In 2014, under then-President Bill Destler, RIT released its 2015–2025 strategic plan, titled “Greatness Through Difference.” This plan focused on five dimensions of RIT for improvement, investment and reshaping over the coming decade: Career Education and Student Success, the Student-Centered Research University, Leveraging Difference, Affordability, Value and Return on Investment and Organizational Agility.

“Yes, the plan is ambitious, even audacious,” Destler told RIT University News. “But it is very achievable.”

When David Munson was named the president of RIT in 2017, he praised this plan and named several areas at RIT where he planned to make improvements.

“To be sure, there is still much work to be done at RIT in program development, recruitment of top-notch faculty and students, planning of facilities and fundraising,” President Munson said at the announcement of his selection as president.

Since then, President Munson has revised the “Greatness Through Difference” plan to narrow its focus.

“We initially reduced the number of goals from 121 to 44 to provide more focus and clarity,” Munson said at his address to the RIT community on Aug. 24, 2018 . “We are now expecting to further reduce the number of goals, by eliminating those that already have been accomplished and combining others.”

Munson’s revised strategic plan whittles Destler’s five dimensions down to four broader and more alliterative areas: People, Programs, Places and Partnerships. The original and revised plans are largely in accordance with each other.

“The revised plan contains goals reflecting our collective strategic vision while preserving critical dimensions of President Destler’s 2015 plan — including student success and diversity,” Munson said.

One goal that both President Munson and President Destler seem to find particularly important is establishing RIT as a prominent research university.

The Win-Win-Win-Win Situation

Santosh Kurinec, a professor of Electrical and Microelectronic Engineering, agrees with the importance of research at RIT.

“[Enhancing RIT’s reputation would] attract high-quality faculty and high-quality students,” she said.

In fact, RIT’s increasing focus on research has already improved its reputation. An increase in research and the number of Ph.D. graduates has been cited as the reason for RIT ranking among the top 100 universities in the nation according to the 2018 U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges Rankings.

Furthermore, an increase in RIT’s reputation as a research university is likely to increase the amount of research funding it earns. Reputation, for better or worse, is a huge factor in the amount of funding an institution receives. According to research from the University of Arkansas, prestigious, big-name institutions such as Johns Hopkins University or Harvard Medical School tend to be awarded more research funding. This can create a self-perpetuating cycle; a better research reputation increases RIT’s funding, which allows us to conduct more research, which continues to increase our reputation. 2018 has already been a banner year in terms of research funding, thanks to the record $78 million that RIT has been awarded. To put that in more relatable terms: $78 million is approximately 1,375 years of tuition and cost-of-living expenses for an RIT undergraduate student living on campus.

At every step, the members of RIT’s administration are careful to emphasize that RIT’s strategic plan for research is focused on students — RIT is a “student-centered research university,” as Destler’s strategic plan puts it. No one is saying that RIT should become a “research mill” or a “Ph.D. factory” where the quality of the education that the university provides declines in favor of boosting the school’s research productivity. Instead, focus is placed squarely on the positives of research as a component of education.

“Participation on research teams enhances critical and creative thinking, collaboration and cross-disciplinary competencies,” Destler’s strategic plan reads. Kurinec, too, believes that integrating research with teaching is beneficial for both students and their professors. In fact, it’s a crucial part of her teaching philosophy.

The skills that students — undergraduate and graduate alike — can obtain by participating in a research program are invaluable. According to a 2008 study from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., a good undergraduate research program creates a win-win-win-win situation: students benefit, faculty benefits, the university benefits and the scientific community at large benefits.

Stretched Thin

However, a university’s hyper-focus on research can stretch faculty members thin. A study of Boise State University found that faculty members are only able to devote approximately 24.5 hours a week on their teaching responsibilities; the rest of their time is spent on administrative tasks, meetings and research. As a result, these faculty members work long hours to keep up, working approximately 54.4 hours a week. Faculty members at other institutions report working 60 hours a week, or even more. Kurinec suggested these findings agree with her personal experience.

“We work hard,” she said of herself and of her colleagues. “It’s not a typical 9-to-5 job.”

Kurinec noted that she and her colleagues are motivated by their genuine passion for their careers and for the subject matter they teach. Passion can make professors successful and well-loved by their students, but even the most passionate professors only have so much time to devote to their work.

Passion can make professors successful and well-loved by their students, but even the most passionate professors only have so much time to devote to their work.

In an article written by Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist for Inside Higher Ed, one anonymous faculty member at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst expressed their frustration with the difficulty of balancing teaching and research.

