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Faculty Performance of Research and Scholarship

Historical Background, Factors Affecting Scholarly Performance, Defining Scholarship, Measurement, Scholarly Activities and Products

The scholarly performance of faculty is of interest to many groups, including the general public; university faculty, students, and administrators; makers of public policy; and higher-education scholars. A brief history of how the emphasis on research has emerged within American higher education can help one to understand the factors that have intensified pressures on faculty to publish. An appreciation for the nature of scholarship in several fields of study, institutional variations in the priority given to research, and faculty characteristics that can affect their work provides insights into the complexity of defining and documenting scholarly performance and drawing generalizations about professors as a single group.

Historical Background

The colonial colleges in America were established to prepare citizens to become religious and civic leaders. Faculty members were selected for their religious commitment, not their scholarly accomplishments, and they were held responsible for the civic, moral, and intellectual development of their students.

However, by the mid-nineteenth century, a discernable emphasis on scholarship could be found in American colleges and universities. A research tradition was emerging in Germany that emphasized scientific rationality and the pursuit of knowledge through experimentation. Growing numbers of American faculty completed their doctoral studies in Germany and sought to replicate these learning environments at home. Established private universities such as Yale and Princeton began to offer programs of study leading to the Ph.D. degree and, in 1876, Johns Hopkins University, a prototype of the modern American research university, was founded. By the late nineteenth century, the University of Chicago had implemented a formal system of faculty review in which research productivity was the primary criterion for promotion in rank and salary. At the same time, the missions of public land-grant institutions were expanding to include service to their states through the application of faculty research to local problems. The idea was that scholarship has utilitarian value, and that research findings could be used to improve production (e.g., agricultural, manufacturing) and the well-being of citizens.

In the twentieth century, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II, the contributions of academic scholars to government efforts and to scientific advancement were widely recognized. The status of professors as an occupational group was enhanced as the value of their expertise, built through research, was publicly acknowledged. Increasing numbers of doctorally prepared scholars moved from research universities to faculty posts on other types of campuses carrying with them a desire to recreate the intellectual climates in which they had studied. Federal monies to support faculty research grew, as did the number of academic presses, disciplinary associations, and professional journals that provided avenues for the dissemination of knowledge. In one decade alone, 1978–1988, more than 29,000 new scientific journals were launched.

By the mid-twentieth century, faculty in general–not just at research universities–understood that they were evaluated primarily as researchers, even though they were hired to teach. At the end of the twentieth century, the issue for many faculty was how to both keep up with and contribute to the ever-expanding body of knowledge in their fields.

Factors Affecting Scholarly Performance

Although the knowledge explosion has occurred across all subject-matter areas, it is a mistake to assume that the amount of time given to research and the volume of scholarly contributions are uniform across college and university professors. Faculty work is influenced by the cultures of both their institutions and the scholarly fields in which they work. Differences in the norms and rewards lead to variations in scholarly performance.

Institutional cultures serve to bring together people who work in diverse fields around a shared understanding of how they ought to behave as faculty members. One widely used taxonomy of colleges, the Carnegie Classification system, highlights some key differences among campuses, dividing them into several types based on the degrees offered, the comprehensiveness of their mission, and the level of federal support for research achieved by their faculty. Research universities offer baccalaureate and graduate degrees and place a high priority on faculty scholarship. They have the highest level of federal funding for research and award the largest number of doctoral degrees. Doctorate-granting universities share with the research universities a commitment to graduate education, but award fewer doctoral degrees and have fewer research grants. Comprehensive universities and colleges prepare students at the baccalaureate and master's degree levels and tend to emphasize undergraduate education. Liberal arts colleges focus primarily, if not exclusively, on under-graduate education. Two-year community, junior, and technical colleges emphasize instruction and typically offer certificates and associate of arts degrees. The responsibilities and expectations for faculty research, teaching, and service vary across these institutional contexts and in relation to campus priorities.

