Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2014

Currently: 89° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

UNLV and research: A chase for the Holy Grail?

Just a few more PhD graduates a year.

That was the promise. Just a few more doctoral graduates and UNLV would be recognized as a top research institution - a lofty goal the university has sought for years because it would be a boon to the Las Vegas economy and to UNLV's reputation, which is trying to shed its image as a commuter school.

For the first half of this decade, the promise hung in the air. UNLV was on the cusp.

Today, however, an analysis of UNLV's research capability, aided by new evaluation criteria from the Carnegie Foundation, shows that the promise was inflated. UNLV had indeed been close to becoming a "Research 1" institution if the basic measurement was the number of doctoral graduates, but competing with the top research universities actually requires much more.

Compared to most Western U.S. universities, UNLV isn't even close. UNLV brings in less than half as much research money as universities in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington, according to the most recent Carnegie data. It also produces one-half to one-fourth as many doctoral students.

UNLV is also below the level of institutions UNLV considers its peers across the country, including Georgia State University, the University of Louisville and the University of Houston.

Yet despite its current standing, UNLV is unmistakably on an upward trajectory. Professors have substantially increased the dollars they bring in from outside sources, and money for research and sponsored projects has increased from $18 million in 1995 to more than $95 million in 2005.

Most of that money still comes from appropriations Nevada's congressional delegation pushes through or for Department of Energy projects - rather than competitive research grants. But UNLV professors are now successfully competing for grants from such top federal agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

UNLV officials have also added 58 graduate programs and tripled doctoral student enrollment, from 191 students in 1995 to 697 students in 2005.

The numbers illustrate what deans and professors at UNLV know well. For the last several years, UNLV has been going through a sometimes painful cultural change as it tries to evolve from being a local teaching institution focusing on training undergraduates to a nationally competitive research institution that offers doctoral programs.

Many professors believe, as College of Engineering Dean Eric Sandgren put it, that the worst of that transition is over, and that the groundwork has been laid to propel research forward.

Continuing the transformation to a research university is critical not only to boost UNLV's reputation, but Southern Nevada's economic future as well, higher education officials say.

Research at UNLV means making discoveries that can lead to new jobs and new high-tech companies developing or moving to the Las Vegas Valley. Research institutions also bring in more money to sustain and improve the undergraduate education, and provide professors who are not just the disseminators of knowledge but the creators of it.

Like the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the Carnegie Classifications are regarded as the who's who of research universities, said Alexander C. McCormick, senior scholar for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Middle level universities like UNLV chase the top rung because it gives them credibility.

That's not how the categories should be used, McCormick said.

"But there is also no question that the powerhouse research institutions, the ones that are household names, are clustered there in the top."

UNLV has not been pursuing the category per se. Rather, it aspires to what that ranking "stands for and what it means," said Paul Ferguson, vice president for research and graduate studies.

The goal has been to build graduate programs and lay the groundwork for UNLV professors to compete nationally for critical research dollars that will bring jobs into Las Vegas.

Carnegie broadened its criteria last month for evaluating the research capabilities of universities. Instead of looking at the number of doctoral graduates only, Carnegie now also measures research expenditures specifically in science and engineering, combined research expenditures in all other areas, the number of doctoral graduates in several specific disciplines and the number of nonteaching research staff.

UNLV falls in the middle category of three basic research classifications. To get to that top category, UNLV will need much more than just a few more doctoral graduates, according to data McCormick provided to the Sun. UNLV in fact would probably need five times as many doctoral graduates, at least four times as much in research funding, and a subset of faculty devoted to research exclusively, which means, they don't teach.

To see how far behind UNLV - and for that matter UNR - is, take the University of New Mexico. It falls into the same Carnegie category as UNLV. But in 2003, the most recent comparison data available, New Mexico brought in $158 million in science and engineering dollars from government and private sources, compared to UNLV's $42 million and UNR's $80 million. New Mexico produced 195 doctoral graduates. UNLV produced 44 and UNR 77.

Professors at other Western research universities also publish their research in scholarly journals at about two to three times the rate as UNLV professors.

Those publications are a conduit for sharing knowledge.

According to the Institute for Scientific Information Web of Knowledge database, which compiles publications in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities, UNLV professors have published about 4,000 articles in those areas over the last 11 years.

That amounts to just one article every two years.

Numbers alone don't tell the full story, however, because they do not take into account the quality of the research. A sampling of that work by the Sun, however, suggests that not only are professors at UCLA and other distinguished research institutions publishing far more frequently than their counterparts at UNLV, they are typically being published in higher quality journals.

