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Interview: Chancellor Robert Coombe discusses the role of research

"I'm not asking people to change the world," says Chancellor Robert Coombe. "I'm asking them to have an impact beyond scholarship."

Q: In your Convocation speech in September, you said, “DU will be a university where research and scholarship are focused on the improvement of individual lives and the collective good of the public.” Does this mean that DU is shifting away from basic research to more applied research?

A: Not necessarily. Basic research has a place. But it’s easy to think of the audience as simply being one’s colleagues. I’m fond of asking faculty members who the beneficiaries of their research or scholarship may be, above and beyond their students. Outside of the academy, who will benefit from the work they’re doing?

I’m not asking people to change the world. I’m asking them to have an impact beyond scholarship. I want them to think about who will appreciate their work, whose lives it will impact beyond simply their peers.

Q: How will this focus impact students?

A: In my speech I mentioned another theme — that our scholarship enterprise is one that engages students as well as faculty and staff. The sort of work that I’ve been speaking about — research that is focused on the great issues of the day, that has an impact on people, that engages an audience outside of academia-provides the best possible learning environment for students.

Q: You said in your speech that to refocus its research efforts, the University will need much greater support for faculty and students. Are you targeting more federal funding or looking to build internal sources of support?

A: Although we need to increase support altogether, we also need to broaden our sources of support. That will include increasing our competitiveness for federal funding. But, federal support is flat, and in some areas it’s declining. I don’t think the future lies there, particularly for institutions of our size. The sort of research and scholarship that has an impact on people’s lives is supported by all kinds of resources — federal money, foundation money, private money. I’d like to see external funding in general grow as a proportion of our overall operating budget.

Q: Is this sort of outcome-oriented research focus a trend in higher education, or is it unique to DU?

A: It’s common for universities to talk about their impact on society. Public institutions often talk about their research in a dollars-for-dollars sense — the proportion of a state’s economy tied to federal funding that flows into a university. I believe there ought to be a multiplier to that. Investment in academic research ought to create new ideas, new business enterprises and new nonprofits that attract people to the region and help build the economy. Although DU’s research and scholarship enterprise may be relatively small, if we focus our energies on the issues that are of great importance, I believe we can have a kind of catalytic effect.

What I’m suggesting is not some major change in the strategic direction of the University. We’ve been pushing in this direction for a long time. What I’m suggesting is, this is working for us, we have some great examples, we need to push harder. We need to find more great people of the sort I was talking about in that speech, and we need to support them well. To the extent that we can do that, then we’re going to have an enormous impact on society, and that’s going to become a part of our character.

Send your questions for Chancellor Coombe to or write to: University of Denver Magazine, attn: Q&A, 2199 S. University Blvd., Denver, CO 80208.

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