Published on 2021/03/11

The Role of Scholarship and Creative Activity at a Teaching University

Research in higher education needs to be connected with student learning and development if it is to fulfill its mission of relevance, utility and practical application. 

The news about higher education these days is mostly dire and recounts the difficulties institutions face due to the pandemic, demographic changes, tuition increases, student debt, and overall fiscal challenges. Pundits and policy makers talk about disruption and the changes higher education will have to make, even if reluctantly. Some question the function of faculty research at colleges and universities whose primary mission is teaching. Most criticisms are posed by those who do not seem to understand and value the varied missions of higher education institutions.

American colleges and universities have a privileged, tax-exempt status and are charged with three distinct and critical roles central to society:

  • Creating the new, whether from a molecular reaction or a synthesis of theories on social phenomena, as well as preparing students of all ages for work and citizenship¬†
  • Curating the past, society‚Äôs memory, whether recorded in ink, clay, brass, or databases
  • Critiquing the¬†status quo, standing at the periphery of society, asking questions related to fair treatment, justice, equality, and ‚Äúwhat if?‚Äô

The role as creator of the new varies by institution, but every regionally accredited campus has a mission of preparing students of all ages and in all programs to live a meaningful life as well as earning a living. They almost always also include in their mission at least one form of scholarship and creative activity. These forms were codified by Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, as Discovery, Integration, Application, and Teaching.[1]

Boyer argued that we should move away from the debate about teaching versus research and recognize the full range of scholarly activities in which faculty engage. He argued that each form of scholarship and creative activity can improve teaching and learning in fundamental ways.  

The full range of activity Boyer described includes discovery, i.e., original research at the laboratory bench or in the library, the neighborhood or the village. It also includes integration, i.e., working across disciplines and ascribing meaning to apparently isolated facts, such as scholars do in history and marketing.

Another dimension to research is application, i.e., drawing from disciplinary knowledge to formulate proposed solutions for problems in society. 

The fourth dimension is the scholarship of teaching, which has been the most difficult to define without controversy and second-guessing. It means more than just teaching to a satisfied class, and requires critical analysis, reflective practices, and research on what works best. Just as with other forms of research, one must evaluate whether new knowledge or understanding has been created, whether this new knowledge or understanding has been evaluated by experts in a public manner, and whether it advances the baseline of knowledge in the field.

It’s important to add creative work to any discussion of scholarship and research. Of course, any research should be creative, but we must also include the ways in which novelists, painters, sculptors, poets, photographers, actors, playwrights, composers, and instrumentalists, among others, advance knowledge and understanding of the human condition in their creative activity.

These five approaches to scholarship and creative activity are supported in multiple ways, including externally funded grants and contracts, internally funded research grants, release time from teaching, or a standard course-load requirement that assumes a substantial portion of the time not spent teaching or performing other campus responsibilities will be spent on scholarly or other creative endeavors.

A central question is how time and other institutional resources allocated fulfill the campus mission for undergraduate and graduate student learning as well as for continuing education participants. This includes student retention, graduation, and preparation for careers and graduate school.  If there is a lack of alignment between the mission, the use of resources, and the results, the funding should be questioned.  Internally funded research should support faculty professional development for teaching as well as student learning and success. 

Faculty scholarship and creative activity are important not only for professional development and the advancement of knowledge and understanding but because an important institutional mission is to help students learn scientific method, critical analysis, and the varied modes of exploration for their own development. Through research and creative activity with faculty, students can learn not only how to solve problems but also how to identify which problems to solve. They can be better prepared for life, careers, and continued learning, no matter what their field of study.

The connection between externally funded research and graduate student development is often strong, but too much time on an advisor’s project can delay a student’s completion of his or her degree. Also, a too-heavy emphasis on institutional prestige (like a focus on faculty publications) can compete against prioritizing undergraduate and graduate education. Therefore, internally funded research should be connected to student development and success in addition to faculty professional development and advancement.  

Many institutional strategic plans prioritize campus recognition for faculty and students’ intellectual and creative activity. One institution explained it this way:

“In today‚Äôs increasingly competitive global economy, undergraduate and graduate students seek programs characterized by academic rigor and innovation that give them a competitive edge.¬†¬†Over the last decade, our campus has strengthened its academic programs and curriculum. In the next five years, we will identify a spectrum of undergraduate and graduate programs that will be celebrated, recognized, and sought after for their quality and relevance. They will demonstrate our commitment to leadership and ethics in thought and action.¬†¬†To accomplish this, the board of trustees is prepared to invest in faculty research and creative activity and create new models of collaborative and interdisciplinary education and program delivery.”

Institutions can evaluate their progress in fulfilling this goal through a variety of metrics, including grants, contracts, and indirect cost recovery received; annual reviews of deans and faculty members; faculty publications and other contributions to their profession and field; program review self-studies; and the reports of external reviewers and accrediting bodies.

Campus leaders encourage faculty to be active as scholars, artists, and practitioners because it supports enriched teaching and creates additional opportunities for student learning and development.  They acknowledge faculty success in these endeavors through individual recognition in reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions; annual exhibits and celebrations; academic unit newsletters; and institutional publications, among other means.

Student scholarship and creative activity is promoted in a variety of ways, including joint publications; presentations at professional conferences; and Annual Research Programs on campus that display and recognize student research and artistic results sponsored by faculty.  Every academic unit can be represented.

Some people criticize research in higher education as arcane, self-serving, and of limited value. They refer to it as ‚Äúpublish or perish,‚ÄĚ useful only to promotion in rank.¬†¬†Some of it is.¬†¬†But if it enhances and fulfills the campus mission for teaching and learning for both students and faculty; contributes to our knowledge and understanding of the human condition, the world in which we live, and the earth which sustains life; promotes critical discourse; is critiqued and improved by disinterested evaluators; and enhances student knowledge, skills, abilities and values, then it is a valuable contribution to higher education and to society.


[1] Boyer, Ernest, Scholarship Reconsidered. Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990.

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