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Implementing an Undergraduate Research Program, Part I: Dealing with Institutional Culture

Curriculum Planning and Development

Implementing an Undergraduate Research Program, Part I: Dealing with Institutional Culture

A group of students performs lab work.

As the American public has increasingly acknowledged the necessity of a college degree, the number of high school graduates seeking higher education has increased. This means that many of our colleges and universities have been admitting more and more students they would not have considered for admission in the past. To respond to the special needs of these students, who are increasingly likely to be first-generation students or from underrepresented groups, faculty and administrators have designed and implemented a number of programs or experiences, including first-year seminars, learning communities, service learning, and undergraduate research. Such initiatives are geared to promote student engagement, first-year success, and the likelihood of graduation. Together, these programs have become known as high-impact practices (HIPs) (Association of American Colleges & Universities [AAC&U], n.d.; Hu et al., 2008).

The fact that undergraduate research has found its way into the HIPs category is a surprise to some in higher education reform. Not long ago, the R word was blamed for much of what was wrong with undergraduate education in the United States. Large research universities were portrayed as places where discovery research was the dominant theme (i.e., the primary criterion in faculty hiring, promotion and tenure decisions, and merit pay) and undergraduate instruction was something to be avoided. This resulted in research not being acknowledged in any meaningful way at conferences focused on undergraduate education reform. Research universities were not going to give up research, but they did take steps to improve the undergraduate experience. At the same time, reformists came to realize that undergraduates had much to gain by participating in research.

The purpose of this two-part article is to assist small public universities and liberal arts colleges, both of which call themselves teaching institutions, to formalize research programs for the primary benefit of undergraduate students. Many of these institutions already have elements of what I will suggest, while others have not yet started. I will use the word research in a broad, inclusive way that accounts for the scholarly work done by faculty in all disciplines. Thus, I will refer to the full concept as research/scholarship (R/S).

Implementing undergraduate research is a major change

While elements of R/S exist at every institution, adding a formal R/S dimension for undergraduates is not a simple, straightforward process. Adding R/S to the institutional portfolio will be a major change for these institutions, and we all know that change is difficult for the human element of all organizations. This discussion will cover three broad areas. The first (in Part I) will be institutional culture and will address the change topic just alluded to. The second will be policy and practice adjustments that will have to be considered, and the third will be the fiscal requirements to add research to the agenda (both in Part II).

Cultural considerations

While local culture can color many of the implementation aspects of adding undergraduate research to the student experience, the focus here is how the institution will react to the suggestion of adding R/S. Faculty do R/S at every institution, even those where it is not expected, acknowledged, or known. Most disciplines require a PhD for entry into the academy. Thus, it is not surprising that some faculty, even though they have chosen or accepted positions at institutions where research is not represented, still have the interest and drive to create new knowledge. These individuals collect geological specimens on their travels; write novels, poetry, and historical monographs; monitor the species found in their local environments; experiment with different materials for artistic displays; and spend summers in university laboratories, all with no institutional expectations. These are the faculty most likely to embrace R/S for their students.

There will be another contingent of mostly senior faculty who will oppose the addition. They will do so for several reasons. They will cite the way research universities have marginalized undergraduate teaching. Why taint what they do well with R/S? Other reasons are more personal in nature. They revolve around the loss of stature, competition for resources, and personal power. Finally, there is the fear of failure. At teaching institutions, classroom performance is primary and trumps everything else. Those with the best teaching are considered the best faculty. Bringing in R/S may appear to challenge that. As an assigned or expected type of faculty work, R/S would become eligible for merit pay consideration. This would result in fewer dollars for teaching, service, and other areas of faculty contribution. In addition, some elements of the power structure (e.g., the curriculum or promotion and tenure committee chair) might change as faculty who share a new agenda come aboard. If the primacy of teaching, the existing merit pay model, or control of key committees is seen as vulnerable to the R/S initiative, the result can be faculty resistance to the change.

While the impetus for adopting undergraduate research may come from faculty and upper administration, the real work of gaining buy-in from those who are reluctant, and of taking the responsibility for the actual nuts and bolts of putting together a coherent program of undergraduate research, will fall to department chairs. They know which faculty will likely resist and are in the best position to help them see value in the initiative. Resisters might be persuaded by knowing that  undergraduate research is accepted as an HIP and endorsed by national educational organizations such as the AAC&U. Another effective strategy might involve reviewing the basic skills that undergraduates are supposed to acquire while attending the institution and listing the ways that undergraduate research addresses them. For example, communication (writing and speaking), critical thinking, and quantitative analysis are universal expectations of general education that the research process reinforces. Furthermore, because it seeks answers to real unknowns, research supports creativity and innovation in the discovery process while providing a collaborative experience for students; creativity and collaboration are often goals of an undergraduate degree and are highly sought-after traits among employers. It might be appropriate to remind all parties that the move to include undergraduate research is for the students’ benefit.

Fear motivates resistance for some, and care needs to be taken to understand and combat it. Consider the following hypothetical example:

Doris Thornton, a 27-year veteran organic chemistry professor, is acknowledged as being a fine instructor. She has not continued her research since arriving on campus. She has absolutely no interest in reviving her research and is quite daunted by the prospect of having this expectation thrust upon her at this time. Privately she acknowledges that she fears failing to effectively direct student research projects and to generate appropriate ideas for projects.

There seems to be little value to anyone, including students, in asking Dr. Thornton to direct authentic student research in organic chemistry. But directing projects in chemical education, where she can formalize her teaching efforts, might interest her and she may have ideas about moving this concept forward. Recall that at the outset I stated that research would be broadly defined. Faculty with strong community connections could also develop research questions suitable for students under the umbrella of the scholarship of engagement. The point here is that all faculty with a bona fide academic interest can participate in R/S.

Seeing the connections to R/S for all faculty will require department chairs’ expertise and attention. They are familiar with the interests and accomplishments of their faculty and perhaps know what buttons to push in generating excitement for the new work. For example, in the case of Dr. Thornton, her chair knows that she has developed laboratory exercises that save up to 50 percent on materials costs while delivering on the chemical principles expected by the American Chemical Society (ACS); she has assessment data on some of the exercises to support the latter. The chair recognizes the potential for publishing the innovations in the Journal of Chemical Education as well as for the publication of a laboratory manual. The chair then approaches Dr. Thornton with this idea and the following offer: (1) to pay for her students to take a national test to evaluate the efficacy of her exercises; (2) to provide funds for her to attend appropriate meetings of the ACS, where she can present her innovations; and (3) to establish a fund of $7,000 from which she can purchase instruments and special materials to convert additionalorganic chemistry exercises into less costly versions. One assumes that Dr. Thornton’s fear of R/S would vanish and that she would have new enthusiasm for her work.


Association of American Colleges & Universities. (n.d.). High-impact educational practices. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/resources/high-impact-practices

Hu, S., Scheuch, K. Schwartz, R., Gayles, J. G., & Li, S. (2008). Reinventing undergraduate education: Engaging college students in research and creative activities. ASHE Higher Education Report, 33(4), 1–103.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Part II of this article will appear in the August issue of Academic Leader.


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