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Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Ten Ways to Ensure That Higher Education Research Continues to Matter

In last week’s presidential address, I offered 10 actions that members of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) can take to ensure that higher education research continues to matter. I am delighted that I achieved one of my primary goals: to stimulate conversation about how we – as higher education researchers – are addressing important issues that face higher education.

One of my recommendations, in particular, has provoked welcome discussion. The essence of my recommendation, “to refrain from actions that make us advocates, not researchers,” is my belief that, as scholars, we are most effective proponents of change when we ground our advocacy in research rather than opinion and anecdote.

Let there be no doubt:  I am an advocate, and I strongly believe that we should advocate for changes in higher education. I have dedicated my career to ensuring that all students – regardless of demographic background or place of residence – have the opportunity to enroll in and benefit from high-quality higher education. I use a range of methodological approaches and theoretical lenses to conduct research on multiple dimensions of this topic. I also regularly try to persuade others, including twice testifying to Congress, about what policymakers, practitioners, educators, and others can, and must, do to eliminate persistent barriers to higher education opportunity and outcomes for underrepresented and underserved students.

Our voices are most effective when they draw from our research. Policymakers and practitioners need more than data-free assertions. All advocates have passion for change—but it is high quality, theoretically grounded research that makes our contributions unique—and it is our research-based knowledge that should be informing needed reforms. 

As I said in the conclusion of my address: "There is no shortage of advocacy groups, lobbyists, and think tanks – often with their own self-interested agendas – offering ‘solutions’ to the challenges facing higher education. Our role, as higher education researchers, is to be a trusted source of rigorous, evidence-based, theoretically grounded research."

When we are armed with research, we are a much more powerful force for change.

I’m grateful for robust debate about my address. As I also stated last week: “As higher education researchers, and members of a higher education research community, we have an obligation not only to solicit critical feedback on our own work but also to provide critical feedback to others.”

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as president of ASHE this past year. This is a vibrant and active community, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. I am confident that ASHE will continue to be an association that allows us to work together, to challenge one another, to challenge the status quo, and to address the important problems facing higher education.

-November 12, 2015, Laura W. Perna

On November 5, 2015 Laura Perna, Penn AHEAD Executive Director and President of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), threw down the gauntlet for her ASHE colleagues, urging them to act now to ensure the contributions of higher education research to policy and practice into the future.

Taking her cues from David Letterman, she offered a serious top-10 list for how ASHE researchers must capitalize on their strategic advantages to ensure the value of their work to higher education policy and practice into the future.

10. Address important aspects of important problems. The conference theme, inequality and higher education, is the kind of critical issue that continues to confront the field, Dr. Perna acknowledged the availability of studies about inequality and higher education but challenged that. “We need to consider how any new study productively addresses an important gap in knowledge about inequality and higher education. Especially necessary is research that informs understanding of how to address the structural and systemic barriers that limit higher education opportunity and outcomes for too many students,” she added.

9. Recognize the implications of important societal changes for higher education.Dr. Perna called for research that recognizes the implications for higher education of demographic, political, economic, and cultural societal changes occurring around the world.  

8. Anticipate emerging issues facing higher education policy and practice. Dr. Perna expressed concern about the “paucity of research on three topics: faculty and academic governance, college outcomes, and new modes of instructional delivery” and called for more research-based knowledge on these emerging issues.

7. Build a sustained program of high-quality research. Dr. Perna urged researchers to focus on building a “sustained program of high-quality research” that generates “deep understandings” of important issues facing higher education.

6. Engage in comparative research. Dr. Perna reminded her colleagues, “Engaging in comparative research and other approaches that require us to step outside of the perspectives and contexts in which we are embedded helps us to learn more about higher education in our own context.”

5. Capitalize on the strategic advantages of academic research. Acknowledging the utility of multiple research paradigms, Dr. Perna also warned “the contributions of our work depend on the quality of the theoretical grounding and the rigor of the research design and methods.”

4. Promote the indirect influences of research on policy and practice. Dr. Perna encouraged researchers to recognize the many indirect ways that their work can improve policy and practice. Academic research is especially important for improving the conceptualization of complex phenomena.

3. Disseminate findings without circumventing peer review. Social media and other digital technologies offer fast and direct means of communicating findings to policymakers, practitioners, and journalists. But Dr. Perna stressed the opportunity costs associated with spending time on disseminating rather than producing research, especially for junior scholars.  She also underscored the dangers of using strategies that circumvent peer review – our primary mechanism for ensuring research quality.   

 2. Engage in conversation with policymakers and practitioners. Dr. Perna called for her colleagues to seek out opportunities to engage in conversations with policymakers and practitioners. “Only then can we produce research that addresses the concerns of the consumers of our work – and create opportunities for us to shape the issues they should be concerned with.”

 1. Refrain from approaches that make us advocates, not researchers. And she warned, “We jeopardize our strategic advantages as academic researchers when we conduct studies that are aligned with a political or ideological agenda.”  She also stressed, “We improve our contributions to knowledge when we actively engage in critical feedback processes.”

-November 5, 2015