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Lately, I've been wondering why institutions with a primary emphasis on undergraduate education (e.g. liberal arts colleges) value research output amongst their faculty. This is not intended to dismiss the research of LAC faculty, but rather to delineate what value the institution/department gains by hiring candidates with superior research output, perhaps at the expense of someone with a stronger teaching record. Here are several reasons I have heard, arranged in reverse order (approximately) of direct student benefit:

  • Current faculty wish to promote research in the discipline for its own sake, without regard educational benefits for the students

  • Tradition, or emulation of more prestigious institutions.

  • Faculty need a strong enough research output to get tenure (a somewhat circular reason)

  • Reputation within the research community enhances departmental and institutional prestige, with incumbent benefits for students.

  • The faculty can extend their academic network to their students. Examples of this might include increased regard for letters of recommendation and awareness of (non-)academic opportunities.

  • Research output is a proxy for breadth of knowledge within the discipline, hence for value of content in instruction, both formal (course syllabi) and informal (answering that random question during office hours).

  • Research output corresponds to the baseline knowledge needed to supervise undergraduate research and teach best practices.

  • Research activity is the best way to keep faculty aware of changing trends in the field, which in turn gets incorporated into educational practices. After all, academic careers last a long time.

I'm sure there are many valid reasons missing from this list, including some of the most important. I would like to know from a institutional/hiring perspective:

a) What reasons for valuing research activity are missing from this list?

b) What benefits are weighted most heavily? Which are given little or no thought?

c) To what extent are these benefits distinct from the ways that research profiles are evaluated by hiring committees?

  • My institution's document talk about "scholarly activity" rather than "research" – dmckee Aug 10 '15 at 0:42
  • Is this question about why some LACs expect research from their faculty or about using research track records to make hiring decisions for incoming faculty? – Kimball Aug 10 '15 at 12:57
  • I am interested in why they value research performed by faculty members, in particular with respect to the hiring process. Presumably their expectations of research are governed by these values. – Zach H Aug 10 '15 at 13:40
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I believe your list implicitly says this, but I'll include an answer anyhow, because I think this is an excellent question and I am interested in hearing answers that supplement what I write below.

Teaching divorced from serious engagement with the subject matter taught is arguably a very suspicious activity. In principle, if someone is paying a large sum of money to be taught a subject, the teacher should not only be able to convey his subject clearly, but also should be a practitioner of that subject. The living content of a subject is found in the minds of its practitioners, and so attempts to teach even the ideas which are archaic without the living insight driving honest contemporary investigation of the topic is very much in danger of becoming stilted, sterile or, perhaps worst of all, too packaged or neat.

One might oppose this view by pointing out that most undergraduate students do not need to know what is going on at the front lines of any subject, and the historical efforts and ideas, presented clearly in an engaged way, are enough. For cultural purposes, this may be so. However, a passion for teaching at the highest level morally ought to be accompanied by a passion for learning at that level, which is what research or serious scholarly engagement is at its heart.

Another strong argument against requiring research is the following: students at an average primarily undergraduate institution are generally not going to be prepared for graduate study in certain fields, so why should time and energy of faculty be sunk into research in such fields. (Many good institutions with PhD programs also need to remediate entering PhD students, suggesting that this problem stretches beyond undergrad-only institutions.) Again, though, I answer that learning and teaching should, ideally, not be decoupled.

A third argument is that it is possible for an engaged teaching faculty member to learn for his own enrichment and that this does not need to happen at the level required for research or peer review. I can only answer this, unfortunately, by my personal experience and opinion. It bothers me that when a student enters university in order to learn a subject, he cannot tell the quality of knowledge he will receive (whether the community of peers of a student's professor regards the professor's ideas and approaches as relevant). It is our responsibility to ensure that students are exposed, to the best of our ability, to ideas that have impact. I cannot see how to do this without being able to point to peer-reviewed faculty contributions.

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    I had teachers who were amazingly well versed in their area of expertise, who had basically no skill at teaching. They were the worst. Completely useless. Years later, i still can't believe that colleges hire such terrible teachers based on their scientific credentials. – Davor Aug 9 '15 at 22:59
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    @Davor: Indeed, the pendulum swings the other way! One could argue that a person spending a lot of money on his or her education has a right to an excellent teacher! If either teaching or learning comes up short, then the student is ripped off. This is the point I am trying to make, really, that a solid education consists of a faculty that supplies both solid teaching and solid scholarship. Otherwise the students are being fleeced! – Jon Bannon Aug 9 '15 at 23:19
  • @JonBannon Is research a necessary (or sufficient) part of commitment to scholarship? Many students in my graduate program felt that their best educational experiences were in class with a faculty member who performed substantially less research relative to others. He had clearly devoted himself to studying other people's work. – Zach H Aug 10 '15 at 13:52
  • @Zach: I think there needs to be flexibility. Some will be more into teaching and others scholarship. Engaged scholarly activity in the form of some peer contribution is the only reasonable metric I can think of across the board, though! Even work that reflects on the work of others can be peer-reviewed. – Jon Bannon Aug 10 '15 at 14:34
  • Also, peer review can mean many things! – Jon Bannon Aug 10 '15 at 19:28
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a) What reasons for valuing research activity are missing from this list?

One reason that's somewhat mentioned in your list, but not fully explored, is the benefit to students of a faculty member doing research. There are almost certainly students at LACs that are interested in careers in research, considering graduate school, etc. who benefit from research experience, the opportunity to publish and present, etc.

Having faculty who have ongoing research agendas, even if they are somewhat "modest", is an extremely valuable way for their students to get this experience.

  • Getting undergraduate students involved in research is a key requirement for many faculty at liberal arts colleges and this is something that candidates are often expected to address during the hiring process. – Brian Borchers Aug 10 '15 at 1:29
  • I don't know how this slipped my mind! This is clearly a very important reason to value research experience. – Zach H Aug 10 '15 at 15:43
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Just like research universities, liberal arts colleges like getting grant money to perform research. Otherwise, prestige is a major reason, as you mentioned in the question.

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