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Convocation Address

William J. Wilson

Distinguished Professor

Mathematics and Statistics

Wow! Distinguished Professor! I truly never expected to have the title “distinguished” and I am extremely grateful to my colleagues for giving me this honor and I am incredibly humbled by it. I want you to know, however, this is not the only academic award I’ve received in my lifetime.

This certificate is from the public schools of Mission, Texas a small rural town in southeast Texas near the Mexican border. This in spite of growing up as the “under-achieving” middle child. Moving north (the only direction in the US from Mission) I ultimately obtained my Ph.D. from Texas A&M University – that’s right the Aggies!

Most of you know that my degree is in Statistics. You know what a statistician is don’t you? Someone who works with numbers but doesn’t have the personality to be an accountant! Or, my personal favorite, a person whose lifetime ambition is to be wrong 5% of the time! So, here I am, a middle child growing up Billy, an Aggie, and a statistician – it’s amazing that I can even function in a civilized society let alone be considered distinguished!

When I first came to UNF, in 1975, I was like many new Ph.Ds. My ambition was to become a world-class researcher, and by the way, maybe even win the Nobel Prize (I was sure that by the time I got ready for it, there would be a prize in statistics). Why not, my role models were the world-renown statisticians that taught me at Texas A&M, and the authors of research articles I had read and worked through on the way to my degree.

During my first few years at UNF I noticed I was answering applied statistical questions for a lot of people. For example, faculty needed help in designing research studies and analyzing data in a wide range of disciplines; professionals in the community needed statistical analyses for support for submission of block grants and for legal and business decisions; and students working on graduate theses needed guidance in data collection and analysis. All of these needs seemed important, but got in the way of what I thought I should be doing – theoretical statistical research resulting in published articles in the top journals. I also noticed that these projects were really interesting – much more so then “an approach to canonical analysis of singular data,” the title of my dissertation and the research path I had chosen.

I remember a call from a local judge concerning a case brought by an orthodontist who had just caught his bookkeeper skimming all the cash deposits from one of his offices. The bookkeeper pleaded guilty, and when the judge ordered her to pay restitution, she said sure – how much? The bookkeeper had wiped out all records of the cash transactions so the orthodontist could not give the court an answer. Fortunately he had records prior to hiring the bookkeeper, and another office with a similar practice. Using statistics, we were able to calculate a precise estimate of the amount and the judge used the estimated value in ordering restitution by the bookkeeper. Neat stuff!

About this time I also noticed that full-time teaching took a lot more effort than I thought it would, because much of what I was doing involved service courses supporting other disciplines. The challenges of making statistics interesting to business majors or social science majors required a breadth of exposure to real problems and experience in solving them. In other words, I felt that I needed examples from a wide range of areas to generate interest.

In 1982 I had the opportunity to spend a year as a visitor at the University of Southwest Louisiana in their newly developed Ph.D. program in Statistics and to do some productive theoretical research. So we packed up and moved to Lafayette, Louisiana. After a year in the program (and a year of eating crawfish and listening to Cajun music), it became apparent to me that I really did not have an interest in pure research so I came back to UNF.

After coming back to Jacksonville in the fall of 1983, I decided to become really involved in solving these “real world” problems that presented themselves. So, with the support of my then chair, Bill Caldwell, we started a center within the department called the Institute of Statistics, now known as the Center for Research and Consulting in Statistics (or Circus).

The Center for Research and Consulting in Statistics:
The purpose of this center was to channel the applied statistical problems that came to the department into a coordinated effort, involve our statistics students to the extent possible, involve other faculty in the department, and allow outside funding to be funneled into a sponsored research TAP account. During the first four years of doing this I became involved in over 150 projects with UNF faculty, outside agencies and businesses, and a few graduate students from other disciplines.

