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DU’s Far-Reaching Research Enterprise Aims to Advance Knowledge, Better Lives and Serve the Public Good

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Janette Ballard

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This article is the cover story in the winter issue of University of Denver Magazine. Visit the magazine website for bonus content and to read the article in its original format.

In less than a decade, the University of Denver doubled its research volume—from $19 million in 2012 to more than $38 million in 2020.

Research spending, meanwhile, increased 82% over the past 10 years. And in fiscal 2021, the University was awarded 153 new research grants, eight of them for more than $1 million.

None of this occurred by happenstance. And now DU’s concentrated research push has earned it status as a Research 1 university, a designation awarded in December by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

The step up from being an R2 institution puts the University on a par with other prestigious universities conducting the highest levels of research activity. And it makes DU the fourth Colorado institution to secure R1 ranking — and the only private R1 institution in the Rocky Mountain region.

“I think that DU is a little bit different than the average research university,” says Corinne Lengsfeld, senior vice provost for research and graduate education. “We really have leaned into this vision of a private university serving the public good, and as such, we very much are looking for research, scholarship and creative work with impact.”

Lengsfeld, the primary advocate for the University’s research mission, has shepherded efforts to leverage its intellectual capital.

As Chancellor Jeremy Haefner sees it, this emphasis on impact advances the University of Denver’s role as a catalyst for positive change. “The research underway at the University of Denver is valuable to industry, to policymakers and to scholars across the globe. It has implications that reach far beyond our labs and clinics and classrooms. And that’s critical as the University tries to attract talented faculty and students in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.”   

According to DU’s 2021 Research and Scholarship Annual Report, the University received more than $40 million in new award money, a 56% increase over the past five years. Funding comes from federal organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (up to 69%), plus industries and foundations ranging from the Carnegie Foundation to the Colorado Health Foundation and Keck Foundation.

Lengsfeld says many DU research groups have “hit it out of the park” on funding and are conducting work sure to better individual lives.

For example:

  • A group from the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is looking at toxic stress in adolescent children and building intervention programs.
  • A biomechanics group in the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science is looking at total joint replacements, tackling everything from shoulders, knees and hips to spine stabilization.
  • The Butler Institute in the Graduate School of Social Work is working with child and family welfare systems in 38 states to devise and evaluate interventions.
  • At the Morgridge College of Education, researchers have developed methodologies that significantly improve how early math is taught and learned.
  • Faculty at the Sturm College of Law are on the cutting edge of research expected to refine trial law.
  • At the Daniels College of Business, studies on emerging economies are illuminating how corporate practices can contribute to human rights violations.

Lengsfeld also points to emerging groups making great strides.

“We currently have a funded multifaculty, multidivision group in the area of migration and immigration,” she says. “This is a pretty hot topic in the world right now. They’ve really focused in on Colorado needs,” such as migration from Latin America and policy related to immigration issues.

Another emerging group, from the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, is tackling trauma and veteran psychology and needs. Other groups are focusing on prison incarceration and reducing recidivism.

According to Lengsfeld, campus research, scholarship and creative work are having an impact on the Rocky Mountain region and, in many cases, on the nation and world. 

“We define research in a much broader context than most universities,” she says. “We think of it as those involved in scholarship, which would be the basic, fundamental research, but also those that take practice and practitioners and effect policy change as a result. 

“So, what we’re really doing is the full spectrum of all the things that are really important to the region,” she adds.

Equally important is the benefit to students. Faculty members who bring their research into the classroom say it enhances the student experience. 

What’s more, Lengsfeld says, funded research “is the employer for about 1 out of 5 students on this campus, so it’s actually funding student salaries and many times their tuition.”

According to the annual report, 552 graduate and undergraduate students were supported by $3 million in grant funding in fiscal 2021.

That pleases Provost Mary Clark, who considers student research opportunities a key component of DU’s signature 4D Experience, which emphasizes intellectual growth, character development, well-being, and the nurturing of careers and lives of purpose. “The research opportunities we provide students allow them to hone their skills and develop intellectually. Our students benefit from the close collaboration with faculty mentors and from participating in projects that change lives and better communities,” Clark says.

Research, scholarship and creative work have raised the University’s visibility and rankings, and that in turn helps DU attract high-achieving students, faculty and employees, Lengsfeld says. But, she adds, any institution dedicated to the student experience needs a mixture of faculty to achieve its goals.

“As we raise research, we need to raise all the boats with us, or it won’t be sustainable, and it won’t be our brand,” she says. “So we have to find ways that as research moves forward and transforms the campus that it intimately rewards and recognizes the importance of professors of the practice and teaching faculty who really contribute in unique ways across campus.”