Creating Opportunities for Faculty Research
Research is one of the most rewarding aspects of a scholarly career, but until recently few African American scholars have had a chance to pursue it seriously. Gradually, times are changing.
Higher education’s sacrosanct route to promotion and tenure is navigated along the paths of teaching, service and research. Good teaching and service are expected, but it is good research that usually attracts the greatest rewards.
The preferred environment for most researchers is found at large research universities. But these institutions produce few African American Ph.D.s. and because they have a tendency to hire faculty from within or from institutions of like stature, it is rare for African American scholars to land positions at these schools.
Among the more than 160,000 faculty who work at Research I and II institutions, only about 3 percent are African American, and many of these are junior faculty who have yet to achieve tenure (see BI the Numbers, pg. 38). As a consequence, many African American researchers find themselves teaching at smaller, often historically Black, institutions that lack the funding and infrastructure needed to support extensive research.
Research is an invaluable tool for of faculty career development, offering colleges and universities a means of enhancing institutional competitiveness and a way to expose Black students to valuable learning opportunities. Recognizing this, a growing number of historically Black universities have begun building impressive research complexes. Subsequently, African American scholars have a variety of options to pursue if they want to teach and conduct research at an HBCU — especially if they are in science and engineering fields.
“Hampton University, for example, has one of the finest physics programs in the country,” says Dr. Earnestine Psalmonds, vice chancellor of research at North Carolina A&T University. Florida A&M, Tuskegee, Howard, Norfolk State and Prairie View universities as well as her own university also have dynamic research being conducted on their campuses, Psalmonds says. And even though Howard is the only university in this group that is officially classified as a Research institution by the Carnegie Foundation, these mostly state-supported schools are distinguishing themselves for their research activities.
Even smaller schools — like the John C. Smith University — that do not have the research infrastructure found at larger institutions, are finding ways to get more research money and opportunities by creating incentive programs for young professors.
“It is not difficult getting research opportunities,” Psalmonds says. “[Researchers] can come [to HBCUs] and make such a difference in the lives of underrepresented students.”
HBCUs that strive to expand their competitiveness also are using research opportunities as a faculty recruitment strategy. Tactics such as offering more competitive salaries are buttressed by other perks like state-of-the-art laboratory space.
There is no lack of funding opportunities for those persons to do research, Psalmonds says.
One of the biggest obstacles to building a competitive research environment is finding the resources necessary to lighten the teaching load of professors so that they can engage in serious research. And even at schools where the resources exist, most faculty are still required to teach.
At the most prestigious research institutions, the jobs of most faculty are split between research and teaching. Of course, there are research faculty members who don’t teach at all, says Ted Greenwood, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, but these faculty are in the minority. To achieve this, professors have to raise a substantial amount of external money in order to buy out their teaching time. At liberal arts colleges it is rare to find faculty who are in this position.
Johns Hopkins University has developed a reputation as one of the top breeding grounds for doctors and scientists. As a consequence, it is also one of the nation’s premiere research institutions. Although the university has about $940 million in research grants, Dr. Theodore Poehler, vice provost for research at the university, says all professors are expected to teach. But you can’t be appointed or promoted at Johns Hopkins unless you conduct research.
Dr. Ralph Etienne-Cummings, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, juggles teaching with his engineering research in the area of computational censors. The censor he has developed is smarter than the average camera, he says. It picks up how things are moving in the environment — and can distinguish a doorway from a table, humans from animals and more.
Etienne-Cummings has been engaged in this research since 1988, when he was still a graduate student. Since arriving at Johns Hopkins a year ago, he has been teaching one class per semester. The remainder of his time is spent doing research.
“The idea is to give interested young faculty a chance to explore research opportunities,” he says, adding that at Johns Hopkins young faculty members are given some degree of seed money to get started, and after that “we must go get our [own] grants.” His research is supported by two grants totaling about $200,000 annually: one from the National Science Foundation and another from the Office of Naval Research.
Johns Hopkins professors must be able to do it all when being considered for promotion, teaching, teaching effectively and being a good citizen of the university, Poehler says. “One has to see evidence that the individual can manage to do all these things and juggle research effectively,” he says.