It was then that I put my dossier together to go up for full Professor. In it I explained the kind of applied research that I had focused on, and my vita contained a number of co-authored articles in a wide range of journals. Unfortunately most of them were not statistics journals. I was soundly rejected for promotion, and realized that a number of faculty and administrators reviewing my dossier considered what I had done in applied research as “good service”, but not really research. Since then very little has changed in the way we view scholarship, and very good young faculty choosing the same path as I did are finding huge obstacles in their way in achieving promotion and tenure. In fact, we have examples of exactly this situation in last year’s promotion and tenure deliberations.

In January of 1990, Afesa Adams, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked several of us involved in the General Education program to attend the National Conference for Higher Education sponsored by the AAHE in San Francisco. The keynote speaker at the conference was Ernest Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In his talk and the subsequent report, scholarship was defined as four equal but overlapping functions. These are: the scholarship of discovery, of integration, of application, and of teaching. The main focus of the entire conference was this new definition of scholarship and began the discussion of how faculty reward systems need to be changed. I am sure most of you are familiar with this report, and in fact, three of the four functions are already being adequately addressed in our current faculty reward system. The one that seems to be left out (if not totally ignored) is the scholarship of application – applied research.

In 1997, unfortunately two years after the death of Ernest Boyer, the Carnegie Foundation published another report addressing this issue entitled “Scholarship Assessed”. In this report, applied scholarship (also referred to as applied research) is defined as serious, demanding work, requiring the rigor - and the accountability –associated with traditional research activities. The question of evaluating applied scholarship is addressed and the report offers a coordinated system of evaluation for scholarship. This system is based on six standards:
1 Boyer, E.L. (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
2 Glassick, C.E., Huber, M.T., and Maeroff, G.I. (1997) Scholarship Assessed, Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

  • Clear goals – important questions in the field
  • Adequate Preparation – understanding of existing scholarship
  • Appropriate methods – apply effectively the method selected
  • Significant results – are the goals achieved
  • Effective presentation – is the appropriate forum for communicating work used
  • Reflective critique – is the work critically evaluated

All standards we as faculty and administrators should be addressing as we evaluate faculty candidates for hire, for promotion and tenure, and for merit pay.
You may ask, why should applied scholarship play an important role at the University of North Florida when it probably doesn’t at the University of Florida (even though we’ll soon both be Division I schools)?


First, the UNF Board of Trustees has adopted four principles as guides for UNF’s strategic plan. These were featured by President Delaney in his inaugural address last February. The third of these guiding principles is (and I quote) “ A commitment to relevance. This involves tying our work here to important and vexing community issues, and demonstrating how we add value towards solutions: scholarship matched with community.”


Second, our published “Institutional Priorities” include the statement that “UNF will be known for providing …, intellectual and creative activities for the larger community, and the development of public service partnerships….” A clear mandate to applied research..
Third, the Association of American Colleges and Universities lists among the challenges of the New Academy “social responsibility” and “civic engagement”.

Finally, to slightly paraphrase the Carly Simon lyrics, “It’s the right thing to do.”

OK, Wilson, everybody agrees, we should be looking at applied scholarship as real research, but how do we handle it here at UNF. I’ll tell you what I did. Immediately after being rejected for promotion, I put together my notes from the AAHE conference, wrote an article entitled “Statistical Consulting IS Scholarship” and submitted it to a refereed journal in Statistics, The American Statistician. In the article I delineated all the reasons that an academic statistician doing his or her job well actually touched on all four of the functions of research identified by Ernest Boyer. The article must have struck a cord with the editor and the referees, because the article was not only accepted for publication, but the editor made it the feature article of the issue and asked four eminent statisticians, including two past presidents of the American Statistical Association, to write comments on the article. All four totally agreed with my premise.

Coincidentally I had been collaborating with a colleague at Texas A&M on a text book entitled Statistical Methods. I took many of the problems that I had worked on in the Institute of Statistics (by now there were over 300 of them) and used them as examples and exercises in the text. I also felt that it was important to have some real peer review of the efforts in applied research I was doing, so I packaged up three of the larger projects into what I thought were cohesive packages and sent them out to statisticians at other institutions for their comments. All sent back comprehensive reviews of the projects along with a number of constructive suggestions. I included all these in my dossier and applied again for promotion to Professor and this time was successful.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to separate applied research from service. Applied research can develop new intellectual understandings from the very act of application, whether in medical diagnosis, exploration of an environmental problem, or an attempt to apply the latest learning theories in public schools. Applied research can consist of such activities as public history, consulting and providing expert testimony on public policy, historic preservation and cultural resource management, and social program evaluation.