“Something else that probably cuts into my research time is my unproductive habit of actually preparing for my classes and giving students feedback on their work,” they said. “It’s totally self-harming behavior because then you just end up with more students who expect you to teach well.”

Not only are students’ academic careers hurt by lack of feedback and professor unavailability, but professors can find their own mental health harmed by their stressful careers. This can lead to professors being even more unavailable and unable to provide useful feedback to their students.

Professors and faculty members who are overwhelmed may find teaching to be the easiest of their responsibilities to cut back on. Student evaluations are a large part of how faculty performance is evaluated, and students tend to rate their professors based on the grades they expect to receive. Therefore, the easiest way for a faculty member to get good evaluations from their students is to hand out A's like candy. This results in tenured professors who can’t actually teach and happy students who haven’t actually learned anything. 

In fact, the incentive for professors to coast on good student evaluations has been pointed to as one cause for a decline in academic rigor that has been seen nationwide in colleges over the past few decades. Addressing this issue would likely require a huge culture change in academia — but ensuring professors aren’t too stretched thin and overwhelmed by their research to teach effectively could be a step in the right direction.

The Complexities of Cash

RIT’s increased focus on research also comes with a great deal of complicated economic considerations. Does conducting research make money for a school? It turns out that can be a difficult question to answer.

For a faculty member, the first step in beginning a research project is to secure funding through grants or industry partnerships. The complexities of winning research funding are so tangled and fraught that they have had lasting effects on academia and on the entire field of scientific research.

Securing funding is both crucial to any type of research and difficult to pull off. Because of this, researchers are often forced to choose between grant money and good science. In the pursuit of scientific knowledge about the world around us, the results of a study that failed to support the study’s hypothesis are just as valuable to the scientific community as the results of a successful study. But a researcher with a series of failed studies on their resume is far less likely to secure grant funding in the future, so they may be tempted to misrepresent the results of their study in their own best interest or in the best interest of their university.

Together, funding from industry organizations and private donations make up 23 percent of private research universities’ revenue. Industry funding can also be fraught because it often causes conflicts of interests to arise. The most glaring examples can be found in nutritional studies funded by the food industry or drug trials funded by the pharmaceutical industry — but researchers in any field can find themselves beholden to the private money that their careers rely on.

"There's a lot of potential for conflicts of interest," said Ryne Raffaelle, vice president for research and associate provost at RIT. "But most of the things that we do, we can still do. It's just that they have to be managed appropriately."

Both public and private grants typically cover all the direct costs of research — for example, the purchase of lab equipment or the hiring of research assistants. But what about the indirect costs of research — for example, the electricity that runs the lab equipment and keeps the lights on in the research assistant’s office? Despite the fact that federal grants often take into account these overhead costs, many argue that universities actually lose money on research due to this high overhead.

Research does bring in money too. As President Munson has emphasized, a focus on research will indirectly increase RIT’s revenue by boosting RIT’s reputation and attracting more potential students. Research can bring in money directly as well, by bringing in royalties from patents or revenue from stake in student-run startups. This money can be a sizable chunk — American universities earned $2.6 billion in total from royalties in 2012 — but only for a small minority of universities that have gotten lucky with blockbuster patents. Basically, research sucks up a lot of money without much return.

“Best case scenario, it’s going to be break even,” Raffaelle said. “What you don’t account for when you just look at an individual grant ... the fact that you did that work — some student got a very valuable educational experience. Did you account for that? They may have parlayed that [research experience] into a wonderful job and got a higher starting salary — well, did we account for that? So, your little grant there may have broke even, but the results of it may have attracted a hundred new students to want to come here.”

However, all of that spending has to be justified somehow: as research into the economics of higher education has shown, an increase in research spending is usually accompanied by an increase in tuition.

There are two big uncertainties in President Munson’s strategic plan on research at RIT: will tuition go up, and by how much? And will it be worth it? 

There are two big uncertainties in President Munson’s strategic plan on research at RIT: will tuition go up, and by how much? And will it be worth it? 

Will it be Worth It?

Of course, change can be good. An increasing emphasis on research may bring a lot of positives to RIT — prestige, more research opportunities for students, high-quality faculty — but also comes with pitfalls and complications. How will it be guaranteed that RIT will continue to provide a rigorous and competitive education to its students, even when faculty may be distracted or overwhelmed by their increased research responsibilities? How will it be guaranteed that RIT will remain affordable and valuable to its students? How will RIT remain committed to diversity when underrepresented groups are unable to cover tuition increases?

In short, will the tuition increases that are likely to accompany the increased research spending be worth it? Answering this question only leads down a rabbit hole of more questions about the value of higher education in a world of skyrocketing tuition. In the end, only time will tell.