The Research Dimension of Higher Education

Posted on December 27, 2020


 As we enter a new year and chase out the tens of thousands Chinese spies inhabiting the halls (and labs) of Ivy and Kudzu across the nation, it may be a good time to take stock of why even the colleges and universities exist.

They were established in the Middle Ages–places like Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Salamanca, Bologna–to foster Christianity, plain and simple. They also studied philosophy. a bit of the great Greek and Latin letters, and even indulged in some science and mathematics, but the principal curriculum, the “core” curriculum was Christianity.

Universities evolved as did Western Civilization over the next thousand years so today they reflect two basic areas: much of what was best in the traditional liberal arts curriculum that evolved in past three or four hundred years, and what is at the cutting edge of the times. Most of the universities of today possess immensely varied courses, institutes, centers, and other internal entities devoted to everything from modern dance to chemistry at the cutting edges of science. UA is no exception.

Television viewers will see the slogan “Where Legends Are Made” as they watch Tide football. This is marketing your product. It is selling and has nothing to do with research. More insightful are the three words printed in large letters as you approach the University near DCH Hospital. “Teaching, Research, Service.”

 Excellence as the goal of higher education. What does excellence look like? Many of you remember more than football, girls (or boys), fraternities and sororities, the Strip, and the life of an undergraduate. I do to. Like you, I remember faculty who woke me up to things I never thought much about, or how to think about them. I even discovered in a Botany lab on Saturday mornings somewhere in the Duke Forest that there were worlds I knew absolutely nothing about. The world was bigger than my little microcosm.

Most universities have extensive graduate schools moving forward the research dimension as well as teaching. This research is largely reflected in masters and dissertations based on extensive research in areas from nanoscience to Shakespeare.

You take these studies across hundreds of universities and can understand why thousands of Chinese have been sent here over the past half century to learn. Let’s look at some research-based dissertations this year nominated for best dissertation of 2020.

The geographers nominated a dissertation devoted to identifying and curing water quality, or as the dissertation writer phrased it: “I developed innovative environmental remote sensing models using geospatial statistical analysis and machine learning techniques to monitor and assess inland water quality.” He also suggested solutions.

“The information, knowledge, and techniques derived from my dissertation research can help research scientists, water resource planners and managers, state and local officials, and local communities to detect and monitor water quality status in inland waters, and to design intelligent policies and best management practices to prevent, control, and mitigate the occurrence of nuisance algal blooms and other water quality problems.”

A dissertation in Education linked counseling and neuroscience in a new fashion. “Wesley’s research immerses both neuroscience and counseling. Since neuroscience is new to the counseling field, this work has been both challenging, innovative, and rewarding. Wesley’s ability to fully engage in pioneering neuroscience work that connected with the counseling field is new and important.”

A dissertation in Mechanical Engineering drew this rave summary from a proud dissertation director professor: “I am recommending [him] for this award because of his unique contributions to the multidisciplinary research field of “clean combustion” that offer the potential for sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the near and mid-term. His research applies to high-efficiency diesel engines that will benefit from advanced physical concepts based on clean combustion, requiring new ways to diagnose, analyze, and control fuel sprays.”

All of this may lead to reduced emissions in the future. Furthermore, crossing both fields of research and service, his professor wrote that “his record in the various departments in engineering are outstanding, showing a deep commitment to his field and advancing it.”

One dissertation in C&BA studied mergers and acquisitions and how productive and/or efficient, or profitable, they turn out to be. Good questions—and answers– for the world of industry and business.

Her study addressed a “persistent gap in the M&A literature, using a typology of different theoretical applications, to theorize, model, measure, and empirically validate how M&A motives relate to different M&A outcomes. I utilize a multi-method triangulation approach through three studies to demonstrate the foundational importance of M&A motives and then explore further the different theoretical applications and relationships with varying M&A outcomes.”

Another one in the business school researched the passion for your work, pointing to the CEO of the highly successful Southwestern Airlines as example of man’s passion for his life’s work. This study probed the relationship between passion and success or failure, not simply interesting for the scholar, but with immense applicability for the world of business and organizational behavior. Job satisfaction, engagement, and performance are addressed in a rigorous manner.

We all need to know how rich and profound is UA’s, as well as hundreds of other universities in the U. S., to studying, analyzing, and improving our world across as immensely varied spectrum, of which the above quick abstracts represent only a small example.

Published as “Research is key in higher education” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Dec. 27 2020.

Posted in: academia