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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Research and Creative Excellence and the CLA Roadmap

The CLA Roadmap promises a relentless focus on research and creative excellence. This focus fits our position as a land grant institution, a liberal arts college, and is critically important in our quest to achieve our vision of becoming a destination college.

The essentials of a land grant public research university are world-class research, outstanding instruction, and service and outreach to the state. But these are not only essential elements of a land grant research institution. They are essential elements of the liberal arts as well. I have been emphasizing repeatedly that whether on campus or off campus, we will be on offense—and not defense—when talking about the College and the liberal arts. We will advocate, not apologize.

The liberal arts at a land-grant research institution must be rooted in a community of world-class scholars who infuse their research and expertise into their teaching and their service and outreach. Research and creative excellence are vital for what they do off campus. They contribute to the understanding and solution of important problems and they advance human knowledge. Research excellence is, then, the foundation for the liberal arts at a land grant institution. The stronger we are in research, the better we serve students and the public.

And we have much of which we can be proud. In conversations with me, faculty have noted that the College and the U take their land grant mission seriously; that interaction across disciplines is high and interdisciplinary initiatives are valued; and that—at the same time—CLA has some of the best disciplinary departments at the U. This is a college with many wonderful and talented people of great integrity, energy, and accomplishment. Throughout the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and the intersection of all three, we have colleagues of the first rank in research and creative excellence.

Attracting and retaining the top faculty and graduate students and producing groundbreaking research, performance, and creative activities are foundational to our success. Our undergraduate students learn from the creators, innovators, and pioneers. Having the highest research standards attracts and retains top faculty, which attracts top undergraduate and graduate students. High quality students attract more great faculty. Research excellence is a virtuous circle.

As part of our effort to become a destination college, CLA will have a relentless focus on research and creative excellence across the arts, humanities, and social sciences. We’re an R1 institution, and we need to do a better job of aligning what we do with that mission, whether that be in the form of graduate support, research funds, support for faculty travel to conferences, endowed faculty positions, identifying and investing in growing areas of research, rewarding exceptional performance, strengthening a culture of grant-seeking, setting and adhering to high standards in our decisions, being willing to make distinctions, encouraging faculty to consider and propose new models and configurations for graduate training, and the like.

A relentless pursuit of research and creative excellence means investing in CLA’s deep disciplinary strengths—strong disciplines are vitally important—with an aim to bringing top 20 units to the top 15 and top 15 units to the top 10, identifying units that can rise into those ranks of national prominence, and developing and expanding opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations. Our departments generally do not have the luxury of large size, so establishing leading national reputations requires potentially difficult decisions concerning where to focus departmental energies and a recognition that departmental strength areas may evolve.

Rankings aren’t everything, but I’d prefer to see a CLA department rank in the top 20 than the top 40, and the top 10 than the top 20. Rankings provide us one yardstick by which our research prominence and our scholarship are evaluated by peers. Prospective faculty and graduate students notice these rankings as well, as do donors, alumni, legislators, our colleagues at other institutions, funding agencies and foundations, and other important college constituencies.

In my conversations with faculty prior to arriving on campus, and since then as well, I frequently heard concerns that the college was not doing all it could to encourage and demand excellence in research and creative work. I heard many laments that a satisficing, “good enough is good enough” ethos too often held sway, that departments avoided making difficult decisions that the highest standards would require, or that the college feared difficult making choices and distinctions because to do so would seem “unfair.”

Achieving research greatness means providing an environment that makes CLA the best environment for field-shaping faculty to thrive. It means tangible things such as resources for research, and it means the intangible such as pushing ourselves with high and growing expectations of our work. It means risking failure as we continuously innovate and experiment with seed funding for new disciplinary and interdisciplinary research avenues. Achieving greatness means making tradeoffs—we cannot pursue every good idea simultaneously, and we will need to end some things to begin others.

Achieving research greatness means being able to better compete for top graduate students and to place them in prestigious positions. Research is tightly linked to graduate programs, and the quality of the two rise and fall together. We have some strong graduate programs—some of the best at the U, with great placement records, plentiful external funding, high reputational rankings, and impressive incoming cohorts. But for a college of our stature and aspirations, we must do better. We must determine ways to best support our most nationally or internationally competitive programs, while also pushing good programs to the next level.

World-class excellence in research and creative practice, and the culture to promote this excellence, must be a hallmark of the College of Liberal Arts. We build on a wonderful foundation of award-winning scholars and groundbreaking research and creative activity. This excellence enhances our reputation, to be sure, but as or more importantly it puts the college in the position of providing the expertise to define, ask, and address the great questions facing the polity, economy, and society from the local to the global level.

Our Research Goal Team will be exploring numerous potential actions presented in the CLA Roadmap that might help us achieve this goal, as well as consider other possible steps. Please consider providing feedback that will be shared with the Research Goal Team, or please send along your thoughts and questions to me via the Dean’s Suggestion Box or at clasuggest@umn.edu.