Why Research is Important to Baylor

A special message from Dr. Lee Nordt, Dean of the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences

When you read Baylor’s new academic strategic plan, Illuminate, you will see that the university is staking the claim that it will soon become an R1 (Research 1) institution, as defined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. At present, 130 American colleges and universities are classified as R1, described as doctoral-granting institutions with the “highest research activity.” Baylor is among the 131 schools currently classified as R2 — doctoral institutions with “higher research activity.”

As Baylor moves toward the R1 goal, recognition for achievements in research, nationally and internationally, must be a central part of our future.

Why research?

I have had numerous conversations through the years with faculty, administrators and alumni on the importance of research to Baylor’s future. One concern consistently voiced is that an emphasis on research will inevitably come at the expense of good teaching. I understand this concern, because the idea of research may conjure up visions of an absent-minded professor sequestered away in a laboratory — a professor who once or twice a week reluctantly shows up late, unprepared and irritable at the sight of a class of students demanding some of his or her precious time. This is not the reality at Baylor.

In fact, just the opposite scenario occurs. Faculty research, and the involvement of our students in it, has become an integral part of good teaching here. The teaching awards given each year to Arts & Sciences faculty provide evidence that the research endeavor is supporting undergraduate education. Many of these awards for excellence in teaching have been won by faculty members who are actively engaged in research. The number of courses that a professor teaches –– whether it’s two or four courses in a semester –– does not by default dictate the quality of instruction. Baylor continues to promote the value of teaching excellence in a multitude of ways, including faculty evaluations and guidelines for tenure and promotion.

Baylor has chosen to embrace research as a critical component of its future for three main reasons.

First, our society faces enormous problems, or grand challenges, where key research discoveries could lead to solutions. Baylor faculty with knowledge and insight into these issues will be engaged in the conversations regarding problem solving, whether through the national media, industry collaborations or through agencies that provide grants. The value of a Baylor degree will only increase based on such contributions by our faculty. Those who donate to the University will see additional evidence for entrusting their resources to an R1 institution with Baylor’s mission.

Second, as faculty members integrate their recently published discoveries with the standard content of an academic discipline, they bring new life to classroom instruction. Many of our Baylor students collaborate with their professors and take advantage of undergraduate research programs. This is the ultimate form of engaged learning that inculcates critical thinking skills, writing skills and oral communication skills in ways not possible in a traditional classroom situation. This nexus between classroom learning and the real world is crucial for students who wish to enter graduate school, medical school and other areas of professional life. For an in-depth look at Baylor’s engaged learning programs, see the Spring 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine.

Third, Baylor has embraced research because it is the lifeblood of our graduate programs. Our graduate students mentor undergraduates in laboratory activities and gain teaching experience in their chosen academic fields. As I have stated before, Baylor graduate students also fling the green and gold far and wide. They become influential leaders, as educators, government workers and entrepreneurs. We must nourish and promote their careers as well.

We are proud of Baylor’s past, but should we stop where we are? What should we do now as other institutions forge ahead to enhance their national reputation? Will we be content to be known as a regional institution and leader and voice for liberal arts colleges, or should we aspire to be something more? This prospect is not a negative one, but if we follow President Linda Livingstone’s lead and become an R1 university, we will have a seat in the national conversation about the grand challenges of our time. Our faculty will be in greater demand to participate in solutions to societal problems. The public spotlight that would shine on Baylor faculty would give our Christian mission a national, or even international, presence.

What do the research rankings mean?

So, what do the R1 and T1 (Tier 1) rankings actually mean, if that is what we want to become? And how will we know that Baylor is making progress toward this goal? Tier 1 status typically corresponds to membership in the American Association of Universities (AAU), achievement of the highest research ranking by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and placing in the list of the top 50 national universities as determined by US News & World Report (USNWR). Even though USNWR bases its findings only on undergraduate metrics, 44 of the top 50 universities in its listing are Carnegie R1 institutions. This is telling us something.

R1/T1 institutions receive considerable external funding for their research, produce a high number of doctoral graduates, and exhibit a large research staff-to-faculty ratio. Greater external research expenditures and high doctoral production in all disciplines are significant in the rankings. Initial analyses indicate that Baylor needs to at least triple our research grant expenditures, doctoral production and research staff in order to be aligned with universities that are R1 according to Carnegie. All of our programs contribute to these R1 measures.

Moving ahead

How many faith-based institutions of higher education in America can say that they have Carnegie R1 research status while promoting excellent teaching? The number is miniscule, and this will be the elite group Baylor will join once we achieve R1 status. But just how will we do that? Here is where our new vision, Illuminate, comes into play, delineating key initiatives that will help us achieve this lofty aspiration. As one of my Arts & Sciences Board of Advocates members has told me many times, “If it isn’t difficult to achieve it probably isn’t worth doing.” And he is right.

Having committed ourselves to this course of action, our task now is to spread the message regarding the important role research must play in the future of Baylor. This is especially true as we enter into Give Light, the University’s comprehensive fundraising campaign. We must provide our alumni with illustrations that demonstrate why we need to address the problems in our world that nobody else can or will address. We must show how research and the undergraduate experience inform and enhance one another. We must share compelling stories about why research at Baylor matters. Most importantly, we must work to translate research discovery into positive action in the world.

The message is clear. The path to becoming a top-ranked university must include excellence in research. Baylor will not relinquish its distinctive position that has focused on transformative undergraduate education and our Christian mission. Instead, the University will integrate all three critical elements. No other institution is in a position to attempt such a challenge. At this moment, Baylor has a unique opportunity. If we do not act now, it may be too late.

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This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here.

One Response

  1. Damilola Adewole at |

    I think that this is a great mission . It is rare to see a school that cares so much not only about the mind but also about the soul and spirit . Baylor cares about all three. This is a school that is ready to forge ahead and be something different in a world where others are under the yoke of mediocrity. Kudos

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