Small colleges and universities need to embrace academic research, scholarship, and creative activities produced by their faculty

Over the past decade, many universities and colleges in the United States and elsewhere have had to confront drastic budget cuts. Declining enrollments, stiff competition among institutions of higher education, financial mismanagement, changes in the way instruction is delivered (i.e., online education), and now the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decrease in revenue and funding. The resulting tight budgets are forcing most universities and colleges to rethink their priorities, reallocate spending, and reexamine their mission statements and strategic plans.

All this is happening in the context of rules and regulations advanced by accrediting organizations, like Middle States. Most university-accrediting organizations require institutions of higher education to include language about the importance of doing and supporting faculty research, scholarship, or creative activities (hereafter called “research”) for their college or university in their mission statements.

Although Research 1 (R1) universities embrace this aspect of their mission, so-called teaching universities and colleges often struggle to accomplish this component of their organization. These institutions of higher education often find it difficult to make good on the promise of encouraging (including funding, promoting, etc.) faculty research. Just because a university is struggling to fulfill its other goals does not mean that faculty research should be ignored, jettisoned, or merely paid lip service to.

This situation begs a handful of important questions. Most important are: Why should faculty at small colleges and universities conduct research? Why is it so difficult to conduct research at these institutions of higher education? And how can we remedy this state of affairs?

Why should small colleges and universities care about research?

There are six major reasons for this.

First, the more we require professors to simply teach and engage in service the greater the likelihood that four year colleges and universities will resemble community colleges. Not just from a branding perspective, but from a moral perspective this is a bad approach to take.

Second, research keeps instructors and professors engaged and current with their subject matter. Thus, all things being equal, research will enable them to bring their knowledge and the enthusiasm they have experienced to the classroom. This engagement should produce excitement, which will hold students’ attention and help them to engage with their studies.

Third, faculty research forces some instructors to make connections with people in the local or wider community. If done properly, research can also enable internships and job opportunities for their students.

Fourth, many professors genuinely want to do research. If they are frustrated in doing so by organizational policies, practices and norms, they may become disgruntled and less enthused about teaching, and some will eventually leave the colleges and universities where they are employed. In turn, this may lower overall morale, disrupt stability in academic offerings/programs, and demand more from administrators, staff and faculty who will have to fill in to teach (with little subject knowledge) preexisting curricular commitments. It may also frustrate students, because an institution might not be able to find appropriate faculty or adjuncts who can teach the classes (or teach them well), and faculty and administrators will once again have to return to the thankless task of vetting new hires.

Fifth, as it grows more difficult for professors to get jobs because these positions are drying up, smaller colleges and universities will have a more difficult time competing with larger academic institutions for talent. Many individuals who are looking for professor positions are skilled, and they will want to work at a place that allows them to do research. Also, because of the overall reduction in available professor positions, small universities will inevitably end up hiring faculty that want research university jobs and have more training in research than in teaching. Most likely, these professors will try to leave these positions as soon as they can, if they are not given appropriate opportunities to engage in research. Thus it will be more costly for universities to keep having to hire people who will only stay for short periods of time.

Finally, faculty research is important to the branding of a university. If professors are pushing their discipline forward, especially if it is relevant to today’s important conversations, they or their research may be mentioned in local, state, regional, and national news media. This almost invariably draws positive attention to the university.

Why is it so difficult to conduct research at small colleges and universities?

There are some pretty obvious reasons why it is hard for faculty at small colleges and universities to conduct research. In general, limited opportunities, organizational cultures, teaching and service demands, and a failure to appropriately award professors for pursuing research, and occasionally penalizing them for such projects are frequent hurdles.

To begin with, frequently there is a perception that if the research does not generate revenue, then it is not important for faculty to do unfunded research. Although overhead derived from research grant revenues is nice, not all universities have professors in their ranks who can prevail in these highly competitive situations. Nor are all educational institutions organized in such a way to manage this kind of revenue stream and burden of accountability. In particular, if a college does not have a Ph.D. program, it is often more difficult to secure grants from funding targets, but a professor can still work with local agencies, foundations, non-profits, fellowship programs, etc. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the universities should throw in the towel on encouraging unfunded research.

Additionally, senior administrators above the rank of department chair and deans, often do not really appreciate either the different types of research or the role of these projects in the development of faculty, programs, and the university at large. They often fail to recognize the pecking order among different types of scholarly inquiry and the benefits thereof.

Moreover, the administration, and sometimes faculty too, often see scholarship conducted by faculty as a necessary evil until they reach tenured status. Many professors never move past associate professor status to full professor because after they secure associate professorship, they rarely do much scholarly research. The reasons for this are varied, but include the facts that moving up in rank is hard, competing obligations (e.g., growing families), and that faculty members are rarely rewarded beyond personal satisfaction for this contribution. Even worse, research is frequently perceived by some administrators as an eclectic hobby or a zero-sum game that professors engage in as a distraction from their “real” duties as teachers.

