UNC-System Schools and the “R1” Wars

A forthcoming Carnegie Classifications change is proving enticing to some North Carolina universities.

Some North Carolina public universities hope to leverage revisions to higher education’s preeminent classification methodology to achieve game-changing status reserved presently for a small handful of state schools. If they are successful, the potential exists to boost the roughly $2 billion in yearly sponsored research at UNC-System schools.

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education groups colleges and universities by their funding level for research and development, as well as the number of doctoral degrees granted. Although it is not a ranking, for a half-century it has been a go-to source for organizations that do rank higher-education institutions, conferring academic clout and esteem on a campus. Legislators use the tool to determine government appropriations. Private-sector grantors and policymakers use it to calculate research funding and devise policies.

The UNC System “does not maintain a list of institutions’ aspirations regarding Carnegie Classifications,” said David English, UNC-System senior vice president of academic affairs, so he could not provide a list of what campuses hope to elevate to the loftiest R1 or R2 designations. The American Council on Education (ACE) oversees the process directly with individual institutions and does not involve state system offices or governance entities.

Universities grouped in the Carnegie Classifications’ most elite category become a magnet for greater research funding.But East Carolina University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and North Carolina A&T State University have all made clear their intentions to climb to the R1 summit. N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill have thus far been the only North Carolina public-school entries in that cluster.

Colleges and universities grouped in the Carnegie Classifications’ most elite category become a magnet for greater research funding. That amplifies their ability to recruit top-tier professors and students. In turn, universities can expand the number of research projects that, conventional wisdom holds, contribute to the public good, economic growth, and social mobility.

The Carnegie Classifications are controlled by ACE but owned by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It stratifies institutions as doctoral universities, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate/associate’s colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions, and tribal colleges and universities.

At the top of the Carnegie Classification pyramid are doctoral universities. These can be labeled either R1, meaning they conduct “very high research activity,” or R2, which implies high research activity, albeit lacking in research facilities and/or researchers.

There are 16 doctoral universities in North Carolina, of which nine are public. Duke University is the only other North Carolina university besides N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill at the R1 level. East Carolina University, North Carolina A&T, UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte, and UNC Wilmington are R2 level. Western Carolina University and Winston-Salem State University are doctoral universities but are not in the R1 or R2 groupings.

Spurred by university leaders overseeing a changing landscape, the Carnegie Classifications recently set about reimagining the framework that lumps together colleges and universities solely by the highest degree offered. The revisions are intended “to ensure they better reflect the public purpose, mission, focus, and impact of today’s higher education institutions,” the organization said.

Multidimensional labels “that more accurately describe the richness and multifaceted nature of today’s colleges and universities” will be adopted starting in 2025, the organization said. The goal is to make the classifications more relevant and useful for policymakers, funders, and researchers. To gain R1 status will require a threshold of $50 million in total R&D spending and 70 doctoral research degrees. R2 methodology will remain unchanged: At least 20 doctoral research degrees and $5 million in total research expenditures will continue to be required.

For each new university patent, researchers estimate 15 additional jobs are created in the local economy.“Research universities are often at the forefront of knowledge creation and technology development. The research conducted at these institutions can lead to innovations and discoveries that may be commercialized, contributing to the growth of local industries and providing economic benefits to the broader community,” English said. Furthermore, “the research conducted at universities often addresses societal challenges, contributing to the public good. This commitment to public impact aligns with the broader goals of communities and taxpayers, demonstrating that the institution is dedicated to making a positive difference to North Carolina.”

The addition of R1 and R2 universities to the UNC System, English added, would represent increased research output and economic contributions, enhanced academic prestige, collaborative research opportunities, and a vibrant intellectual environment. “These factors collectively contribute to the overall strength and impact of the UNC System in the academic and broader community,” he said.

A spokesman at UNC Charlotte said that research expenditures have more than doubled at the university over the past decade, with substantial increases in areas such as bioinformatics, energy, and education. The percentage of research doctorates awarded has increased nearly 20 percent.

“We are confident that this [R1] recognition by Carnegie will open new avenues for research and exploration for our faculty, attract additional graduate and doctoral students, provide growth opportunities for our employees, and contribute to the economic vitality of the city of Charlotte,” the spokesman said. “Currently, Charlotte is one of only two large cities in the U.S. (Jacksonville is the other) that does not have an R1 university. In fact, the closest R1 to Charlotte is still more than 100 miles away in Columbia, South Carolina. This expected recognition isn’t just a positive step for UNC Charlotte. It also helps support the needs of our growing region, both in the recruitment of new businesses to the area and the development of a talented, innovative workforce.”

The spokesman cited a Brookings report that said increasing state funding to research universities leads to higher levels of local patenting and entrepreneurship. For each new university patent, researchers estimate 15 additional jobs are created outside the university in the local economy.

