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Office of the President

Letters to Campus

October 2009

Dear K-State Faculty and Staff -

Greetings from Anderson Hall! We are more than halfway through the fall semester and clearly the winter weather has started to set in. I went out for an early morning run with no gloves and no hat - a rookie mistake that I don't believe I will make again. However, the cool temperatures really did wake me up!

I would like to extend a special congratulations to the K-State American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) student chapter, which was just selected as one of the 15 outstanding student chapters in the country for the 15th year in a row! Congratulations to Dr. Walawender and the student officers for their exceptional job each year.

Last month, I shared my opinion on the four major characteristics of a modern land grant university: personalized student success, accessibility, affordability and engagement. In my mind, whenever we use the term "university," I believe that entails, by default, teaching, scholarship and service. Our scholarly activities are vitally important and this month I will discuss research universities.

So, what constitutes a research university? The assessment most often used in higher education is the methodology used by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which groups doctoral universities into three categories: Very High Research Activity (96 schools), High Research Activity (103 schools), and Doctoral/Research Universities (84 schools). Presently, Kansas State University is included in the Very High Research Activity category, placing us in the top 1/3 of research universities nationally. These rankings use doctoral student production and amount of funded research as the two major assessments for research institutions.

This past month, I was asked to visit with the department heads and deans about how we maintain our status as a "student-centered research university under financial stress." I began the discussion by asking what people thought it meant to be a "student-centered research university." After some lively discussion, it was evident that as an institution we have not clearly articulated what we mean when we say that Kansas State is a student-centered research university.

In order to move this discussion forward, I am going to give my thoughts on what this means at Kansas State. Will everyone agree with my statements? I certainly hope not - universities grow and move forward through active discourse. So, sharpen your pencils and get ready to give me your feedback on this topic.

There are five components that I believe constitute what it means for Kansas State to be a student-centered research university.

First, we must have academic excellence across a multitude of disciplines. For our students, this means that regardless of their academic major, they will have faculty members who are at the cutting edge of their respective fields. At Kansas State, I believe we are committed to excellence across a broad range of different academic areas - and that national universities in particular strive for excellence in all disciplines. However, I don't believe this means that we will necessarily be equally excellent in all possible areas of study; but rather that we are focusing our efforts on carefully selected areas of scholarship. Additionally, academic excellence also refers to the quality of our scholarly work. Are we striving to publish in the best journals in the field and to tackle sticky research problems? I believe the answer is yes - and this is part of what constitutes a culture of academic achievement.

Second, we must be a substantial producer of doctoral graduates. This is not to say that the number of master's degrees awarded or the number of post-doctoral positions we have are not important, but most major ranking programs look at doctoral student production as a measure of program quality and reputation. Because of our large undergraduate student population, many of our student initiatives are focused on this group of students, but as a student-centered research university, we must also ensure we are meeting the needs of our graduate students. Additionally, to be considered a major player in the academic world, our doctoral programs must be significant in size and produce graduates who are highly sought after by academia, industry and national laboratories.

Third, we need to have documented evidence of substantial numbers of undergraduates involved in research. While we can easily lay claim to an "undergraduate student-centered" culture, it is important that we determine ways to document the number of our undergraduate students who are engaged in both formal and informal research experiences. As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work on a research project with graduate students in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, and this certainly was a productive experience in preparing me for graduate school and my eventual career in academia. In my opinion, students learn important skills in problem solving, self-confidence, and communication skills when they conduct a research project. And if we are to challenge all of our students at K-State, we need to find ways to have more students participate in research.

Fourth, we need to ensure that we are moving research results into the classroom as an active part of teaching. While this may seem like an obvious point for doctoral level classes, one of the things that distinguishes a research university is having faculty members bring the excitement of new scholarship into undergraduate classes. I was working on a research project for the Ford Motor Company some years ago while teaching a senior level class in reaction engineering, and by incorporating aspects of our research project into problem sets and class lectures, my students came away with an appreciation for new solutions to aid in auto emissions control.

Finally, we must have an international reputation as a research university. Many of the most challenging issues facing the world today are global in nature, and require research teams from multiple places around the globe. In order to prepare our students to help solve challenging research questions, we need international collaborations with top universities around the globe. Some number of years ago, we could simply work to develop our reputation nationally, and given the stature of higher education in the U.S., by default we would build an international standing. However, with the rapid growth of academic excellence for universities in Asia and the Middle East, it is important that we develop scholarly work of international reputation, and use those connections to let Kansas State students work on solving the worldwide problems of tomorrow.

Perhaps you have another item or two to add to the list - or you disagree with some points. To stimulate some discussion, I am going to ask all of our academic units to address the same question: what constitutes a "student-centered research university"? As always, I also welcome e-mails on this topic. Send them to kirks@k-state.edu. I look forward to an engaging campuswide discussion on this topic.

Go Cats - Beat Oklahoma!