Disciplinary cultures link people on different campuses who work in the same field through a shared understanding of what constitutes knowledge and how it ought to be communicated. Consider the scholarly lives of chemists and English literature specialists and some key distinctions become clear. Each group has distinctly different sets of research issues on which they focus, as well as assumptions about what constitutes evidence and appropriate methods for collecting and analyzing data. Ultimately, the forms in which they communicate their findings vary–one group employs numeric representations and figures, the other uses words. Whereas teamwork is common among chemists, solitary scholarship is more the prototype in English literature. Funding for chemistry research typically exceeds that available for literary studies. Factors such as these greatly affect the time and resources available for scholarship and, together with the ways knowledge is customarily reported, affect the rates of publication within a given time period. Teams of chemists simultaneously produce and publish several journal articles, each with multiple authors, while English literature specialists are typically sole authors, more often of books than articles.

Individual characteristics, in addition to the normative pressures exerted by institutions and fields, also affect scholarly performance. Part-time faculty have less time and resources for research than full-time professors, doctorally prepared faculty are more likely to engage in research, individuals with stronger research interests give more time to their scholarship, and professors nearing promotion decisions tend to increase their publication productivity. Tenure often allows faculty more freedom in how they divide their time among teaching, research, and service, resulting in scholarly performance differences within institutions and fields.

Defining Scholarship

Of course, the preceding discussion begs the question of what scholarship is–by assuming it is inquiries that result in publications. Several writers believe that this perspective is shortsighted and argue for a more expansive definition. In his seminal work, Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), Ernest Boyer differentiates among four types of faculty scholarship: (1) discovery, consisting of original studies and creative works (e.g., discovering a new planet, composing a symphony); (2) integration, consisting of interdisciplinary inquiries, synthetic writing that connects information from multiple sources, and interpretive work that critiques existing research and suggests alternative explanations; (3) application, consisting of creative uses of theoretical knowledge to solve problems (e.g., applications of genetic research in the design of medical treatments); and (4) teaching, which is what research faculty do to instruct their classes, as well as inquiries into the effectiveness of their instruction. From Boyer's perspective, scholarship culminates in many products, including original ideas, works of art, critiques of other scholars' ideas, books and conference papers, solutions to practical problems developed through the application of abstract theories and principles to real life situations, new computer hardware and programs, and innovative teaching.


Various organizations, as well as individual researchers, gather information about faculty. Government offices, such as the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Department of Education, collect data to monitor the demographic characteristics (e.g., professorial ranks, race, income) and activities (e.g., distribution of effort to different professional activities) of faculty in the United States. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the American Council on Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, gather similar data, but also conduct international surveys of faculty for comparative purposes. Colleges and universities collect faculty information on a regular basis for annual reports to their governing boards and for decision making (e.g., merit salary increases). Individual investigators conduct studies to answer theoretical and practical questions of interest to their academic communities. Most often, these studies involve faculty self-reports of their activities and publications. Critics note the subjective nature of such estimates, but comparisons of professors' estimates with other independent measures of their workloads and publication rates have found the self-reports to be reliable.

Scholarly Activities and Products

Given that professors' fields, institutional affiliations, and individual attributes can affect their work, writers must exercise caution when generalizing about the American professoriate as a single group. Furthermore, answers to questions such as who is conducting research, or whether faculty scholarship has positive or negative effects on their teaching, depend on how one defines scholarship. With these caveats in mind, national data on the distribution of faculty across institutional types and fields of study are presented along with findings regarding their scholarship.

In 1992 about 4,000 institutions employed approximately 528,000 full-time faculty in the United States. They were distributed as follows: 26 percent were in research universities, 15 percent in doctoral universities, 25 percent in comprehensive universities, 7 percent in liberal arts colleges, and 21 percent in two-year colleges. In the same year, these institutions employed about 340,000 part-time faculty, the greatest percentages of which were found in two-year colleges (44.2%) and comprehensive universities (22%), with the smallest percentage in liberal arts colleges (6%). The proportion of full-time faculty with doctorates ranged from about 71 percent in the research universities to about 16 percent in the two-year colleges. The distribution is skewed so that in the early twenty-first century, as in the past, greater proportions of faculty employed in research universities have completed programs of graduate study designed to prepare them as specialized scholars.

In the research, doctoral, and comprehensive universities, the greatest proportion of full time faculty held the rank of professor (between 30 and 40%) whereas in the liberal arts colleges the percentages were quite evenly distributed across the ranks of professor, associate professor, and assistant professor (between 25 and 29% in each category). Research universities had the largest group of tenured faculty (about 60%) and two-year colleges had the smallest (about 31%). Around half the faculty in the other institutional types were tenured. Nationally, the largest group of full-time faculty was in the natural sciences (19.5%), followed by health (15.3%), humanities (14.2%) and social sciences (11.2%).

