Acquisition, Discovery and Application of Knowledge



Criterion 4: The organization promotes a life of learning for its faculty, administration, staff, and students by fostering and supporting inquiry, creativity, practice, and social responsibility in ways consistent with its mission.

We begin this section with an overview of the University’s knowledge environment, broadly defined, and some of its unique strengths in this regard, before addressing Criterion Four and its core components. This introduction draws heavily from the report of the Accreditation Working Group on the University’s Knowledge Environment and Roles of Research, Professional, and Creative Activities. This group explored what is distinctive about the knowledge environment at the University of Michigan, how understandings of the University’s research mission among faculty, students, and others are consistent or varied across campus, and how research, professional, and creative practices are integrated into the educational experiences of our students.


If we understand our institution as a research university in the broadest sense, as defined by its many ways of doing knowledge work, then virtually no aspect falls outside this realm. Research is not just one of many activities of the University, but is at its dynamic core. Everything we do, therefore, affects “the knowledge environment.” We recognize that understanding and definitions of the research mission vary; it is illuminating to discover how differently people think and how differently things are done across campus. Two points emerge in our examination that present a common foundation.

First, the University of Michigan is an intellectually exciting, generative place for its faculty. The high rankings that the University receives in the various systems for evaluating higher education, such as those by U.S. News and World Report and the Global Languages Monitor’s MediaBuzz, are complemented and fleshed out by the stories across campus about the enabling qualities of our knowledge environment. The very fact that the University has the capacity to serve an intellectually rich and diverse group of faculty members so well is a substantial achievement.

The second commonality is a shared sense of vulnerability, as the continuation of today’s remarkable knowledge environment is insecure. The changes underway in higher education are many and profound, and the sources of our success seem so inadequately understood. We are by no means the only ones thinking about these kinds of things; other faculty groups and administrators are constantly considering policy issues. There are units whose research mission or daily work focuses on topics discussed below. But the reaccreditation process offers an unusual opportunity for individuals from widely separated corners of campus to gather and take stock, without a need for immediate decisions.

The risks that the University faces are often not unique or even distinctive, although our opportunities for addressing them may be. Whatever time frame we choose, looking back shows us profound transformations in higher education, and looking forward suggests that the pace of change is unlikely to slow. At the end of the nineteenth century, fewer than three percent of the population of the United States had ever attended college; today 29% have a bachelor’s degree. More than half of today’s colleges and universities were founded after 1940. Clearly, both the place of postsecondary schooling in the lives of Americans and the nature of the system have changed fundamentally. Even more directly relevant for our examination of research activities is that in 1920, only 615 Ph.D.s were awarded by American institutions, while in 2008 that number exceeded 55,000, with the University of Michigan alone awarding more than 700 degrees. The immense growth of sponsored research has added acres to our campuses, the massive volume of scholarship has filled our libraries, and a vast range of other activities has been added to institutions like ours--from providing student conflict resolution services and running medical clinics to managing trademarked identities and supporting start-up companies. Recent decades have brought the increased emphasis on development and technology transfer activities, a decrease in public funding, and a seemingly growing public skepticism about universities in general, although most people’s loyalty to specific institutions is undiminished.


An extraordinary volume and quality of research goes on at the University of Michigan. One measure is research expenditures, which grow continually, from $545 million in 2000 to $753 million in 2004, and to $876 million in 2008; see figure below. Most recently, the University exceeded $1 billion in research expenditures.


2000-2008 Research Expenditures
From: OVPR’s FY2008 Report on Research and Scholarship at the University of Michigan

These numbers make us consistently one of the top three public universities with regard to research funding. The federal government is currently the source of about 70% of those funds, while private industry, foundations, and state and local governments contribute about 12% (see Research at UM for detailed information on the research enterprise). There have been missed opportunities, as clearly it is not always easy for such an enormous institution to respond to a changing funding environment. However, the recent initiative to strengthen University partnerships with industry, for example, through the Business Engagement Center, helps to address this problem. Also, the sense that it takes too long for applications and contracts to get through our system continues to be heard, but efforts to make the process more efficient continue.

There is a significant amount of internal funding for research as well--in 2008, 18% of total research expenditures. Fields like the humanities and arts, where external funding is sparse, benefit especially from these funds. The AWG on the knowledge environment considered it vital that the University has allocated resources that enable our own collective choices about what areas of research should be funded, rather than depending only upon directions set elsewhere.

From the perspective of many in higher education, our success in sponsored research is itself a challenge. The liberal arts college is subsumed into a much larger institution, much of which has only a distant or indirect connection with undergraduate education. The scientific, medical, and engineering components of universities have become especially larger, so that the balance of activities has changed. Our surprises often come from exchanges across this divide. Issues like the impact of the 1980 Bayh-Dole or University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act need more discussion; to some this act seems a sensible measure to encourage technology transfer and a promising avenue to increasing university revenues, whereas to others it seems a controversial privatization of intellectual property, as patent-holders claim the accumulating results of research done by many (often with federal dollars).

Whether we are considering the dialogue among scholars or public dissemination, publication is key. We cannot do our knowledge work without a way to circulate new knowledge. But the system of publication generally, and specifically for higher education, is broken and many parts seems to be facing collapse; the closing of newspapers, including the local Ann Arbor News, provides a prominent, current example. Some notable elements in the current state of publishing in higher education include:

  • Journal prices in the areas of science, technology, and medicine are extraordinarily high, with individual titles sometimes reaching tens of thousands of dollars per year, and prices growing at more than double the rate of inflation. This trend exacerbates the divide between those who have access to libraries that can afford to subscribe, and those who do not.
  • Current models of publishing scholarly monographs have ensured that shorter print runs are produced for every title, resulting in narrower distribution. Again, most of our publications reach increasingly smaller audiences. We also face the related threat of a reduction in titles being published.
  • Access to published literature, what librarians call “discovery,” is made challenging by the high walls or silos created by the specific systems of publishers and their distributors. Competent technology users are frequently unable to make their way through this maze of systems, and the types of places they tend to look are far from comprehensive. As a consequence, much goes unread and unrecognized. To ensure that the scholarly activity of the University is available across boundaries, Deep Blue was developed as a University of Michigan service to provide electronic access to the University’s full scope of research and creative activity, including all Ph.D. dissertations in all fields of study.

The Undergraduate Connection

Far from the University’s research mission detracting from undergraduate education, the two are integrated to an admirable degree. This happens in a number of different ways. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), for example, places first- and second-year students to work on research projects with faculty members, including members of the research faculty. UROP is open to all University of Michigan undergraduates, a good example of cross-campus connection, and since it began in 1989 over 7,000 students have participated. Students also participate in research through their courses, through their concentration programs, and through employment. In a set of conversations, University Alumni and parents spoke passionately about the value of these research experiences at the University. And indeed there is ample research documenting the many benefits in terms of student outcomes.

What the AWG learned about student engagement in research dovetailed exactly with the group’s more abstract conversations about knowledge. Students are exhilarated and changed by joining the University’s community of inquiry. The University does not simply impart knowledge to them; rather, we create an environment that encourages and enables inquisitiveness and investigation. The conventional vocabulary of creating, preserving, and disseminating knowledge represents it as something that might be heaped up in an ivory tower, or passed from hand to hand without a transformative connection between human beings. Within the University, knowledge is perceived in much more active terms--not as a product, but as a process. The notion of inquiry is a touchstone for the University community, and among faculty members whose work is usually spoken of as creative rather than as research, a similar commitment to project- and process-based practices is easy to recognize. The strong demand for courses in the arts and music from students outside those schools marks the fact that these students, too, recognize the power of open-ended investigation into the arts.

Focus on Inquiry

The “touchstone of inquiry” helps us to identify the forward direction for the campus’s knowledge environment. For example, University buildings and structures profoundly shape our work. This is a complex subject, but the principle to be followed is that new and renovated spaces should be designed to support exchange, echoing earlier points in the section on Learning. For example, large lecture or presentation spaces should follow the amphitheatre model with tiered seating (allowing unobstructed views) and be supported by smaller-group meeting spaces (e.g., the new Ross School of Business building). Here again there is a productive consonance between different areas of campus; there is a resemblance between the studio culture of the School of Art & Design as well as the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the increasingly open design of scientific laboratories (for example, in the building that houses the Life Sciences Institute).

Another topic where the touchstone of inquiry is powerful is the role of ethics in the University’s knowledge environment. The University shares with other universities and other sectors of society the need to negotiate an ever more complex landscape of choices that bumps up against busy schedules, making it difficult to find time for reflection; this is an ongoing challenge. But when we think, for example, of problems with student plagiarism, or the challenge of making sure graduate student researchers are sufficiently thoughtful about human subjects research, it becomes clear that it’s not enough simply to teach protocols for proper behavior. Members of the University community need to be sophisticated thinkers about these issues. Undergraduates are coming to adulthood in an environment of constantly accessible information, and understanding when they are misappropriating someone else’s knowledge is not a simple matter. Once again, the principle is that University faculty members do not simply convey information; they also foster inquiry. And here, too, that principle converges with the importance of engaging in purposeful reflection and dialogue about the ways in which faculty and students work together.

One of the most important advantages of an inquiry-based model is that it enables us to think about the University community in a flexible way, recognizing the complexity of the roles that people play. In a community of inquirers, individuals are not always, or only, defined by their roles in a formal hierarchy; everyone is contributing their perspective and investigative energy to the inquiries at hand, and everyone is learning. Graduate students are ever-present, necessary, and vital contributors to University research projects, and they are also teachers for our undergraduates. Indeed, the way they hinge between different roles shows how a dynamic understanding of the creation of knowledge merges teaching and learning at the University. Doctoral study must, by its nature, be specialized. However, in a common first-year curriculum for all Ph.D. programs in the health sciences, in interdisciplinary humanities departments, and also in value-adding certificate programs, more and more of our students are negotiating multiple sites and paradigms in ways that prepare them for the fluid knowledge environment of the future.

Faculty and Staff

Not only are the roles of campus community members fluid, but individuals constantly move in and out of the University as well, while information and activities are also constantly crossing its borders. Colleges and universities have always been complexly interconnected with other sectors of society. Nevertheless it seems clear that the increased permeability of the University and of higher education in general demands our attention. As mentioned above, there is increased scrutiny, and even skepticism, directed towards higher education from policy-makers and the public. The turn to public scholarship at many colleges and universities, including ours, is also an element of this increased pressure for greater permeability and accountability. Incorporating boundary-crossing work into the faculty reward system presents a challenge; just as we have been getting better at evaluating teaching and at evaluating interdisciplinary scholarship, we can also get better at recognizing the distinctive value of producing knowledge through collaboration. Indeed, such intellectually substantive assessments are a kind of purposeful reflection, and they mesh with the AWG’s other recommendations for further strengthening the University’s knowledge environment.

We also recognize the enormous, indispensable support that University staff members provide for our knowledge environment. Their dedication, resourcefulness, and generosity are palpable, which is reflected in University programs that honor staff contributions. Our decentralized institution gives many staff members considerable autonomy, which contributes to the University’s overall strength, but it also means that the University must work deliberately to share good ideas across campus.

Engaging with Society

Many of today’s concerns converge on the relationship between the University and the public. The University has a strong sense of our public mission, but it is no simple matter to decide how to translate this commitment into activities and priorities. The criticism that scholars are largely “talking to themselves” has been voiced more or less since universities came into existence, but it seems louder now than ever. It is an important part of the University’s mission to provide practical knowledge and resources that are useful to Michigan and the region, as well as to the nation and the planet, and furthermore to engage in related dialogue on all these scales. At the same time, the University is committed to basic inquiry, to pursuing knowledge for its own sake, and to maintaining high academic standards, which implies the need for intense internal dialogue, as well. We must do both. Without basic research, there is little to translate into applied research. Without attention to liberal education and to students as multi-dimensional individuals and citizens of many different communities, we have no way of deciding what is important. The model of knowledge as a static entity does little to help us discuss and address these concerns; the model of inquiry and exchange serves as a “compass of principles,” and directs our attention to the specific places within the University in which knowledge and creativity are produced.

In many discussions, the meaning of the term public applies to regional and national spheres, but also increasingly to an international framework . Universities have always made connections across time and space; today, as the topic of the reaccreditation self-study recognizes, the need to manage the international nature of the University enterprise, and to extend our connections in this regard, is both urgent and demanding. Here again the focus on inquiry serves the University well. If knowledge were something inert that could be translated neutrally, internationalization would be much simpler--but at the same time less rewarding and productive. Rather, knowledge is created and moves through networks of individuals and institutions. The kinds of connections being built through study abroad, research collaborations, and partnerships with overseas institutions offer immense opportunities for cognitive enrichment. And whether considered from an international perspective or within the boundaries of our multilingual nation, knowledge is profoundly linked to language. The 2007 Modern Languages Association’s Report on Foreign Languages and Higher Education advocated a shift from a goal of near-native fluency to a goal of translinguistic and transcultural competence, thus implying the need for a change in the current two-tiered model that separates how colleges and universities teach language from how we teach literature and culture. This recommendation implies a need for curricular change at the University. In the section on Internationalization, these points and many more are examined in detail.