors, especially from those less favored in terms of economic resources, will be put to the service of the Puerto Rican community" (UPRRC EGCTI, 2015, our emphasis). With a total student population of 61,967 students, the UPR system has to implement this mission across its eleven campuses: three of which are graduate and eight of which are primarily undergraduate. The University of Puerto Rico at Cayey (UPR-C) is one of the UPR's eight undergraduate campuses. It offers 27 bachelor's degrees in Natural Science (Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences General Program); Social Sciences (Psychology and Mental Health); Arts (English, Literature, Humanities, Foreign Languages, Literature and Linguistics) and Professional Schools (Education and Business Administration). Enrollment trends from 2005 to 2009 varied from 22% to 33% in Natural Sciences, including the Natural Sciences General Program, 24% to 27% in Business Administration and from 13% to 14% in Social Sciences. General fall enrollment at UPR-C has increased 5.39% from 3,634 in 2005-06 to 3,830 in 2009-10. Practically all students (99%) are Puerto Rican (UPR-C Assessment Office, 2013a, 2013b; U.S. Department of Education, 2012) and the majority (67%) is female. Most UPR-C students come from the municipalities that surround the town of Cayey, located in the central mountainous area of Puerto Rico (see Figure 1).

Consistent with UPR's overall mission, UPR-C offers quality educational opportunities to lowincome students of its service region who meet the University's admissions criteria. The majority of incoming UPR-C full-time undergraduate students (75%) received Pell Grants and more than half (56.9 %) proceed from public schools. The average GPA for incoming freshmen is 2.87. Fulltime attendance status in 2013 was 93%. The campus has 164 full-time faculty and 32 part-time professors, 90% of whom are Puerto Rican. One hundred twenty-nine are tenured or tenuretrack, and 67 are faculty with non-tenure adjunct positions; approximately 79% of all tenure and tenure-track faculty have a Ph.D.

This faculty along with administrators and staff are charged with fulfilling three UPR-C missions, which together emphasize providing a quality education that integrates: 1) interdisciplinary approaches, 2) research, and 3) community engagement (UPR-C mission, 2006). The Institute of Interdisciplinary Research (IIR) ( supports this mission. Six overarching aims developed in 2004 guide the IIR initiatives: 1) to promote interdisciplinary research; 2) to produce knowledge that is relevant to Puerto Rico and to the UPR-C service region; 3) to facilitate research at UPR-C; 4) to promote research-informed curricular innovations; 5) to provide a supportive environment for researchers and students; and 6) to disseminate results of the research projects it sponsors. Unlike research centers at other colleges and universities that respond to particular faculties or academic divisions, the IIR operates under the general aegis of the Academic Deanship, supporting projects across all academic departments, programs and disciplines. Its six aims are broad enough to allow full participation from students and faculty from the natural and social sciences, business administration, education, and humanities, but not so broad that it loses focus on the applied, interdisciplinary and regional criteria of the research activities and projects it sponsors.

The IIR offers an array of research support services that respond to this broad mission. For example, it provides population statistics and census data support services to students, faculty and the surrounding community through its Census Information Center (CIC): an office supported via a memorandum of understanding between the UPR-C and the U.S. Census Bureau. Unlike other undergraduate research initiatives at UPR-C, the IIR offers these and other support services to students, while also promoting the academic and professional development for all interested faculty via workshops, the dissemination of local training opportunities, and the coordination of an interdisciplinary seminar series with invited speakers and local faculty. The IIR also offers pre--and post-award administrative support to faculty-led research projects in interdisciplinary areas of pertinence to the University's service region. Faculty from any academic departments can become affiliated to the IIR and seek such support. In general, faculty affiliated to the IIR develops projects that share a thematic focus in health and health disparities, education, social inequality, race and racism, and the environment. Supported faculty, in turn, recruit students as research assistants into their projects and the IIR coordinates activities to support the student's academic and professional development as well. Activities offered by the IIR to students include interdisciplinary courses, training on research methodologies and research ethics, workshops that prepare them for graduate school, among other academic enrichment activities. Furthermore, because the IIR offers administrative support to a variety of faculty-led research projects, undergraduate students come to the IIR headquarters seeking research opportunities and sometimes contact faculty directly when they learn about a project that aims to solve a specific, recognized problem of their interest. Finally, the IIR contributes to scholarship in various applied areas through the systematic dissemination of findings, via technical reports, peer review publications, and the coordination of a campus wide symposia where participating faculty and students are expected to present.

The IIR developed this ambitious undertaking as UPR-C was beginning a transformation from a predominantly teaching institution to an institution where scholarly research could also be valued. Like other undergraduate minority-serving institutions, faculty's ability to do research at UPR-C was compromised by lack of research infrastructure, institutional research policies and high teaching and service loads (Pickens, 2010). The regular course load at UPR-C for example, is 4 courses per semester and some faculty offer additional courses (ranging from 5 to 7 courses per semester) to meet departmental needs. Faculty must also participate in committee work and perform administrative duties that can become quite burdensome in the context of fiscal shortages and reduced administrative assistance. Furthermore, mentoring undergraduate students at institutions where there are no graduate programs adds additional challenges since mentors cannot rely on the help of post-docs or graduate research assistants. Since undergraduate students do not have the expertise for much of scholarly work, faculty must go out of their way to train and design projects suited for students' participation. The development of the IIR thus required institutional transformations to ensure that faculty could have the time, incentives, institutional support and recognition necessary to develop their research and capacity to mentor undergraduate students.

To achieve such transformations, institutions must establish conditions (policies, incentive programs, facilities, administrative support, etc.) that promote those outcomes (Barthell, Chen, Endicott, Hughes, Radke, Simmons, & Wilson, 2013; CUR & Hensel, 2012; Pickens, 2010; Rabionet, Santiago, & Zorrilla, 2009; Tinto, 2012). Yet, these institutional changes take time and, at UPR-C, they were further complicated by extensive budget cuts, the drastic loss of tenured faculty and administrative turnover. In the course of 8 years (2005-2013), UPR-C experienced budget reductions that fluctuated between 1.4% and 13.3%, lost 23% of its regular faculty, and had five different Chancellors and six Academic Deans. There were also four different Directors overseeing developments at the IIR, with some administrations being more supportive of research than others. This article describes how the IIR was able to withstand these challenges and develop a culture of undergraduate research by promoting faculty participation in research and sustaining their research and mentoring practices at the UPR-C.

Best practices to support undergraduate research

Engaging faculty mentors as active stakeholders

While large research universities have, over time, developed the research infrastructure, policies, and administrative support necessary to run undergraduate...

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