What Do Universities Actually Do?

For all of the text that you will find in a university’s mission statement, universities do two primary things: they teach and develop new knowledge. They also house many students and so need to have the necessary physical and virtual breadth of infrastructure to accomplish that. And of course, they play sports (some better than others). However, unless your collaboration hinges on recruiting for the New England Patriots, it is likely the products of the first two that have led you to seek out a partnership. Universities are divided into many sub-units, much as a company may be and these too can influence the desire on the part of the university to engage in some activities over others. Universities often have schools or colleges (e.g., the Business School, College of Engineering) that are further divided into departments where faculty typically have an “academic home” (e.g., the Department of Finance, the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering).

Many universities have interdisciplinary research entities that span departments or even colleges where faculty share time or can have joint appointments for research activities. Interdisciplinary centers and institutes are particularly fertile environments for multi-party research initiatives that involve the public, private, and academic sectors. The National Science Foundation facilitates these types of initiatives through their IUCRC (Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers) grants'. These interdisciplinary research centers will be addressed in more detail in Chapter 5, in the context of working with data science doctoral students in data science.

We will discuss teaching and faculty designations later in this chapter, but first we examine academic institutions as a whole.

University Classifications and the Role of Research

Institutions ofhigher education are classified according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education2. The classifications examine both graduate and undergraduate instructions, including type of programs (STEM-focused, liberal arts focused), length (primarily 2-year, 4-year), and size (small, medium, and large) among other classifiers. See Table 2.1.

As an example, Table 2.2 shows a Carnegie Classification report for two institutions: The University of Michigan in Ann-Arbor and Centre College in Danville, KY.

What does this mean and why should you care when partnering with this institution? First, the University of Michigan is classified as “Doctoral Universities:

Table 2.1 U.S. Universities and Colleges by Classification (2018)2




Doctoral University: Very High Research Activity



Doctoral University: High Research Activity



Doctoral University: Professional



Master's Colleges and Universities



Baccalaureate Colleges



Baccalaureate/Associate's Colleges



Associate's Colleges






Grand Total



Table 2.2 Carnegie Classification Report: University of Michigan, and Centre College2

Carnegie Attribute

University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor, Ml

Centre College, Danville, KY


4-year or above

4-year or above




Student Population (Fall 2017)




Doctoral University: Very High Research Activity

Undergraduate College with Arts and Science focus

Size and Setting

4-year, large, primarily residential

4-year, small, highly residential

External Research Funding (2018)


$0 reported

Very High Research Activity”, meaning they have a high proportion of research faculty and have many active research initiatives going on across a wide range of disciplines, including medicine. Note their external research funding - $1.5 billion. Again with a “b”. In fact, the University of Michigan is ranked as the second largest university in external research funding in the United States behind Johns Hopkins University. Almost all faculty at the University of Michigan are going to be evaluated heavily on their research productivity — with emphasis on the amount of externally funded research grants they oversee. To be sure, it is likely difficult to be hired into a faculty position at the University of Michigan without evidence of grant funding and a strong publication record. This information would be important if your interests were in developing new knowledge or perhaps finding a partner with cutting edge research facilities and a large infrastructure to support research labs. However, it would also behoove you to inquire about the extent to which faculty and graduate students’ availability outside of their research requirements or restrictions on their time or instrumentation, for example. Also, because data science is inherently interdisciplinary, how those units share faculty and students, and the extent to which they integrate their research, would be important for a potential external collaborator to understand.

Alternatively, Centre College - listed as a “College That Changes Lives3” - has limited emphasis on research and has an exclusively undergraduate mission. The faculty all teach and have limited expectation for research or pressure to generate research-related funding. A college like Centre might be a strong collaborative partner if your needs are explicitly aligned with recruiting entry level talent. It is also a reminder that there are over 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United

States and organizations should consider partnering with institutions beyond those consistently at the top of the rankings.

Tlie second point related to Table 2.1 is that institutions like the University of Michigan have very wide ranges of degrees and areas of study. This would be important, if for example, you were interested in engaging in a research initiative that might cross multiple departments. Consider an innovation that involves the development of new sensors related to customer movements in a retail store. You would need faculty who were well versed in electrical engineering, but also in marketing, operations research, and data science. Working within an interdisciplinary framework at an institution like the University of Michigan might take some time to navigate, where navigating within a smaller college like Centre is less complex, but may or may not have the specific program of study that you need to fill your positions or support your research objectives. To that end, it is important to know why you are approaching this specific institution — what is it that they do well that has attracted you to them? To assist with this, we have created a non- exhaustive checklist of things to consider at the end of this chapter to have ready before approaching your higher education partner.

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