With more than $1.1 billion spent on research last year, the University is a major competitor in the global research community.
It’s viewed not only as an economic driver in the state of Michigan, but leaders throughout the country and the globe look to Ann Arbor to help solve real issues affecting our world today. From legislators in Washington to executives on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, the University of Michigan is regarded as one of the world’s foremost research universities.
And now, at a time when advances in technology are occurring more rapidly than ever before and with frequent scientific breakthroughs, institutions like the University are being thrust into the spotlight as sources of knowledge and agents of change that can help address the problems we face today and the issues of tomorrow.
It’s a tall order since many individuals believe the primary responsibility of universities needs to be educating students. However, it’s something that top officials at the University of Michigan say they hope to expand and build on as they rethink the way faculty and students come together to learn and research.
A HISTORICAL TRANSFORMATION
Though industry leaders and elected officials alike look to the University for answers, the role of research universities hasn’t always been placed so prominently in working to solve the issues of our era.
In fact, as Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, said it wasn’t until several decades ago that people outside academia even viewed universities as a source of creating knowledge.
“Traditionally, probably up to about 40 maybe 30 years ago even, universities were regarded as places that stored knowledge … sort of like a library,” Forrest explained in an interview earlier this month. “And then a transformation started to occur.”
With the transformation came a new view of what role research universities could play in society — shifting to a system in which universities could draw students and faculty together through research to both teach and help combat serious world issues.
“It really took root as time went on that universities were places that weren’t just repositories of knowledge, but were places where new knowledge was built primarily,” Forrest said. “And they’ve really taken that role in our society as the primary location where new knowledge is generated.”
However, the change has led some to criticize faculty at major research universities for caring more about their research than about teaching students. Many students on college campuses have grumbled at least once to a friend about how one of their professors doesn’t care about teaching, but instead only wants to focus on his or her research.
And while such criticism may indeed have its place with choice faculty members, three of the University’s top officials took a very different stance.
University President Mary Sue Coleman, Provost Philip Hanlon and Forrest told The Michigan Daily in a series of interviews over the past month that faculty research is fundamental to quality student education.
BALANCING TEACHING AND RESEARCH
In a meeting last month in her second-floor office suite in the Fleming Administration Building, Coleman made it clear that she believes research and teaching go hand in hand.
“A lot of people think about it in two separate boxes, I don’t,” Coleman said, responding to a question about the “proper” balance of teaching and research at the University.
“What I think about is that if you’re able to expose students to the cutting edge and you’re able to learn from somebody who’s actually doing the work, that you get a richer experience than if you don’t.”
This is a view shared by other top leaders at the University like Hanlon, who said the University’s core missions of teaching, research, patient care and service are all intertwined.
But it’s Forrest who perhaps articulates the administration’s position best.
“From an educational point of view, I think the research enterprise is absolutely inextricably linked with the educational mission because to really learn things, you have to learn things at the forefront.”
Forrest continued by explaining that today’s college students are seeing changes in entire generations of technology while in school. With such rapid changes, he said, it’s necessary to learn directly from the people making those changes to stay up to date when learning.
“What you really want to be doing is learning from people who are part of that revolution and become part of that revolution while you’re an undergraduate student and certainly as a graduate student,” Forrest said.
And for Forrest, learning in a laboratory is much more effective than reading a book.
A graduate of the University of California-Berkley, Forrest took a few years off before enrolling at the University of Michigan for his graduate studies. Forrest claims he forgot nearly everything he learned in his undergraduate studies because he didn’t have any hands on experiences with the material.
“I actually went through all of my undergraduate education without a research experience in a laboratory where you’re seeking new knowledge,” Forrest said.
It wasn’t until he came to the University for his graduate studies that he was able to work in a lab and apply his learning to real world issues — something he says made the material stick with him.
“I was amazed at how I had virtually forgotten everything that I had learned as a physics student when I came to the University of Michigan,” Forrest recalled. “It was only when I was here as a graduate student, where I paired the book to the knowledge that I was generating in the laboratory, that it stuck.”
RETHINKING HOW RESEARCH IS DONE
But setting up cookie-cutter laboratory practicums for students isn’t enough to compete in today’s education and research worlds. Coleman, Hanlon and Forrest all say there is more work that the University can do to continue driving the success of the University’s research enterprise, which helps to also drive its academic mission.
With that in mind, University administrators have been working to leverage the breadth and depth of the expertise of faculty at the University in clustered research areas like health care services and functional, molecular and structural imaging.
With ongoing efforts in Washington and across the country to understand what lawmakers want, University officials work to make sure that research being done at the University is on track with regional, national and international priorities.
Doing so helps ensure that researchers at the University can net funding for their projects.
And with an overall research budget that has almost doubled in the past decade, the work seems to be paying off.
But in today’s tough economic times — the State Senate Fiscal Agency projected last month that the state will face a $1.85 billion deficit in the next fiscal year — it’s more important than ever that University researchers and administrators do everything they can to stay ahead of the curve.
“The last couple of years have really changed everything in the country, and I think everything requires some rethinking as the state and federal governments grapple with what appears to be really daunting budget challenges,” Hanlon said last month. “It’s a time to rethink everything.”
One way top officials at the University are doing this is to restructure the way research is conducted.
Instead of taking a more traditional approach and having faculty members work in small laboratories where they focus on a single aspect of something they’re interested in, many researchers at the University are now taking a more interdisciplinary approach by teaming up with groups of faculty members from different disciplines across campus to attack a problem from its core.