So how does UNLV improve? Interviews with more than 25 of UNLV's top administrators, deans, professors and outside consultants show only one clear answer: The state must invest in research if it wants to reap the economic benefits research can bring.

Specifically, UNLV just needs more - more money, more professors, more graduate assistants, more post-doctoral fellowships, more full-time research faculty, professors and deans said. The state currently provides no money for research faculty.

"If we expect greater research outputs, we need to provide time and resources for professors to reach those outputs," said Richard Flaherty, dean of the College of Business.

A critical issue almost everyone raised was UNLV's heavy teaching loads. The standard load of three courses each semester is acceptable for a teaching institution. But UNLV is requiring more research from professors now for tenure and promotion, which means the teaching loads must shrink.

"We're really working hard to provide a culture and a climate that rewards research," said Jane McCarthy, interim dean of the College of Education. "But the main challenge is that if we are doing research, who is going to be teaching the classes? There's just not enough time for everything."

Most professors at research universities teach only two courses a semester, and at the top universities such as the University of California-Berkeley, they may teach only one a year, professors said.

Chancellor Jim Rogers has argued that investing in a few superstar faculty and graduate assistants will help improve the research capacity of the university. With limited funding, UNLV has begun to follow that model, which has been highly successful in Georgia and Washington.

But now, even UNLV's star researchers often cannot reduce their course levels because the student demand is so great. The university also does not provide enough support to help professors apply for and manage their grants.

"You cannot build it all on the back of a few superstars," said John Filler, a special education professor and former faculty senate chairman.

Many professors believe UNLV officials and state lawmakers will have to have a meeting of the minds about what UNLV should be if the university has any hope of truly becoming a research university. The desire to be both student-focused and conduct top-flight research without additional funding from the state has put stress on the university's ability to do either well.

Harter's own decision to chase after the Carnegie rankings has also overextended the university's resources, professors argued. So many programs have been started in so short a time, that only a few programs have been able to get the funding really needed to excel.

"Harter's never made up her mind," said William Epstein, social work professor and vocal critic of what he calls UNLV's mediocrity. "She quacks about student service, she quacks about teaching, she quacks about research."

As research has taken off over the last decade, retention and graduation rates for undergraduates have remained low. Less than 38 percent of students earn a bachelor's degree within six years.

UNLV is going to have to do a better job of prioritizing, and those priorities "need to be driven by a recognition of who we want to be and what the state of Nevada expects of us, not some blind chase for the Holy Grail," Filler said.

UNLV's research successes have come in the form of attracting faculty willing to engage in both research and teaching, and in some major changes to how the administration supports research, educators said.

In the last few years, UNLV has reorganized its research and graduate studies departments under one vice president. The office has developed in-house grants to help professors start their research and it offers help in applying for grants. The office also developed the UNLV Research Foundation in 2001 and the technology transfer office in 2005 to start pushing UNLV breakthroughs into the commercial sector.

UNLV has managed to secure seven provisional patents in the last year and has 20 more awaiting patents. The Research Foundation is also partnering professors with outside companies to work on research projects, such as how to create a better hydrogen-powered car.

The foundation is also responsible for developing the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park at Durango Drive and Sunset Road. The research park will lease space to companies involved directly with research and partner those companies with UNLV researchers to develop new products.

"Any commercialization is going to enhance the university," Ferguson said. The all-time greatest example is Gatorade out of the University of Florida. Gatorade has funded so many programs at the University of Florida that have nothing to do with kinesiology."

When UNLV research officials talk about successes in research, they point to professors:

Each of those researchers has brought in about $2 million in research money to UNLV in the last few years, and have worked "like a magnet" to attract other star researchers and graduate students to the university, Williams said.

"This is like a garden we planted three or four years ago, and we've been looking for these things to pop up," Williams said.

UNLV is also pursuing research areas unique to Las Vegas. Its engineering and fine arts colleges are working together to start a new degree in entertainment engineering this fall, and the Harrah College of Hotel Administration is seeking private money to launch its INNovation Village campus, which will include a hotel and conference center that will serve as a living laboratory for new service-industry products.

Finally, UNLV is just getting its health and biomedical research off the ground with the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Public Health. Rogers believes that the combined efforts of UNLV and UNR in fostering a health science center will lead to increased research funding for both universities.

UNLV's success will depend on its ability to sell its research needs to the Legislature.

"We have this idea that we can tell the state what we should be," said Bill Robinson, economics professor and chairman of the faculty senate "... Until the Legislature says go, we are going to have a teaching level that is incompatible with a UCLA-level goal."

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy