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Burish prioritizes research growth

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Notre Dame faces significant work in its quest to develop as a research university, Provost Thomas Burish told faculty members Tuesday, but it can – and must – act now if it wants to catch up to peer institutions with stronger programs.

In his second annual address to the faculty, Burish laid out his vision for how Notre Dame could tackle the “momentum challenge” of developing its research identity, a concrete plan that builds on University President Father John Jenkins’ frequently stated, more conceptual goal of promoting both academic excellence and Notre Dame’s “distinct Catholic mission.”

“That’s our challenge,” Burish told the about 150 faculty members in DeBartolo 101. “It is to be and to be recognized as a preeminent Catholic research university.”

He walked faculty members through the “cold hard facts” of Notre Dame’s strengths and weaknesses, flipping through PowerPoint slides with data-loaded graphs, charts and tables that showed both external rankings of University departments and internal benchmarks with peer institutions – specifically, members of the Association of American Universities.

The AAU includes “60-some” research-intensive universities among its ranks, Burish said, with 26 of those private. Membership is by invitation only, and while Burish said the organization has “no specific formula” for admission, Notre Dame has never been invited.

“I would suggest we aspire initially to look like AAU institutions performing at the third quartile level,” Burish said.

Conversations with AAU leaders, he said, have implied that matching the AAU’s weaker members is not enough – the association looks to admit universities that have surpassed the minimums.

While Notre Dame excels in most external undergraduate rankings (No. 20 overall in US News and World Report’s 2007 America’s Best Colleges) and places relatively high in ratings of post-baccalaureate professional programs, AAU leaders “don’t look at those things,” Burish said.

It’s about PhD programs and research – especially sponsored research, Burish said. And in the struggle to prove itself to the AAU, Notre Dame has competition.

After listing “first benchmark” institutions that currently belong to the AAU – including Brown, Columbia, Duke and Northwestern – Burish displayed a slide with names of six “second benchmark” institutions that, like Notre Dame, are striving for AAU membership: Boston College, Boston University, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Tufts and Wake Forest.

In comparisons between those six and Notre Dame, the University isn’t at the top. Burish displayed tables that showed how Notre Dame matched up in various categories, often ranking in the middle of the AAU hopefuls.

He was careful to acknowledge that “rankings have weaknesses.”

“The point is,” he said, “the perception of Notre Dame is similar” – meaning low rankings of Notre Dame’s research programs are not anomalies.

The University, however, has made progress. Burish cited Notre Dame’s No. 9 ranking on the National Research Council’s “Most Improved List.”

“We’re in the game – and this is important. We’re in the game,” he said. “These are the very best research universities in the country.”

To work toward the goal of research “preeminence,” Burish focused on building the University’s PhD program up from its current “plateau” while protecting its “exceptional” undergraduate program and strengthening its post-baccalaureate professional programs.

“We need an elbow, we need a hockey stick, we need a rapidly accelerating curve,” he said, referring to a line graph and indicating that Notre Dame would have to drastically step up its research growth in order to join its peers.

But while urgency is important, so is the long run.

“Excellence requires sustained effort,” Burish said. “There are no quick fixes. … This is a five, 10, 15, 20-year investment program where we’ve got to stay the course.”

Additional strategies are needed to meet this challenge, he said, and those new strategies “must build upon our current strategic plan and campaign goal.”

Burish was not specific about the funding needed to progress toward this plan – “I’m talking about extra funds that are not yet identified” – but later said the project would involve “certainly 30, 40, 50, 60 million or more now. And some of that continued over time.”

To start, Burish said he hoped to appoint a steering committee – seeking nominations from faculty members by Nov. 10 – this fall and invite consultants to campus by next spring. Faculty members would also be encouraged to solicit advice during this process.

The next steps, he said, would be determining the best areas for additional investment, identifying and sequestering funds, developing markers of success and creating a communication plan.

Throughout this process, preeminent programs must remain preeminent, Burish stressed. His hope, he told faculty members, is that new investments will create additional preeminent programs – “not to take a C-plus program and make it a B-plus program,” he said. “This extra layer [of investment] is really to achieve preeminence.”

Burish also believes new programs must be in areas of visibility and national or international interest, suggesting global health and the environment as examples.

“We are not starting from scratch – a lot has already been done,” Burish said, citing the use of last year’s BCS winnings for academic priorities and the Board of Trustees Finance Committee’s willingness to prioritize faculty salary increases.

And the work that’s left, Burish said, is achievable.

“Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton were at one point faith-based,” he told faculty members at the end of his address, walking up the steps into the audience. Those schools, he explained, have since dropped their religious aspects as they’ve grown in academic stature.

But Notre Dame, Burish said, doesn’t have to lose its identity to become elite.

“It’s our time to join that group,” he said.