And though strength may come in numbers, it’s still a massive undertaking — not only to solve the large real world problems being tackled, but also to coordinate the number of researchers working on different aspects of the issue and to get faculty to buy in.
“We have historically had a sort of bottom up approach to the problems we solve and the impacts we have. That’s great, it allows all the faculty members to be entrepreneurs and figure out what it is they’re most interested in,” Hanlon said. “But what it means is that, as a university, you don’t take on in an organized way some really big problems.
“I think it would be really neat if we as a university could be coordinated and organized around some really, really big problems in a sort of deliberate way,” Hanlon added. “It’s not that we don’t end up looking at important problems, we absolutely do, but we don’t try to organize that effort.”
A DIFFERENT BLUEPRINT
Effectively urging researchers to move away from the current model of research and instead move to a model where individual research efforts are clustered around one or two major real world problems isn’t easy.
Despite this, it’s something that Coleman says the University is better positioned to do than most other universities. And Forrest says it’s something the University must do.
“If we’re going to remain an effective university — and of course we will — then we really have to take leadership in this and not just be sort of passive learners about how more advanced universities do this,” Forrest said.
“We have to show the way.”
And while the University may be on the forefront of rethinking the traditional research model, Coleman, Hanlon and Forrest all stressed that making such a move requires endorsement from faculty members and that a change would not be pushed from the central administration.
Hanlon stressed that it’s not the administration’s place to dictate research topics.
“We obviously can’t tell people they have to go work on this problem,” he said.
Coleman also emphasized that she doesn’t want the administration to centralize research by trying to mandate what research faculty members should do, though she added clustering research could be beneficial to all University parties.
“We never want to be in a position where we are dictating to the faculty,” Coleman said, “but this is an opportunity that we shouldn’t ignore.”
Hanlon doesn’t think the University should ignore the opportunity either.
“What we can do — what we could hope to do — is significantly increase the resources to the University from external people who understand the importance of solving these problems and then saying to our faculty and stuents, ‘Look, we have funding to support your work on this problem, and it’s a really important problem and here’s why,’ ” Hanlon explained.
“And if you say that, you’ll actually get a lot of interest,” he added. “I mean, everyone wants to have an impact on the world. And so I’m kind of hopeful that if we can get the external sources to support the work, it’s not going to be that hard to get an interested group of experts.”
But no matter how successful the buy in is, Coleman doesn’t think clustering research will happen for all disciplines or for all faculty members — that’s not the goal.
“I can see that happening in certain select areas,” Coleman said. “but it won’t happen in every area.”
However, with the anticipated financial incentive of being able to leverage the breadth and depth of the University’s faculty to attract more research dollars to the University, it’s something Coleman thinks could help the University.
“There may be some real opportunities out there, and as we hear what the various agencies in Washington are interested in and how they are thinking about the needs of the government to really do research in these areas, then we want to make sure that we’re tuned in,” she said. “If we can bring back those ideas to the campus, and if there’s interest, then when can help. We can be the convening support to help people get together.”
THE GREAT LAKES
Building clusters of research at the University has already begun. Currently, there is an effort to encourage faculty members to focus research on sustainability. It’s a broad effort on an even broader topic, but there are several concrete efforts within the cluster. One such initiative is revitalizing the Great Lakes.
Researchers at the University like Allen Burton, director of the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research and a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, have already seen federal funding to back this effort.
In addition to numerous other grants received by researchers at the University, Burton was one of seven principal investigators who received a $835,000 federal grant that is helping researchers to develop better methods of detection for bacteria and algal blooms in the Great Lakes — both of which have numerous harmful effects.
The research is just one of many efforts underway to figure out how to revitalize the Great Lakes — a problem that requires several different research fields to tackle effectively.
The diversity of researchers’ expertise is something Hanlon calls essential.
“In (this) example, there were approximately 10 technical problems that, if they could be solved, would really have a big impact in magnifying the effect of all the investment that’s being made by the federal government and the state,” Hanlon said of the Great Lakes research.
“Some of these are biological problems like the biology of Ecoli, some of them are policy problems, some are economic problems,” he continued. “They’re intertwined problems. They aren’t sort of sitting by themselves.”
But for as far as the work on the Great Lakes has come — with funding already rolling in from the federal government and a private donor interested in the project — Hanlon seems to want more.
“Right now, I’m sure we have researchers that are looking at Ecoli just on their own, but what we haven’t tried to do is sort of simultaneously address these problems which are interrelated problems and often problems that can’t be solved with a single area of expertise,” Hanlon said.
Coleman agrees, saying she has confidence that the clustered research method can be well utilized in the work being done around sustainability and the Great Lakes.
“I think that one of the opportunities that we have at Michigan, because we are so big and we do research in so many areas, is that we have the opportunity to tackle some really big problems, and the Great Lakes is a big problem,” she said. “I have every confidence that (our researchers) can make great strides to solving some of the pollution issues and the threats to the Great Lakes.”
Forrest agrees with Coleman’s assertion.
“Obviously a pressing issue in today’s world, making the footprint left by humans less noticeable is one issue researchers at the University — in nearly all disciplines — are working toward,” Forrest said.
However, Forrest counters his support with a caveat that at the end of the day, the faculty will determine what results materialize.
“Really good scholars who are able to communicate their scholarship at all levels, are really the prize of research universities,” he said. “By those people learning and doing and teaching simultaneously, the students get engaged in this and, when they leave, they have not a static concept of the world, but a living concept of the world.”