“People are very busy. People have to be very serious. Senior faculty have the added responsibility of mentoring junior faculty to help them be successful.”
It’s unclear exactly what percent of the nation’s professors are engaged in research exclusively because every school is autonomous, Greenwood says.
And while many schools would like to have their faculty members researching a cure for HIV/AIDS, or discovering better ways to tackle problems of inner city schools, Greenwood says not every institution can or should be doing the kind of research larger schools are doing.
“One should not assume it’s good for every institution to be in research,” he says. “It’s expensive and it’s hard. Some liberal arts colleges should continue in areas where they have strength. They have traditional roles as small nurturing places that give people a strong liberal arts education.”
Greenwood adds that there is an abundance of Ph.D.s in most fields. As a consequence, sometimes, African Americans with research backgrounds get hired at liberal art schools that might not have the same research opportunities as the schools from which these young professors graduated. This puts pressure on the institutions to provide research opportunities to help retain these faculty members.
“We need to change the way we teach researchers,” Greenwood says. “We don’t need that many researchers. We don’t have that many jobs.”
Furthermore, Greenwood says, it is especially difficult for small liberal arts schools to compete with larger research institutions for research funding because they lack a research track record. “If you don’t have any kind of history at all, you’re not going to be competitive.”
Forming partnerships, however, is one way smaller schools can get into the game.
Savvy researchers realize that working at an HBCU or partnering with an HBCU can actually be an advantage because all sorts of funding is available for Black institutions and the broader category of minority-serving institutions that are interested in pursuing research.
“There is quite a bit of money around for these institutions,” Greenwood says.
Another advantage to partnerships is that so many graduate schools are trying to find minority students, especially in science, engineering and mathematics. They know that creating relationships with undergraduate programs at minority-serving institutions can assist them later in recruiting graduate students.
In such partnerships, the smaller universities might not be the lead institution on a grant proposal, but they get invaluable research experience and exposure.
Federal agencies are encouraging these collaborations by including minority-serving institutions in the contracts they award and by writing contracting regulations on large grants to enable these institutions to participate, Psalmonds says.
Building a Supportive Infrastructure
North Carolina A&T is one example of an HBCU that has a strong infrastructure to facilitate the development and management of research activity. The school has a division of research that provides comprehensive support, creating the type of environment that encourages and supports scholarly activity, Psalmonds says.
This division provides program development, funding information, technical support, access to electronic databases and more.
“We mirror the organizations that most sponsoring agencies look for,” Psalmonds says. “We have activities that encourage and reward our faculty. We have research rewards for senior researchers as well as junior investigators; and publicize their exemplary work; and provide opportunities for internally funded research just to stimulate new projects and to enhance existing ones.
“These are the kinds of things we do to attract and retain good faculty at North Carolina A&T,” Psalmonds adds.
Universities around the country are encouraged to integrate research and education, and the balance between the two depends on whether the focus is undergraduate or graduate studies. Obviously, the professor teaching graduate education would have more research time.
Even with its substantial research volume, North Carolina A&T does not qualify for Research I classification by the Carnegie Foundation because its production of doctoral degree recipients is too small. NCA&T is officially classified as a Master’s I institution by the Carnegie Foundation. Still, when it comes to research, the university is far ahead of most HBCUs.
Psalmonds says the average research volume sponsored at her school is about $22 million annually. “We’re managing about 280 active projects. Research and all other sponsored projects are valued at $110 million. For a university this size with a population of 7,500 students, that is doing very well.”
“We must recognize how important it is to encourage faculty involvement in research. The university must commit to providing an appropriate support structure to enable their faculty,” Psalmonds says.
Universities must use new ideas to prepare students for the workforce, particularly if they expect “our students” to be prepared in the next millennium, she adds.
Schools that aim to develop their research capabilities should start by leveraging their strengths. They must decide what they want to be known for, then build a program strategy to compliment the academic program that would serve as a rationale for proposals for external funding.
“Administrations must publicly declare this is a policy. If they don’t express a commitment people will ignore it,” Psalmond says.
The competition is keen, however, and universities have to learn what business strategies work best for them.
