Listening to those we serve: assessing the research needs of university faculty.

Author:Mullen, Carol A.


Universities around the world are constantly pressured to improve in response to environmental influences and competitive forces. The desire to ascend the rankings ladder drives the resource allocation decisions of university administrators worldwide (Clarke, 2004), and in such countries as China (Ng & Li, 2000), the United Kingdom (Tapper, & Salter, 2004), and the U.S. (Tierney, 1999). Since ranking methodologies invariably place a significant emphasis on faculty research and scholarship productivity, university leaders and consequently faculty members are constantly seeking to enhance their research profile (Tien & Blackburn, 1996).

While few would argue that it takes resources (primarily financial) to enhance the research productivity of faculty, our purpose in this study was to examine more nuanced questions about how research and scholarship activities at a large public university can be enhanced. In particular, we attempted to identify faculty members' perceptions of impediments to research and scholarship by asking the following questions: What specific types of resources do faculty members deem important to facilitate their research activities? Are financial and non-financial resources deemed equally important? Do junior and senior faculty members differ in their views on the importance of various resources as valued resources? Are there differences across academic units in the degree to which particular resources are valued?

Answers to such questions will be informative to large universities worldwide as research administrators and faculty leaders seek ways to facilitate research at their institutions. So that bridges can be built between these often fractious cultures (faculty and administration), research administrators need to have opportunities for listening to those they serve, as well as data upon which to plan new ways forward.

This paper reports the results of original research in the form of a university-wide faculty survey of research resources. The context for this investigation is a university in the southeastern U.S. classified as a Carnegie research-extensive, doctoral-granting, public institution. The survey instrument elicited the perceptions and perplexities of faculty regarding the importance of various research support factors and the level of support they reported having actually received. The survey also sought demographic information about the faculty respondents, including self-ratings of scholarly output, activities actually engaged in, and feelings toward research incentives.

Although the results on the level of support dimension are specific to one university, the findings on the degree of importance dimension are relevant for other large, research-oriented universities. Research-related areas and concerns addressed by full-time faculty of all ranks and from various colleges were identified. As such, this study should be of interest to directors of sponsored research, college deans, and anyone else engaged in developing the internal research capacity of universities and facilitating the scholarly performance and contribution of faculty.

Background and Related Literature

A seriously underdeveloped area of scholarship involves study of university research resources through the eyes of faculty. This focus lends a very different perspective than the traditional administrator-driven view from above, which often perpetuates top-down stipulations for funding, recognition, and reward structures. In the U.S., the traditional emphasis has been on organizational support for faculty success with regard to the acquisition, discovery, and application of knowledge. However, depending on the selected lens for viewing the role of university resources in supporting faculty, the results can vary tremendously. Accordingly, the university portrait we provided with respect to an institution's capacity to support research is strictly faculty informed and context specific.

Related Studies

Scholarly sources dealing with university-wide investigations of faculty perceptions of research resources are few and far between. What was typically located through Internet database searches, conducted from 2005 to 2007, are internal research reports generated by administration, research, and management offices. The authors of these various reports argue the need to build capacity for research development and even to rethink and rebuild stagnant research infrastructures. These reports are generally not based on empirical investigations of faculty perceptions but rather analyses garnered through task forces, internal audits, or accreditation visits. In such cases, it is often recommended that increased funding be applied to the internal research infrastructure, including library and operating budgets of units and colleges; it is also recommended that faculty education occur in the importance of developing and maintaining research agendas and attracting external grants and contracts (Rice, 2000). University management teams commonly assert that, to achieve their vision, it is critical that planning processes pay close attention to the current resource situation; it is recommended that strategies be devised for effectively cultivating and using financial, human, and physical resources.

Another pattern we uncovered through the paucity of available material on this subject underscores that even when faculty members' views are taken into account, these may be collapsed with that of administrators' views, making it difficult to know what faculty are actually thinking and recommending. In one such instance, 42 surveys were collected by Carnegie Mellon University researchers who reached out to administrators and faculty alike at various universities to determine the research administrator's role in creating a supportive environment for interdisciplinary research (Laughlin & Sigerstad, 1990). It was discovered that individual faculty members are critical in initiating interdisciplinary research activity and that administrators are indispensable to the effort of making funding available and of facilitating a proactive and supportive environment for doing research.

Using data from a National Research Council study on research-doctorate programs in the U.S., Dundar and Lewis (1998) investigated factors that explained the research productivity of 1,841 doctoral programs at 90 research universities. The proxy for research productivity employed was the publication of journal articles, which comprised the primary dependent variable in the study. Independent variables included in the regression model comprised doctoral program size, concentration, and percentage of faculty publishing, percentage of faculty who were full professors, institutional library expenditures, ratio of graduate students to faculty, percentage of faculty with research support (i.e., funding), percentage of graduate students who hold research assistantships, and institution type (public or private university). These explanatory variables were found to be significantly associated with research productivity, with some differences across the four clusters of fields investigated--biological sciences, engineering, physical sciences and mathematics, and social and behavioral sciences. While Dundar and Lewis (1998) shed light on macro-level factors associated with a narrowly defined measure of research productivity, what remains unclear are the specific impediments to research and scholarship activities as perceived by faculty.

A more recent survey of over 6,000 faculty members at institutions with significant federal funding for research shed light on the administrative burden faced by grant-funded research faculty (Decker, Wimsatt, Trice, & Konstan, 2007). Most respondents were from the hard sciences (primarily the medical sciences) and received funding from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. Results of the survey revealed that an alarming 42% of the time committed to federal research was consumed by pre- and post-award administrative activities rather than to active research. Faculty reported being burdened by requirements to submit progress reports on grants, hire personnel for projects, purchase equipment and supplies, and comply with institutional review board (IRB) procedures. Also revealing is the finding that 95% of respondents reported that they could spend additional time on active research if they were provided with more assistance for handling research-related administrative tasks. As an indication of the severity of the problem, 76% of the faculty indicated being willing to reallocate direct costs to fund administrative support for research-related activities. It should be noted that the Decker et al. (2007) survey was aimed exclusively at impediments to federally funded research, whereas the survey reported in the current paper is broader, examining issues such as intellectual and scholarly resources.

Of interest, it was also discovered that several U.S. universities had conducted similar studies of their research cultures and needs. Columbia University, East Tennessee University, and the University of North Carolina (both at Chapel Hill and at Greensboro) are all noteworthy. Three observations emerged from comparing the efforts at these institutions to our approach. First, some of the identified needs are similar across institutions (e.g., graduate students, project start-up and support, low level of support from central administration). Second, a qualitative analysis of open-ended responses allowed a more phenomenological grasp of faculty members' situations. Third, our quantitative approach was also unique in allowing the identification of problems with the research support infrastructure and relative gaps in research support resources. The universities we examined applied a slightly different methodological approach to the study of their contexts. Despite different methods or settings,...

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