And why would some administrators believe that faculty research at small colleges and universities is questionable? They may not be sufficiently familiar with the policies and procedures (and criteria) for university faculty appointments, tenure and promotion decisions, which outline research requirements. More importantly they may not see the importance of research for the overall mission of the university and the morale of the faculty.

One of the biggest reasons why faculty research has been undermined is the publication of the book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Boyer et al., 1990) and its follow-up treatise Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professoriate (Glassick et al., 1997). These books gave senior administrators and many faculty members the intellectual cover to consider almost anything they did in pursuit of their job, like revising their courses or serving on a community panel, as “scholarship.” The message was clear. Have you been struggling to get your poorly thought-out treatise focusing on a narrow interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet published? Don’t sweat it anymore. Remember that interview you did with that obscure student-run newsletter earlier in the year? That’s sufficient. Although useful in its own right (perhaps improving the relationship between town and gown), writing a paper and presenting it at a local conference is technically not scholarship. Getting a paper that has been subjected to a blind peer-review process published in a respected scholarly journal functions at a totally different level. It exposes one’s work to external assessment based on rigor and merit, but in so doing, one’s effort may be found wanting.

How can we remedy this state of affairs?

Unfortunately, when faced with addressing this issue of encouraging faculty research, many administrators at small colleges and universities typically take half measures.

For example, they may form a committee (or two) to examine or provide input and recommendations on research-related matters at the college or university. They sometimes put a senior faculty member or administrator in charge, although neither the faculty member nor the senior administrator may be doing any research or know much about this activity. This committee is often perceived as yet one more thankless task by those involved. A professor may not compensated beyond what they typically earn. The members of the committee do not see the work as serious, and predictably, they put little effort into it. Maybe a survey is conducted and a report is written. It may even be distributed widely to the university community for comment, or as a fait accompli. And then what happens? Nothing. There is no implementation of what the institution of higher education needs in terms of improving the amount and quality of research, the research climate of the institution, or what the faculty would find satisfying in terms of an appropriate stance towards research.

Professors who are skilled and respected researchers should be placed in positions of authority to manage and lead the research agenda of universities. Some institutions of higher learning have a strategic plan concerning faculty research. Thoughtfully conceived, these documents are discussed in a variety of forums and then shelved. No explanation or follow-up ensues.

Faculty who do research should be recognized on a regular basis for the research that they conduct. This awarding of research should not proceed in a haphazard fashion. It must be well thought out. Otherwise, it will be perceived as insincere and another example of the university simply going through the motions. Awards can also be in the form of research grants to faculty. Just like they do with external granting agencies, faculty need to submit proposals, and they should be evaluated after their completion.

Professors should also be strongly encouraged (and probably rewarded at some level) for maintaining, and Google Scholar accounts. In the case of the latter, the account should be public. And if faculty members do not know how to set up these accounts, then a skilled person should assist them in doing so.

There should be ways to make faculty lives easier. This can be achieved by carefully scrutinizing their workloads and looking for ways to avoid duplication.

Sabbaticals should not be granted to candidates based on time in grade, but only to those who proposes to do research, scholarship, or creative activities that will result in a publicly accessible work product. Furthermore, time in grade should not be involved in the granting of sabbaticals.

Distinguished research professorships should also be encouraged. Faculty with strong research agendas should be granted this title and proved with sufficient financial resources to conduct research. Again, the responsibility for tracking down the funding for these career related vehicles should not be the professor’s sole responsibility, but the burden should be placed on the university administration.

Finally, hiring a provost of research who is a change agent and cheerleader, and not someone who simply manages or processes paperwork, is needed in these critical times. Appoint a faculty member as an administrator for research (perhaps under that provost for research) to help faculty with applications, etc. This person should coordinate faculty from different colleges to work on grant proposals and to go out into the community to actively look for research funding.

Research should be properly acknowledged as part of a faculty member’s workload. It should not be an afterthought, added on top of all of the other duties. Service and teaching duties can be reduced. Tenure-track faculty in particular could get a course release to help start a program of research.

You have to reward what you want faculty to do or it will not happen. Celebrate the accomplishments of faculty who conduct research, and then hopefully others will want to do research to get noticed as well. If you just make research another burden on top of teaching and service, you will cause faculty burnout, and universities with unions will correctly resist.

Encourage applications for fellowships and foundations, in addition to other smaller external outlets, local agencies and businesses, etc. Again, this should not just be lip service, but should involve financial incentives or release time. In addition to the incentives, the university should advertise all faculty research projects and highlight the work that faculty do.


Colleges and universities need to do strategic planning, not just in general, but in terms of research. This rarely exists, not even on paper. Now is the time to take this matter seriously, so that small colleges and universities will stop going through the same old motions and repeating the same mistakes.

Photo Credit Thomas Haynie