UPDATED: April 15, 2021

Dean Andy Boynton

Is less competition among U.S. companies a major reason for the decline in workers’ real wages over the past few decades? Who’s in a better position to help local restaurants weather these late stages of the pandemic—legislators or restaurant patrons? And why are only 11 percent of companies profiting from AI?

These questions relate to just a few of the research topics taken on recently by our school’s faculty and cited in the current edition of Carroll Capital. At a university, the creation of new knowledge—in a word, research—is highly prized. But I’d like to take a step back and ask a first-order question: Why do we put so much effort into research? And what does it have to do with our highest calling, which is to nurture and educate young minds?

I’m partial to how Henry Rosovsky, the economic historian and dean emeritus of arts and sciences at Harvard, approached the question in The University: An Owner’s Manual (W.W. Norton, 1990). It’s a classic and indispensable book that I keep close at hand on a shelf in my office. To begin with, Rosovsky makes a point about the university professor, whose role as a teacher goes far beyond transmitting “received knowledge” to students. The university professor, he writes, is a “producer of new knowledge” who shares state-of-the-art research with students at all levels.

Rosovsky takes a bold step further by declaring that research is “an expression of faith in the possibility of progress . . . a form of optimism about the human condition.” And here’s the part that hits home for me: “Persons who have faith in progress and therefore possess an intellectually optimistic disposition—i.e., teacher-scholars—are probably more interesting and better professors [my emphasis]. They are less likely to present their subjects in excessively cynical or reactionary terms.”

Note that Rosovsky says teacher-scholars are “probably” better and more interesting as teachers. As a general matter, I agree: The research-active professors I’ve known and observed over the decades are, by and large, the most engaging and effective teachers. And that goes to the wider point that high-quality, innovative research enlivens teaching and inspires students.

Let me put this in the context of the Carroll School: We don’t think of research excellence as something altogether apart from our equal focus on teaching excellence. We believe research is integral to the teaching quality we seek to achieve; it helps shape the undergraduate as well as the graduate student experience. Top-flight researchers have active, curious, and finely tuned minds, and students take notice. Indeed, as the caliber of our students grows each year, they are better able to sense true intellect. They see it in the way our faculty members frame problems, put forward reasoned arguments and hypotheses, and offer evidence rather than mere supposition. These are critical lessons for future leaders.

That’s why we do research. It is why, as a school, we also devote great energy and resources to supporting this aspect of our mission as a school of management at a national research university grounded in the tradition of Jesuit liberal arts education.

Resources matter. We’re constantly ramping up financial as well as technical support for faculty research projects and exploration. That includes everything from full-time data support and traditional grants for research projects to less-traditional “solitude grants” for thinking and writing, which reimburse faculty for up to three nights of lodging and other expenses. On the student side, also worth noting is that we fund approximately 200 undergraduate research assistants each academic year (in addition to as many teaching assistants). That’s a commitment of not only school resources but also, even more significantly, the faculty’s time with students.

Culture matters too. We’ve spent much time nurturing a certain kind of research culture that goes well beyond a solitary pursuit on the part of individual faculty members. Not a week goes by during the academic year without a couple of departmental research seminars at our school (now offered online), usually featuring presentations by scholars from other institutions.

Another series of research conversations is the Bartunek Research Forum. Three times a year, Carroll School faculty from across disciplines pack into a large conference room for presentations by one of their own, lunch provided—during normal times. (The forums migrated to Zoom, as you’ll read in Carroll Capital.) Somewhat less formally, dozens of faculty members go out to lunch, usually in pairs, to talk about research or teaching and are reimbursed under a program called “Good Conversations.”

There are many other aspects of this culture, but my question was basically, why go through all the trouble in the first place?

We go through it because research matters not just to our faculty, or even to their disciplines, but every bit as much to our students (as well as to society at large). Teacher-scholars convey something to university students about what Rosovsky simply calls “the love of learning,” because, as he styles it, “academics are students who never grow up—people who wish to remain students for the rest of their lives.” Is there a better way to model the life of the mind? I think not.

Andy Boynton is the John and Linda Powers Family Dean of the Boston College Carroll School of Management.