Second, we need to be able to evaluate this stuff in a real way. In other words we need a way to recognize quality in applied research just as we do in traditional research. We need to guard against a reoccurrence of the case of the mimeographed monograph! Unfortunately we can’t just count the number of refereed articles on applied research published in professional journals. Let’s look at a hypothetical example.
Suppose you are a Biologist and you have been hired to do an environmental impact study for a developer who wants to put high end houses on a sensitive wetland. You spend a great deal of time and effort on doing this (and of course are paid handsomely). Obviously you would like to have this effort recognized as legitimate applied research. Applying the standards proposed by the Carnegie Foundation we see that:


  1. This is certainly an “important question in the field” – it may well be the most important issue surrounding the development.
  2. Obviously you have demonstrated an “understanding of existing scholarship” and have used the most up-to-date biology possible to evaluate the impact.
  3. You have applied “effectively the method selected”,
  4. The “goals are achieved”, you have defined the impact on the environment sufficiently,
  5. You have submitted your report in the “appropriate forum for communicating” the results of the impact study - in fact, there may well be several unanticipated forums for communicating your results in the form public hearings in which you can present (and defend) your findings, and certainly the news media will be discussing your work. The only question then remains about the last criteria,
  6. Is the work critically evaluated? It is not enough to satisfy your employer or the city or county unless they have a biologist who is qualified to review and critique your work and does so. This may be the key to identifying this study as good applied research. You may have to submit the report, either by itself or together with other such studies, to a biologist whose expertise is in environmental sciences for a thorough critique. This can be done in a way in which the proprietary nature of the study is protected.
    Correctly packaged and reviewed, and recognized, projects such as this can be significant additions to a faculty member’s scholarship agenda – and can contribute greatly to the mission of UNF.

So how do we incorporate applied research into our standard practice at UNF, particularly in our promotion and tenure deliberations? Obviously one way would be to hire new faculty whose interests are in applied research. However, this is a slippery slope – since we would need to have the mechanisms to support these faculty in place otherwise we set them up for failure. Therefore let me propose a few things that we can do right now,

  1. Inform faculty and administrators
  2. Offer incentives for faculty
  3. Enhance undergraduate research


First, we should provide support for faculty and students to do applied research, both financial and moral. The Office of Faculty Enhancement should be expanded to include professional staff that can aid in doing data and statistical analysis, and provide support for technical presentations. Second, we must make sure that we properly present applied research in all the appropriate venues and make sure that the efforts get appropriate peer review – perhaps through independent requests for review from professionals in the areas. Third, we should strengthen our language in P&T and Merit Pay guidelines to more specifically recognize applied research (although I am not sure whether these guidelines can be changed without re-negotiating the contract). Fourth, we should allow our faculty and administrators the opportunity to become informed on how to assess applied research. For example, we might offer a workshop for P&T committee members and administrator prior to their deliberations each year, perhaps bringing someone in from an institute known for its applied research Fifth, we should offer incentives for developing applied research, such as summer research grants tied to problems identified in the local, state, or national arenas. Endowed or funded chairs could be tied to similar problems. Sixth, we could further enhance our undergraduate research efforts by tying them to identified community problems. I’m sure there are many other things that could be used to help shift the culture to match our scholarship to the community. If we want to talk the talk, we should be able to walk the walk.

I am extremely proud to be named 2004 distinguished professor, and follow a long exemplary list of distinguished professors. It has been exactly 20 years since the last distinguished professor, Len Lipkin, was named in my department and I challenge my colleagues in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics not to allow another 20 years to elapse before the next one comes along. Thank you.