MISSOULA – In a major milestone for the University of Montana, UM is now a top-tier “R1” research institution.

The honor was conferred last week by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education organization. The University was upgraded to the “Doctoral Universities: Very High Research Activity” classification, also known as R1.

Since the Carnegie classification system was created in 1970, generations of UM administrators and researchers have striven toward the goal of achieving R1 status. Of the roughly 4,000 degree-granting institutions across the U.S., only 146 (about 3.7%) are ranked in this elite group.

“UM reaching R1 status is a great testament to the quality of our faculty, staff and students,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “Being one of the top research universities in the country also will help us recruit new students and faculty to campus.”

The R1 classification will last for five years, and then Carnegie will reevaluate. It is possible to return to R2 status if current high standards are not maintained.

“Earning R1 validates the impressive research and hard work of many outstanding people at the University of Montana,” UM President Seth Bodnar said. “This classification puts us in good company among the top research institutions in the world. UM has become many things during its 129-year history, and now we can add to that our status as a nationally and globally known center for research. This should help us attract even more world-class faculty, as well as the undergraduate and graduate students who will learn from them.”

Carnegie uses a variety of factors to determine whether a university qualifies for R1 status, including research spending, staffing levels to support the research enterprise and the number of doctorates awarded by the institution.

Research spending at UM has soared in recent years. The $55 million reported in fiscal year 2014 swelled to a UM-record $122 million this past year. Whittenburg said UM is the sixth-fastest growing research university in the nation, known for its work in wildlife biology, forestry, pharmacy, chemistry, climate change and more. In 2020, the vaccine research by UM’s Center for Translational Medicine landed the University on a list titled “Best Universities Solving the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

“One nice feature of the Carnegie designation is that the research dollars and doctorates are not limited to the STEM disciplines,” Whittenburg said. “Research and doctoral completion in the humanities, social sciences and other fields contributed significantly to UM’s attainment of the R1 designation.”

The Carnegie R1 calculation incorporates the total amount of funded research and the average amount funded per faculty member. Whittenburg said this means that universities with a smaller number of faculty members, such as UM, can compete with the larger schools on a level playing field.

“Our University conducts a large amount of research on a per-faculty basis,” he said.

UM chemistry Professor Mike DeGrandpre and the Missoula-based company he founded, Sunburst Sensors LLC, won a prestigious XPRIZE in 2016 by developing an accurate, affordable and durable sensor to study ocean acidification. He said the University should be proud to achieve R1 status.

“Only a handful of universities have earned the R1 classification outside of the East and West coasts,” DeGrandpre said. “This distinction is particularly impressive for our UM faculty because of the resource limitations we all have faced. UM has managed to nurture and grow research productivity against all odds, and everyone on this campus deserves credit for this success.”

Ethnobotanist Rosalyn LaPier, an associate professor of environmental studies in UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences, is a researcher who blends traditional ecological knowledge learned from Native elders with the academic study of environmental and religious history.

“As an Indigenous scholar at UM and an alumna who got my Ph.D. here, achieving R1 status is a big deal,” LaPier said. “It means that research is central to our mission and that our students will learn from scholars who are at the top of their fields. And for our Indigenous neighbors in Montana, with whom UM continues to work closely, R1 status will only serve to strengthen those relationships and provide an avenue for prestigious graduate education for Indigenous citizens.”

Richard Bridges, a Regents Professor and director of UM’s Neuroscience Program, has watched the University’s research program grow for the past 25 years.

“It’s fulfilling to see UM reach R1 status,” Bridges said. “What I think is especially rewarding is the extent to which undergraduate students have been a part of these efforts. It is really one of the best aspects of UM: Students can pursue cutting-edge, discovery-based research in the labs of the same faculty who teach their courses. Achieving R1 status speaks to the quantity and quality of the research opportunities available to our students.”

Whittenburg has chased the dream of making the University an R1 since he arrived on campus almost a decade ago.

“What I am most excited about is the indication that our research efforts contribute to areas of national need while also helping to drive local and regional economic and workforce development,” he said. “Our R1 status will boost the economy of our region while opening up new opportunities.”

- by UM News Service -

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