What I Expect Of A Research Administrator – Reprint

What I Expect Of A Research Administrator, by Richard Duncan, Vice President for Research, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. Reprinted from the Journal of Research Administration, Volume 1, Number 1, July, 1969


I have been asked to talk briefly on the topic, “What I Expect of a Research Administrator.” Since my only experience with research administration has been acquired in a university environment, I must warn in advance that my remarks are relevant only in that context. However, I have met and talked with enough of my counterparts to believe that some of these remarks apply to more universities than merely the one it is my privilege to serve.

My topic as assigned is deceptively simple. It sounds almost as though one could write a job description for a well-trained paragon called a “research administrator” and then hire such a person in the market place to quietly perform a specialized, esoteric job. Since anyone taking this approach is likely to be disappointed, I would rather talk about the process of research administration (as it applies to universities) and some of the problems related to that process. This approach can be translated, at least by inference to expectation and job descriptions for those who are to carry on the process.

It is only in recent years that universities have begun to make up their minds that a process which could be called “research administration” is even necessary. There remain legions of unconvinced professors and colleagues. One is often asked the question, “Why don’t you do it the way we do it in the Agricultural Experiment Station?”; or “Why don’t you just let the Business Office do the bookkeeping?” Of course, the answer to both questions is that the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Education, the Department of Defense, NASA, etc., are all very perverse in exercising their rights to be different from one another as well as different from the Department of Agriculture. These differences pervade required proposal formats, reporting requirements, funding schedules, billing procedures, property control requirements, indirect cost allowances, allowable expenditures, etc. They even pervade the bookkeeping, in that different agencies require different kinds of “break-outs” in reports. The net result is, that at most universities, general accounting is done by the Business Office and project accounting has grown by accretion in some sort of structure which is becoming known as Research Administration.

I do not want to imply that the minutiae of research administration justify its existence. Nor do I want to dismiss the minutiae as merely the result of a burgeoning federal bureaucracy imposing its requirements on the universities. Human activity which is subject to public accountability always generates a great deal of record keeping. Didactic teaching has created its share of registration forms, absence reports, drop slips, grade reports, etc. So have the keeping of medical records, tax records and land records. And we need not deplore too much the differences in record keeping required by the various federal agencies. They really do have different missions and programs — some differences in administration are to be expected.

  1. The first challenge is that of doing the job well — simply because it must be done. Doing it meticulously is not enough. It must also be done as unobtrusively as possible so as to preserve the charm of the academic environment for the individual professor. The research administrator who is constantly displaying his expertise in federal regulations to the academic staff deserves chastising.
  2. The second challenge is to integrate the minutiae into an effective management information system which is open and available to all officers of the university — academic department heads, deans, vice-presidents, president and regents. This is not an easy job. Not everyone needs to know everything. One can’t even find two deans that who agree on what they need to know (they are as different as federal agencies). These officers have every right to be involved in the processes of research administration and management. How do you design and implement — on your campus and in your particular circumstances — a truly meaningful management information system?
  3. The third challenge is to work within such organizations as this and with the federal agencies to reduce the complexity of handling the minutiae. I have indicated that some of this complexity is natural and inherent in the differences among missions and programs. But that does not mean that either we or the federal agencies have seriously tried to minimize the complexity of the job.

So much for the nitty-gritty part of research administration — that of getting the chores done in the best possible way and with the least amount of fuss.

The other part of the job is to acquire understanding of the research process itself. At one time society may have been willing to fund research projects for the sole purpose of achieving specific technical objectives, but this is no longer so. Of course, the specific objectives, becoming known as “project values,” are still important and always will be. But the vast amount of money being spent on research has created new imperatives for understanding. There is growing consideration of the manner in which research is, or ought to be, related to education, of the effect of research on economic development, of the diffusion of new knowledge — in short, a number of things which people have known about for a long time but which were dismissed as side effects not worthy of conscious study by really serious scholars. We have even evolved some jargon for these things, in that we now talk about the “process values” of research.

The growing awareness of “process values” accounts to some extent for the shifting patterns of federal spending for research. There is a trend away from research as a multiplicity of funded projects and toward such things as “centers-of-excellence” grants and formula grants — a tendency to view an academic community as something precious in its own right. At the same time there are great expectations of our universities. They are being referred to as agents of change in society or as engines of progress. (They used to be places where the state legislature spent money to educate kids.)

I have tried to sketch a picture of research administration as a process which requires good technique in matters of detail, ability to extract meaningful information from the detail and communicate it to those who need it, maintenance of the integrity of the whole academic process and some understanding of the effect of research on society. (That is such a tall order I am really beginning to doubt that there is any such thing as a Research Administrator.)

An important point is that in a university the responsibility for research administration, research management and research policy is diffused throughout the organization. Many people must cooperate in order to make the entire process effective. I have observed situations in which the Research Administrator could be described rather simply as someone who helps the boss with his paper work. Helping the boss with paper work is an important job, but I happen to think that a good administrator must have a capacity to do more; critically analyze and improve routine procedures, prepare studies which assist in the interpretation of the activities of the organization, help to resolve conflict in the organization, relate the activities to other parts of the organization and, above all, be able to realize that administration is the servant of research, not its master.