Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Critique of Higher Ed Research

Higher Education Research Priorities:
Perspectives from Selected Foundations
Patricia J. Gumport
Contact Information:
Patricia J. Gumport, Director
Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research
520 Galvez Mall, CERAS Building
School of Education
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-3084
Phone: (650) 723-7724

This report summarizes the major activities of a grant to the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research (SIHER) by Atlantic Philanthropies USA, Inc., under the guidance of its program staff, Theodore L. Hullar, Director of Atlantic’s Higher Education Programs. (Application 9385, Postsecondary Research Priorities: Extending a National Agenda-Setting Initiative to Foundation Representatives.)

On March 6-7, 2002, we hosted an invitational meeting at Stanford University entitled, “On the Frontier of Change: Research Priorities for Postsecondary Education.” At the request of the funder, the meeting was co-convened by Marshall Smith of the Hewlett Foundation and Patricia J. Gumport, Director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research (SIHER) and the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement (NCPI).

The objective of the meeting was to consult with individuals working as program staff in foundations that have funded higher education research, engaging them in conversation about what they saw as past, present, and future higher education research priorities. Participants included twelve individuals from organizations known to award grants for domestic higher education research, issues and topics, either currently or in the past decade.

B. Critique of Higher Education Research

The discussion on higher education research priorities elicited a number of comments from individuals working in foundations about the shortcomings of existing research and, as requested, several suggestions for revising the NCPI draft statement. Comments ranged from informed and—at times—deep criticism, to support and even enthusiasm for its potential value.

Their major critique of higher education research is that it reflects what some participants called an “insider’s” agenda. They characterized research in the following ways: “navel-gazing,” “very narrow,” “not very useful,” “disconnected,” focusing on the “trivial”; that is, on “issues that the average person does not care about.” The broader sentiment underlying these descriptors is twofold: one type of judgment is dismissive; the other is simply that higher education research is not on their radar screen. It was in this context that the funders critiqued the NCPI draft of proposed research priorities. They recommended reorienting the priorities to address the deeper questions of access for whom and to what, foregrounding the societal expectation that students from all backgrounds have access to high quality higher education.

Other participants were more supportive in their comments. They expressed some optimism about the potential for higher education researchers to align their projects with the action-oriented agenda of several foundations.

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