Alabama A&M is another HBCU that has been successful in tapping into the stream of federal research dollars. About 49 percent of its $20 million in research and grant funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 24 percent from the Department of Education, and 19 percent from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“People who come here and want to do research, can,” says Dr. Dorothy W. Huston, vice president for research and development.
Most Alabama A&M professors who do research also teach, but 16 of them, comprising about 7 percent of the 237 faculty members, are classified as research faculty and are dedicated 100 percent to research, she says.
Beyond helping young scholars to buy release time to pursue research, Poehler says it also provides them the seed money they need to show evidence of when applying for grants. So, schools that are serious about supporting faculty research must offer star up packages. At Johns Hopkins the value of these packages vary between disciplines, but they usually include seed money, Poehler says. The experimental researcher, for example, might need more money, but in the humanities the greatest need might be for release time and travel.
Some universities are very good at making sure faculty members get money. That’s how they stay in business, Etienne-Cummings says. In his field, the pressure applied to universities by private engineering companies that are all too happy to snap up engineering scholars by waving money in their faces, forces schools to be creative in order to compete for talent. However, Etienne-Cummings recognizes that this cushy situation doesn’t exist in other disciplines.
“I’m in a field [that is] very much in demand,” he says. “It’s a very hot field. Physics and chemistry [are] tougher because there is a new direction in the type of research going on these days.”
Finding the funds to support research in the liberal arts is even harder. “The competition is much tougher there — very, very tough,” Etienne-Cummings says.
Still, Poehler says if institutions are serious about research, they must help the researcher get to a certain level.
“It’s almost like schools competing for the best athletes. The better people you hire the better you can compete for the best. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Black school or not,” Poehler says.
He points to Morgan State and Howard universities as two examples. Morgan State has partnered in some joint proposals with Johns Hopkins, he says, and Howard has hired some “outstanding researchers. These are the [HBCUs] on my nearby radar screen and you do see an increase in size and quality programs,” he says.
While a researcher’s life may seem glamorous to those on the outside, Poehler says those who are engaged in it have a different perspective.
“A researcher’s life is not easy. It is a demanding job and it’s stressful. [Research scholars] have to get the money so they can do the research. If they don’t, they don’t get promoted. If they don’t get promoted, they don’t stay.
“If [small schools] want to play in the same league they have to establish some rules,” Poehler says. “You’re competing with some of the best, and the rate of getting the grants is very low. Available dollars are shrinking with the increase in the number of universities and faculty. It’s tough competition and only the people who train the hardest are going to get the grants.”
Supporting Research on a Smaller Scale
Johnson C. Smith University implemented an incentive program a few years ago to encourage its faculty to seek research grants, says Kitty Stephens, assistant vice president for development.
The incentive program allows anyone who writes a grant to receive 1 percent of the amount awarded annually from the institution.
“We have new faculty writing proposals every year. We also have in-house grant workshops three times a year,” Stephens says. The small liberal arts college has about $8 million in grants.
The numbers started to pick up, Stephens says, when Dr. Dorothy Yancy came from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1994 to become Johnson C. Smith’s president. The HBCU, with an enrollment of about 1,500 students, has submitted proposals for about 92 grants and has been awarded funding for about 48 percent of these. Most of the grants are in the area of science.
When professors find themselves jug- gling both teaching and research it gets the students involved so they’re exposed, Stephens says. “Basically our goal is to get the students in those areas where [Black people] are underrepresented.”
They’ve also partnered on research grant proposals with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
“We can’t deny research is a big thing out there,” Stephens says. If the proposal is awarded, we would have access to research doctoral fellows and they would have access to a HBCU.
Stephens admits that researchers coming to an institution like hers have to adjust to working with limited resources and equipment.
“We can’t move into areas that cost us,” she says. “We certainly don’t have the resources like Duke and Johns Hopkins [universities]. We don’t have access.
“There are just some things we just can’t do, but within reason we need to do what we can. You don’t bring a top cardiovascular surgeon to work in an area with a small community hospital. We think the incentives have been working to get researchers who are comparable to the kind of work we can support. The research is focused on the students learning.”
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