Research synergy: the Graduate School of Public Health, the SDSU Research Foundation, and San Diego State University.

Author:Williams, Stephen J.


The evolution of San Diego State University (SDSU) from a state teacher's college to a true research university has followed a remarkable trajectory, accelerating dramatically over the past thirty years. SDSU is Carnegie classified as a research university, high research activity. The Carnegie classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is a widely used framework for describing institutional characteristics in higher education. In particular, the classification is often utilized to provide a measure of research commitment and productivity in higher education institutions. Many other aspects of these classifications are also utilized in other kinds of studies and interpretations. The classifications and components have been refined and revised numerous times over the years. The Carnegie classification for doctorate granting universities includes three principal classifications: doctoral/research universities, research universities/high research activity, and research universities/very high research activity.

Many universities strive for prominence as primarily either teaching or research institutions. Over the past decades, however, the importance of a dominant research profile has gained wider acceptance. Research support implies excellence, is particularly critical in attracting high-quality faculty and graduate students, and increases visibility to various constituencies and especially to donors. Many primarily teaching institutions have worked hard to increase their research visibility and measurable successes. Traditional research institutions have worked hard to stay on top. And many more institutions have nudged the pendulum closer to research from the teaching end of the continuum.

The establishment and growth of SDSU's Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) parallels the changing priorities of the university in responding to these national trends, and provides a case study of a strategic move towards research and graduate education. The GSPH's contributions to the community, including educational diversity and an increased supply of healthcare professionals, the conduct of applied research, and community service provides benchmarks against which the mission of SDSU and the university's research apparatus, constrained by California laws governing higher education, can be assessed.

The purpose here is to present a case study of how the creation and development of the GSPH at SDSU paralleled, or perhaps even led, the evolution of the university into a more prominent research institution, facilitated by a separate research management organization, a shift consistent with the promotion of the research role of major universities (Kirwan, 2010). The GSPH was one of the most prominent new academic initiatives within the university created entirely from scratch over the past 35 years. The school is either an instigator or a benefactor, or both, of a significant and intentional redirection of the strategic priorities of the university. The arrival of SDSU's current and eighth president, and the concurrent development and implementation of a new strategic plan, is a further extension, refinement, and reaffirmation of these earlier historical trends. All of this occurred in the context of an educational system that is not oriented toward faculty research, and that required the catalyst of a successful separate research management organization, representing an unusual alliance of forces coalescing towards a common goal.

This case study then is about the convergence of two interconnected stories, one about an educational unit within the university and one about a separate but affiliated research management organization found in some other graduate and research organizations, but not as common in comprehensive universities. This particular model worked effectively in the context presented here. In the interests of creating realistic expectations, however, there is no one universal model to fit all situations (Taylor, 2006). But the model presented here provides insight into one approach and suggests the need to explore many options in the establishment of strategic directions and operational planning when the institutional goal is to expand and support the research enterprise in a teaching environment with limited financial resources.

This case study is based on the author's longitudinal observations from 1981 onward. The author is a cofounder of the GSPH and the principal founder of the healthcare management program. In his role as a faculty member he has been principal investigator on approximately $2.5 million of grants, primarily awarded from the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration (now The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a principal investigator, the author has had extensive experience on the grantee side. Over the past eight years the author has been in a purely administrative position in the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) with duties that have included oversight of all grant and contract activity at this level and college approval authority for proposal submissions. As a result, the author has worked extensively with the San Diego State University Research Foundation (SDSURF) and other components of the university from both the academic researcher and university administration perspectives. All of this experience occurred during the evolution of the university into a significant research institution.

The Academic Setting

The university was founded in 1897 to educate elementary school teachers (Starr & Polkinhornm, 1995). The university became a four-year public stare teachers college in 1921. The mission expanded beyond teacher education training in 1935, and San Diego State became part of the newly created California State University (CSU) system in 1960 with the reorganization of higher education in California. Interestingly, according to former University of California (UC) President Richard Atkinson, SDSU was at one time approached to join the UC system but that initiative never materialized (Atkinson, 2012). San Diego State became a university in the early 1970s. Although set in a teaching oriented educational system, SDSU has long strived to be a hybrid of teaching and research, with quality in both arenas (Vincov, 1997).

Throughout its history, the predominance of students graduating from the university have remained in Southern California. The 280,000 alumni include many San Diego city and county elected officials, many senior administrators in business and in the nonprofit sector, and a number of senior executives of well-known national and international corporations. Prominent sports and artistic stars are also included in the alumni ranks. Over the last 30 years, SDSU has evolved into a large and highly diverse entity. The university currently enrolls approximately 33,000 students in 90 bachelor's, 78 master's, and 22 doctoral programs (San Diego State University, 2013a). Graduate student enrollment and program and post-graduate expansion has paralleled expanded faculty research.

By Fall 2013, 56 percent of students were female. By ethnicity, whites comprise about 40 percent of enrollment, Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics approximately 30 percent, African Americans just under four percent, and various Asian ethnicities comprise most of the remainder (San Diego State University, 2013a). The faculty complement includes approximately 710 tenure-track faculty and approximately 650 full-time and part-time lecturers; total faculty and staff employment is nearly ten thousand including auxiliary organizations. The physical campus has grown over the years as well with new facilities worth over $430 million added during the past decade alone. Development activities have also accelerated and the university is currently in the public phase of a $500 million fundraising campaign.

SDSU is comprised of colleges and within each college are departments and schools. School directors and department heads report to the deans of colleges, who in turn report to the Provost, the university's chief academic officer. The Provost, along with the heads of the divisions of Business Services and of Student Affairs, reports to the president. The GSPH is a unit of the CHHS which was created in 1978 to consolidate health related programs. The CHHS includes the Schools of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, Social Work, Nursing, and Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences. For Fall 2013, the college enrolled approximately 5,000 students, of whom approximately 1,000 were graduate students. The CHHS functions as the "health sciences center" for the university with an additional goal of promoting research collaboration and teaching efficiencies.

Elliott Hirshman became the eighth president of SDSU in 2011. His goals are to emphasize academic excellence, student success, community engagement, diversity, and internationalization. His background includes conducting research in experimental psychology and serving as Chief Research Officer for a large East Coast university. President Hirshman, in addition to the provisions of the strategic plan, has already committed both state and non-state (soft) money resources to improving the ability of faculty to obtain grants and contracts, and has supported the hiring of additional faculty in clusters of expertise to build upon the university's existing research areas, a key commitment to continue and expand the trends discussed here.

The Research Foundation

Since 2000, university affiliated entities have administered over $ 1 billion in grants and contracts. Unlike most research universities, the CSU system maintains separate legal entities for non-state funds. Like many other CSU campuses, administration of extramural support, including grant and contract funds, non-state real estate holdings, and donations is conducted by the SDSURF, an...

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