Existing studies of scholarly productivity do not provide data on some forms of scholarship identified by Boyer. However, there are data regarding the pressures on faculty to do research–and on how they respond in terms of time given to scholarship and teaching, the number of courses taught, and publications written.

Studies of professors consistently show that, regardless of field, faculty in research universities experience more pressure to conduct research and publish than their counterparts in other types of institutions. Given their graduate preparation, it is not surprising that faculty in these universities also report the most interest in doing research and the greatest sense of competence as researchers.

However, writers have noted a tendency within all institutions, beginning in the 1970s, to increase the emphasis on faculty scholarship in both recruitment and promotion practices. This phenomenon is taken to be a reflection of the importance accorded faculty research in national rankings of universities and colleges. Administrators know that the stature of their faculty as scholars significantly affects the reputations of their campuses. Faculty, too, understand that their tenure and mobility within the faculty labor market is affected by their scholarly accomplishments. Hence, the overall trend has been a heightened emphasis of scholarship, and there has been a burgeoning of publications across campuses and subject-matter areas. In one year (1989–1990) 300,000 monographs, books, and chapters and a million journal articles were published.

Generally, studies show that faculty in research universities give the most time to research, and faculty in liberal arts and two-year colleges devote the most time to teaching. In 1992 faculty reported an average of fifty-three hours worked per week, with individuals in research universities reporting the highest average (about fifty-seven hours) and two-year colleges the lowest (about forty-seven hours). Faculty in the research universities allocated the greatest portion of this time to research (about 34%), with doctoral and comprehensive universities following in rank order with about 22 percent and 13 percent, respectively. The percentage of time given to teaching was highest in two-year colleges and liberal arts colleges (69% and 64%, respectively), and lowest in research universities (about 38%). Faculty in research universities and doctoral universities, on average, taught two to three courses per year, whereas their counterparts in comprehensive universities and liberal arts colleges typically taught three and four courses, respectively.

Another finding that seems to hold across studies of faculty in all but the two-year colleges is that faculty in the natural sciences (e.g., chemistry, biology, physics) report the greatest portion of their time is given to research, with faculty in the health sciences (e.g., medicine, biochemistry), social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology), and humanities (e.g., history, languages) following in rank order. The trend is different when one focuses on teaching. Humanities professors give the most time, followed by those in the social sciences, natural sciences, and health sciences.

When the measure of scholarly performance is the number of books, articles, chapters, monographs, and other written products produced within a set time period (e.g., a year) or over the professional life of a faculty member, research university professors consistently publish more than their counterparts in other types of institutions. Similar comparisons across fields of study show that faculty in the natural sciences report the greatest number of publications per year and over their careers. To illustrate the volume produced, consider that, in 1988, faculty in research universities reported they had each authored about thirty-nine publications over their careers, while professors in doctoral universities authored about twenty-four. Faculty in comprehensive universities and liberal arts colleges, however, had written about twelve and nine publications, respectively. Data for the same year showed that professors in the natural sciences averaged thirty-five publications over their careers, compared with thirty among health scientists, twenty-five among social scientists, and twenty-one among humanities professors.

Questions abound regarding what motivates faculty to do research, teach, and provide service–and empirical studies provide multiple answers. Researchers continue to grapple with questions about how to measure scholarly performance (particularly the outcomes suggested by Boyer) and how to assess the quality of faculty research. Nonetheless, the results of more than forty years of research on faculty consistently document that professors in research universities experience the most pressure to be engaged in research, give more time to their scholarship, and publish most often. Furthermore, natural science faculty tend to write more publications over their careers than their counterparts in other fields. Finally, individuals vary in their research interests, scholarly competence, and tenure status, and these differences contribute to disparities in the scholarly performance of faculty within the same institution and/or within the same field.


BLACKBURN, ROBERT T., and LAWRENCE, JANET H. 1995. Faculty at Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

BOYER, ERNEST L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

CARNEGIE FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TEACHING. 1987. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, revised edition. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

CLARK, BURTON R. 1987. The Academic Life: Small Worlds, Different Worlds. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

FAIRWEATHER, JAMES S. 1996. Faculty Work and Public Trust. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATIONAL STATISTICS. 2001. Digest of Educational Statistics, 2000. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.


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