All SEC universities designated with highest research mark from top commission

For the second year in a row, all member institutions have been designated by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education as doctoral universities holding the highest level of research activity.

March 22, 2020

The 14 member universities of the Southeastern Conference possess large and varied research portfolios comprising agricultural advances, medical discoveries, and technological breakthroughs. Though diverse, these wide-ranging accomplishments have placed the league under one very important, research-themed banner, SEC officials say.

For the second year in a row, all member institutions have been designated by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education as doctoral universities holding the highest level of research activity. Announced each December, the “Very High” classification – formerly known as Research 1 or R1 – includes less than three percent of educational institutions in the United States. According to the SEC, the Conference is one of only four NCAA conferences with every member in the top category.

“Achieving the ‘Very High’ research status from a respected academic organization acknowledges decades of important work happening within the SEC,” says Associate Commissioner for Academic Relations Dr. Torie A. Johnson. “It is gratifying to us as conference administrators to be able to highlight what is taking place on our campuses.”

In the past, SEC faculty and students alike have earned numerous awards and honors for their research, whether for studying penguin nests in Antarctica or for creating 3D-printed prosthetics for children with missing limbs.

Spanning the gamut of research

Combined, SEC universities’ research and development investments total nearly $5.2 billion, with an approximate outward economic impact of $77 billion. Outcomes considered in the $77 billion figure include employment and entrepreneurship opportunities as well as technologies from SEC labs entering the marketplace.

“The message being sent is that discovery and innovation are at the forefront in the SEC,” Johnson says. “Leaders at all of our institutions know scholarship is important and something in which the institution is going to invest.”

SEC researchers are focused on practical, interdisciplinary study in critical areas like cybersecurity, one of the greatest economic and security challenges facing the country today. Additionally, SEC schools are spearheading important, and in some cases, cross-collaborative research into the nation’s water resources, looking into issues like land growth and erosion along the Mississippi River. A PBS “Nature” episode featured conference-led research on butterfly evolution and migration.

“Our work really does span the gamut,” says Johnson. “There’s a little bit of everything when you consider all 14 universities together.”

Dr. Harris Pastides, former President of the University of South Carolina and the SEC, noted that conference scientists are not only engaging in scientific research that has long-term applications but also work that has tangible, everyday benefits.

“We’re doing basic science, but we also do practical research that makes the world we live in a better place,” Pastides said. “Our work is relevant in making the world more innovative, creative, and prosperous.”

Since 2013, the SEC has supported several research-focused endeavors aimed at faculty, students, and administrators. For example, intra-conference teamwork is the goal of a program providing faculty an opportunity to conduct research, develop grant proposals, present lectures, and deliver performances with their SEC colleagues. More than 100 faculty are scheduled to participate this year to study music, engineering, anthropology, law, medicine, and African American studies, among other areas of interest.

When instituting the program, the SEC provosts made certain to allow for performing arts and other research areas beyond the STEM fields, notes Johnson. A music-related venture, for instance, may involve a cellist studying his or her craft with an SEC colleague and then playing before a new audience at the colleague’s university.

Among the conference’s past initiatives is the SEC Symposium, designed to address significant scholarly issues by harnessing the disciplinary strengths of member universities. Previous programs included both SEC researchers and outside faculty to discuss and present research in the areas of obesity prevention and renewable energy.

Spreading the good word

The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education established its classification in 1970 to support research and policy analysis, publishing its first official findings in 1973. Believed to be the country’s most comprehensive educational institution review, the commission takes into account the number of doctoral graduates and research expenditures a university produces. By garnering a “Very High” designation at each of its member universities, the SEC joins the Ivy League, Pac-12, and Big Ten as the only other NCAA conference to enjoy this achievement.

Many of the SEC schools had previously been designated as “Very High Research Activity” prior to the Carnegie announcements. However, the new, all-inclusive status has special meaning for a conference where loyalty runs deep.

“Once everyone earned their stripes, it was an opportunity to tell the world that as a group, we are peer to some of the country’s great research universities,” said Pastides. “It’s a chance to tell others what we already knew. For faculty, it gives them a great source of confidence that they are working at institutions akin to the best in the country. It may not be a revolutionary announcement, but it’s an important one.”

From a communications standpoint, the Carnegie Commission nod also dovetails with the SEC’s “It Just Means More” campaign, further boosting image enhancement efforts that already promote league academic accomplishments on a regional, national, and international level, says Johnson.

“There is a segment of the population that believes the SEC and its institutions are only about sports, especially football,” she says. “We challenge ourselves daily to try and alter that viewpoint by helping people see there’s more happening here than our championship-caliber athletic programs. We want to spotlight and support our championship-caliber research accomplishments as well.”

Prospective students with technical interests may be more likely to consider an SEC campus given the “Very High” research activity designation, Johnson says. The designation could also draw notice from the National Science Foundation and additional grant-funding agencies seeking to support proposals from top scientists and engineers.

Considering the goals of any university are to teach, conduct research, and serve the wider world, the benefits of the commission’s backing are limitless, said Pastides.

“The 14 members of the SEC have embraced this trifold mission with gusto and great zeal in recent years,” he said. “It is not a surprise to see our efforts, particularly in research, being acknowledged nationally by the Carnegie Commission.”



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