It’s okay to not fund all faculty researchers equally


One of the things that I love about liberal arts colleges and other small universities is the opportunity to spend quality time with faculty from other disciplines. We can form a truly diverse community of scholars that is hard to find at a big university where interactions among disciplines are less frequent. These friendships make it easier to shed the conceit that our discipline is more important than others.

Because we are familiar with one another’s scholarship to some extent, there is a high value placed on equal regard for one another’s work. I’m not in a strong position to evaluate the importance of scholarship in a department outside my own, and I’m glad it’s not my job to do so. I can simply appreciate the fact that I work in an environment full of experts, who know about a lot of topics in which I am a novice.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some people are far more focused on scholarship, and mentoring student research, than others. This doesn’t make anybody more or less of an expert, but it does mean that people spend their time doing different activities. Both the quantity and the quality of scholarship vary from person to person. This is normal, and to be expected.

Nobody’s equal. But on teaching campuses we often treat everyone’s scholarship equivalently. That spirit of egalitarianism is often taken very seriously.

I posit that this egalitarian spirit impedes student research. If you ask any departmental chair or administrator, you’ll know that there are some people who are a black hole for research money. If you give them resources, not much happens.

Other people use the funds with high efficiency and get a lot done when provided some resources.

At every teaching campus with which I’m familiar, there have been modest pools of money available for research (including salary, travel, supplies) on a regular to irregular basis. In nearly all cases, these funds have been distributed in an egalitarian – or functionally egalitarian – fashion. A proposal might be necessary, but funding is only deprived from those who don’t even bother to submit a marginally credible 1-2 page proposal.

Any report that is due after using internal funds is pro forma and how much product you deliver doesn’t count. You just need to turn in a report – of any kind – to get funded again. If you ask a chair or a dean about what percentage of faculty use these little pools of research funds to productive ends, with a promise of anonymity, I would wager that less than 50% of the funding recipients used the funds well.

A few hundred bucks doesn’t do anything for anybody, but if you give someone a few thousand, you’d expect to see something of a little substance.  A talk presented at a conference, a submitted manuscript, or preliminary data for a grant.

If you just give all of the money equally to faculty, then some fraction of that money is going to be downright wasted. And, I suspect that chairs and deans know who’ll be wasting the money and who will make good use of it. Nonetheless, the egalitarian spirit prevails.

At research universities, non-productive faculty members are cut off. They lose lab space, get more service, and eventually become straight-up teaching faculty. However, at teaching universities with far fewer resources for research, faculty members who don’t produce any research are consistently given resources that often go to waste. They get to keep valuable lab space even though they haven’t published anything in a a hundred moons. The institution continues to harbor the polite fiction that all faculty are active scholars, when many just teach their classes and haven’t attempted to produce any scholarship in a long time, and have no specific plans to do so in the future.

All professors at teaching institutions should have the opportunity to do research. However, this shouldn’t preclude the institution from investing its limited resources wisely to create the biggest impact for the students and the institution. Like in any other profession, faculty members need to do their jobs. If they’re receiving resources for research, then they need to produce scholarship.

Just imagine how many more opportunities would be available for students, and how much more research could get done, if the research funds given to overt non-researchers were available to researching faculty. To do this, it would require abandoning the egalitarian spirit, that everybody deserves the same resources.

Everybody deserves access to the same opportunities. But not everybody should be given the chance, time and again, to waste opportunities. Let’s be clear: I see some people squandering funds made available to them, and I see students who would greatly benefit from others who are prepared to use these funds effectively.

It’s okay to identify individuals who make the best use of funds, and those that make the use worst of funds, and use this information to inform decisions. I wish this happened more frequently.

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