A research university is a university that expects all its tenured and tenure-track faculty to continuously engage in research, as opposed to merely requiring it as a condition of an initial appointment or tenure. Such universities can be recognized by their strong focus on innovative research and the prestige of their brand names. On the one hand, research universities strive to recruit faculty who are the most brilliant minds in their disciplines in the world, and their students enjoy the opportunity to learn from such experts. On the other hand, new students are often disappointed to realize their undergraduate courses at research universities are overly academic and fail to provide vocational training with immediate "real world" applications; but many employers value degrees from research universities in the expectation that such coursework develops fundamental life skills like critical thinking.
Higher education institutions which are not research universities (or do not aspire to that designation) instead place more emphasis on teaching or other aspects of tertiary education, and their faculties are under less pressure to publish or perish.
The concept of the modern research university first arose in early 19th-century Germany, where Wilhelm von Humboldt championed his vision of Einheit von Lehre und Forschung (the unity of teaching and research), as a means of producing an education that focused on the main areas of knowledge (the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities) rather than on the previous goals of the university education, which was to develop an understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness.
It developed into its most advanced and successful form in the United States, centered on three foundational principles: "integration of teaching and research, academic freedom," and a conception of the nature of research as open-ended and unending. From the late 20th century to the present, U.S. research universities have dominated most international college and university rankings.
Roger L. Geiger, a historian specializing in the history of higher education in the United States, has argued that "the model for the American research university was established by five colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution (Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Columbia); five state universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and California); and five private institutions conceived from their inception as research universities (MIT, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Chicago)."
- Pelikan, Jaroslav (1992). The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 76. ISBN 9780300058345. Retrieved 13 January 2017. As explained therein, Pelikan uses this phrase with reluctance because in his view, it is improper to apply the term "university" to higher education institutions that are not strongly focused on research.
- O'Shaughnessy, Lynn (2012). The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. p. 125. ISBN 9780132944694. Archived from the original on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
- Andreatta, Britt (2011). Navigating the Research University: A Guide for First-Year Students (3rd ed.). Boston: Wadsworth. p. 5. ISBN 9780495913788. Archived from the original on 2017-02-15.
- Andreatta, Britt (2011). Navigating the Research University: A Guide for First-Year Students (3rd ed.). Boston: Wadsworth. p. 136. ISBN 9780495913788. Archived from the original on 2017-02-15.
- Bommel, Bas van (2015-12-14). "Between 'Bildung' and 'Wissenschaft': The 19th-Century German Ideal of Scientific Education German Education and Science". Europäische Geschichte Online. Retrieved 2018-04-29.
- Menand, Louis; Reitter, Paul; Wellmon, Chad (2017). "General Introduction". The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9780226414850. Archived from the original on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
- Cole, Jonathan R. (2009). The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected. New York: PublicAffairs. p. 3. ISBN 9781610390972. Archived from the original on 2017-02-17.
- Crow, Michael M.; Dabars, William B. (2015). Designing the New American University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN 9781421417233. Retrieved 28 May 2017. The quoted sentence is Crow and Dabars' paraphrasing of Geiger's analysis.