East Carolina University won an R2 Carnegie Community Engagement Classification from ACE for 2024. ECU chancellor Philip Rogers issued a message on Nov. 20, 2023, that ECU is “on the cusp” of landing an R1 designation.

Some posit that the Carnegie revisions might usher in more wasteful spending and inferior research.“As Carnegie recalibrates its criteria to make the rating system more comprehensive, precise, and nuanced, ECU is well positioned to be considered for the elite status starting in 2025,” said Rogers, who served on the national presidential roundtable that reshaped and modernized the Carnegie Classifications.

“So, what would an R1 rating mean for us, exactly?” Rogers went on to ask. “As an accurate reflection of ECU’s research scope and quality, a top-tier designation signals to the world that we’re a community on the move. It effectively spotlights the record level of support granted to our research—including some $85.5 million across 438 awards in 2023 alone. And it encourages many more of the best researchers, staff, students, supporters, and collaborators to join us at East Carolina University.”

“In short,” Rogers concluded, “an R1 Carnegie designation can spur a snowball effect to help us expand scholarship, amplify research, and reinforce our impact for students and regional communities. It would be next-level good news for North Carolina and beyond.” Moreover, “it would speak to the profound dedication, hard work, and indomitable talent and skill that exists across ECU.”

Not all academic observers share that enthusiasm. Indeed, they posit that the Carnegie revisions might usher in more wasteful spending and inferior research.

“The coveted R1 designation remains a status marker,” said Allen Mendenhall. He is Troy University associate dean and Grady Rosier Professor in the Sorrell College of Business and executive director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy. “Because grant money follows an R1 or R2 classification, universities will pursue what they perceive as a higher and more prestigious classification. But that means throwing a bunch of money at activity that universities can claim to be ‘research’ regardless of whether that research is good, valuable, useful, or even publishable.”

Mendenhall also said that the Carnegie Classifications do not measure research output, the number of papers or books faculty publish, or the quality of research production.

“Some universities would go out of business spending $50 million on research while maintaining 70 research-based doctoral programs, both requirements of the R1 status. Public regionals are suffering right now, and those seeking the R2 status expose themselves to great risk by spending $5 million on research while maintaining 20 doctoral programs,” Mendenhall said.

Taxpayers deserve to know the public till is indeed producing a quantifiable public good.The changes to the Carnegie Classifications allegedly reduce competition between colleges and universities, he added, but the economic reality is that competition is healthy.

“By contrast, the incentives established by Carnegie are, again from an economics perspective, bad,” Mendenhall said. “The Carnegie Classifications incentivize waste: massive expenditures on activity that may not benefit society at all, or that may be wrong or harmful.”

Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Reform at the Cato Institute, doesn’t think the impending changes to the Carnegie Classifications are intended to expand who can get federal research money, and he sees no evidence the changes were influenced by government.

“They appear to be driven primarily by a desire to make the classifications better align with actual types of institutions, though there is also clearly an effort to incorporate generally progressive concerns about rewarding schools that enroll higher levels of low-income students,” McCluskey said. He does not believe incorporating that information into the mix will greatly change where research money goes.

“That change will only come if the federal government seeks to move more research to those schools,” he said. “That could lower quality if their researchers or facilities are not as good as institutions enrolling higher-income students, which seems likely.”

Terance Kealey, vice-chancellor emeritus at the University of Buckingham, made the cautionary case against U.S. government spending for scientific research in an article for Libertarianism.org. He traced the debate to the 1700s, when Adam Smith, known as the father of modern economics and the author of The Wealth of Nations, championed entrepreneurship by which private industry conducted the research needed for technological improvement and economic advancement.

As it is, UNC-System schools generated $2.2 billion in sponsored program funding in 2022, according to its most recent report to the president in April 2023. Subtracting federal Covid layouts, the amount was $1.9 billion. Of that, more than $1.4 billion, or 67 percent, came from federal agencies. That outpaces national statistics, which show federally funded university R&D accounted for $54 billion, or only 55 percent of total expenditures, in fiscal year 2022, according to the National Science Foundation.

“Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”According to the UNC-System report, state government allocated nearly $203 million, or 29 percent of almost $712 million in nonfederal funding awards.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once served as president of Columbia University, warned about the risks of increasing levels of federal money for university research.

“A steadily increasing share [of research] is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government [so] the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity,” Eisenhower said in his 1961 farewell speech.

It will be interesting to see how the new Carnegie Classifications play out. But with a rising tide of federal funding crowding out private business and industry research, it is past time to set in motion a process by which to more vigorously measure results and scrutinize claimed benefits. Taxpayers deserve to know the public till is indeed producing a quantifiable public good, not make-work projects.

Dan E. Way is the senior communications manager in the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer. He was previously a writer for Carolina Journal and the editor of the Chapel Hill Herald.