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Research Universities - Faculty and Students, Beyond Academics, The History of the Research University, Classifying and Ranking Research Universities

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Research universities are postsecondary institutions that devote a large portion of their mission, resources, and focus to graduate education and research. Currently, there are more than 250 of these institutions in the United States. Research universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and Michigan are often mentioned in the media due to their size, resources, status, and athletic teams. These are among the best-known, but there are many different kinds of research universities.

Research universities in the United States vary according to size, control, focus, selectivity, and the number of degree programs offered. They include public universities, such as the universities of Michigan and Virginia, and private universities, such as Duke University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). They range in size from very large universities such as the University of Minnesota, which has almost 60,000 students enrolled at three campuses, to small universities such as Rice University in Houston, which has fewer than 4,500 students. A few research universities are very focused in mission and offer degree programs in specialized areas, such as The Rockefeller University, which offers graduate programs, including a Ph.D., in biomedical sciences only. Others, like Michigan State University, offer a dizzying portfolio of under-graduate and graduate degrees across seventeen colleges and hundreds of undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Some research universities embrace open admissions policies, while others are very selective and admit less than 20 percent of those students that apply.

What all research universities have in common–and what makes them research universities–is an emphasis on graduate education and research. All research universities offer advanced degrees, up to and including the doctorate. Most research universities also enroll a sizeable number of undergraduates in a comprehensive set of bachelor's degree programs.

Faculty and Students

Research universities occupy a unique position within the United States higher education system. For example, unlike students enrolled at liberal arts colleges, undergraduate students attending research universities generally pursue a specialized curriculum with a very large number of requirements for the major and a smaller number of electives and general education requirements. Due to the large size of most research universities, students who attend these institutions are likely to have large lower-division classes, some of which may be taught by graduate students who serve as teaching assistants.

Faculty members at research universities are expected to devote a larger amount of their time to research than are faculty members at liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities, where the faculty's primary role is that of teacher rather than researcher. At research universities, faculty members are sometimes researchers first and teachers second, and are expected to publish articles and books and secure research grants from external sources.

While these qualities have provoked some criticism of research universities, they remain a very popular option for postsecondary students. As of 1998, for example, research universities enrolled more than one out of every five students attending a college or university in the United States. Research universities also attract a large percentage of the best and brightest students. Annually, research universities enroll the largest numbers of National Merit Scholars. These students are attracted to research universities because of their high-profile faculty members, the prestige associated with these institutions, and their resources, including state-of-the-art labs and technology.

Beyond Academics

The U.S. research university is much more than academics, however. The research university is a far-flung and complex organization with multiple campuses, extension centers, research centers and institutes, multiple campuses, student services and programming for diverse student groups, and often high-profile athletics teams. The Big Ten, Big 12, and PAC-10 athletic conferences consist entirely of research universities, for example. It is not unusual for research universities to establish their own research parks where private companies and the university engage in technology transfer and spin off new businesses. In the early twenty-first century, it is difficult to think of something in which research universities are not involved.

In this sense, Clark Kerr refers to the modern U.S. research university as a "multiversity" and a "community of communities" where the complexity and sheer number of goals the organization strives to achieve creates great specialization and multiple communities of actors who share little in common, except for the fact that they work for the university. Similarly, higher education researchers Michael Cohen and James March refer to research universities as "organized anarchies" where, at times, there appear to be no rules governing the organization, and no recognized leaders, only a sort of chaos that someone familiar with the research university can sort out.

The History of the Research University

The lineage of the U.S. research university can be traced to the great German and English universities and their respective forms and traditions. In fact, throughout most of the nineteenth century, there were no true research universities in the country. It was during the latter portion of the 1800s that several influential higher education leaders, including Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins University, William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago, and G. Stanley Hall of Clark University, established universities devoted to the primacy of research and specialized graduate education. These universities were modeled after the German traditions and structures found at Berlin and Heidelberg, including the graduate seminar and academic freedom (Lehrfreiheit). Before this time, earned Ph.D.s were largely unheard of in the United States. These leaders and their universities adopted the Germanic university form, and other universities followed. Soon after the founding of Johns Hopkins, Chicago, and Clark, universities that were founded during the colonial period were adopting and adapting the forms legitimated by Johns Hopkins and others.

Yet the U.S. research university also functions like an English university in many ways. For example, the research university in the United States almost always features a comprehensive undergraduate curriculum with a residential component that is more akin to Oxford and Cambridge than it is to Berlin. Similarly, student development and providing student services occupies a significant focus for U.S. research universities. This is a function of the fact that colonial colleges were organized according to an Oxbridge model, and their graduate education and research functions were superimposed on this existing organizational structure and culture.

Classifying and Ranking Research Universities

Given the variance in the characteristics of research universities, how can the different types of research universities be categorized? Traditionally, this has been accomplished by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching through its Classification of Institutions. Begun in 1973, and continuing throughout the classifications of 1976, 1987, 1994, and 2000, this scheme categorized all postsecondary institutions in the United Stations. As part of this larger classification, the Carnegie Foundation placed research universities in one of two categories, Research Universities I and Research Universities II, prior to the 2000 classification. Research universities were placed within these two categories depending upon the number of doctorate degrees they awarded and the amount of federal research funding they received. For the 2000 classification, these categories were expanded and renamed Doctoral/Research Universities–Extensive and Doctoral/Research Universities–Intensive, respectively. According to this classification, there are 261 research universities in the United States.

There are other recognized ways of determining what a research university is, and which are of the highest quality. There are organizations such as the Association of American Universities, a prestigious, invitation-only group of sixty-one American and two Canadian universities, all of which are high-quality research universities. Historically, organizations such as the National Research Council have also worked to qualitatively and quantitatively describe the relative quality of research universities and their various academic departments. Most recently, magazines such as U.S. News and World Report have introduced very popular rankings of postsecondary institutions, including research universities. These rankings are quite controversial, however, because of the great weight they place on inputs and reputation, and because they attempt to rank what is arguably a very diverse set of colleges and universities.


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