Provost's Statement on Research and Teaching at SMU

SMU is categorized as a “Research University (high research activity)” by the Carnegie Foundation and as a “National University” in the U.S. News system. Research Universities combine instruction in the classroom with scholarly activity by their faculties. The most immediate benefit to students is that they will be taught by those whose work is at the forefront of knowledge and thinking in their areas of expertise. When those students hit the job market, they will have been exposed to the most current thinking in their areas. Simply stated, the role of a research university is to generate new knowledge and to share that knowledge with students and the broader community.

It is also important to acknowledge that a significant amount of teaching at a university occurs outside of the formal classroom. When our faculty members involve students in research and scholarly activity, that activity becomes teaching. Those who would set the functions of “research” and “teaching” as mutually exclusive ignore this fact. Few activities are more powerful in the development of young intellects than the opportunity to be directly engaged in the creative process, be it in the laboratory, on stage, working independently or in civic projects. When students are involved in research, that research is teaching.

Research and scholarly activity are of intrinsic value in that they stimulate the mind, foster the imagination and sharpen critical thinking. In selecting our faculty, we seek those with curious minds, those who are able to think critically and abstractly. Scholarly activity and research allow the faculty to maintain and enhance those qualities in themselves and to nourish them in students. Research informs and renews teaching. SMU’s standard for promotion calls for excellence in teaching and in research, with outstanding accomplishment in one of those areas. Investigator initiated, peer-reviewed research is the best measure of intellectual independence and creativity.

As a collective effort, scholarly research is of great practical benefit to society well beyond the walls of the university. University-based research has brought understanding of basic principles of physical systems, biology, economics, the mind, as well as promoting art, literature and performance. In practical terms, university-based scholarship has brought us antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, disease-resistant crop plants, enhanced materials, literature, plays, art work, the internet, and many other things that we depend upon for our quality of life.

The concept that only “practical” or “important” research questions should be pursued misses the point of creativity. Studies of how organisms can survive in hot springs in Yellowstone and ocean vents led to discovery of a new branch of the tree of life. Those organisms provided a key component for the development of DNA cloning methods and that component was crucial in the deciphering of the human genome. Knowledge of the human genome has led to identification of new drug targets in medicine. Along the way, an understanding of these organisms has led to better understanding of how microorganisms foul oil, gas, and water pipelines. From the “impractical” study of heat-tolerant bacteria has come a wealth of knowledge and technology.

The economic value of some research can be immediately quantified; the immediate value of other scholarship cannot be so readily ascertained. We should not attempt to “monetize” the value of research and scholarship in terms of immediate return, as some would suggest or require. Research must be regarded as the ultimate “Hedge Fund” of our intellectual capital. We place our bets that new knowledge will pay off in the future in unexpected ways. Some new knowledge will never pay off, but we also admit that we cannot know in advance which research will result in the knowledge needed to address as yet unforeseen crises or challenges. However, we are assured that the dividend of this activity will be the opportunity for students to test their creativity and critical thinking. One aspect of research training that is missed by those who compare it to other professional training programs is that research training often involves repeated, sometimes expensive, failures on the road to success. Successful research programs allow researchers to fail in pursuit of ideas. Research training is hard, sometimes discouraging. The value is that good research eventually leads to groundbreaking ideas and new truths.

The scholarly activity of the faculty is critical to the perception and rankings of the university. An accurate reputation for an intellectually active faculty attracts other scholars. Reputation attracts outstanding students to the university and the presence of top students to teach also attracts top scholars. At this stage of its development, it is perhaps ironic that the most powerful lever to improve the U.S. News ranking of SMU is to increase its reputation for research and scholarship, or more accurately, the reputation of its faculty for research and scholarship. Twenty-two-and-a-half percent of the “score” in U.S. News rankings comes from the assessment of the quality of the faculty by university presidents, provosts, admissions directors of other universities in the National University category and of high school counselors. Aspirational Universities have more tenure/tenure track faculty than SMU, affording a wider range of opportunities for students to be involved in research and a greater likelihood that U.S. News voters will be aware of the research of one or more members. For example, Notre Dame has 40% more tenure/tenure track faculty but roughly the same number of undergraduate and graduate students.

The federal government funds approximately $140 billion in R&D funds per year, of which, approximately $60 billion is for non-defense areas. Much of this goes to Universities and Research Foundations for investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed projects. These funds can provide opportunities for students to be involved in projects and the indirect costs from these projects can be used to defray the institutional costs of research, including support for libraries and beginning faculty. Success in this arena is also factored into the voting by U.S. News voters. Research and Scholarly activity are “teaching”; they are beneficial to students and the broader community; they attract top scholars and students to SMU; they positively influence our rankings; they generate income for our programs.