The Evolving Role of the Vice President for Research: Early Results of a National Survey*

Jeff Harris & Rick Skinner, Harris Search Associates, May 2015

 An earlier commentary on this website recorded an after-work conversation between the two authors about the role of the vice president or vice chancellor of research in today’s research university.  That commentary reflected our experience in recent years assisting institutions to find and recruit for the position.

More systematic findings are available from the results of a survey first presented in the summer of 2014 (Droegemeier et al, 2014) under the title, “National Survey of APLU Vice Presidents and Vice Chancellors for Research,” and forthcoming as the basis for an extended article. The two resonate with one another in depicting an executive administrative role that “[i]s a key (though perhaps not well understood) position in public and private research universities” (Slide #2). Note: a copy of the presentation is enclosed below

There is much to learn from the survey results. As a search firm, we culled the results of the survey with an eye for how incumbents view:

• the critical aspects of their job, including what they see as the really important knowledge and skills for achieving success in the post;

• what the major changes of late are that pose new  challenges; and

• what incumbents aspire to after their time as VPR/VCR.

It’s worth noting that a sizeable majority of the respondents reported they strongly disagreed, disagreed or neither agreed nor disagreed when asked if they had received either formal or informal training that allowed them to be competitive for their post. Presumably the academic backgrounds of most of the respondents in engineering and the sciences afforded them sufficient opportunity to understand the research enterprise and lead one within a university.

But when asked what were the most important attributes brought to the position, respondents cited “university culture” and “developing strategic research areas and/or teams” much more frequently over “national research priorities,” “personnel management,” or “how to develop and sustain programs.” 

Couple these findings with the nearly-unanimous rating of “multidisciplinary research” as the top goal of strategic planning and it appears that a “broadening” or more institutional perspective is required of the role even if vice presidents/vice chancellors for research are unlikely to have had any training whatsoever to acquire such a perspective.

Moreover, “leadership” is rated as the most important skill a vice president can bring to the position, yet formal preparation or training in leadership is seldom available or a prerequisite for advancement in administrative responsibility. Service as a department chair or as an associate dean are viewed as the best preparation for leadership in academia. And this is an important consideration in light of the survey’s finding that nearly one third of the respondents aspire to academic presidencies and almost one quarter have an eye on the job of provost.

Not surprisingly given the tenor of the times, funding issues – both internal and external – dwarf all other concerns of vice presidents of research, with the decline of federal support for research figuring large. But the addition of “economic development” to the role and the title of respondents add a new dimension to the post that may also be daunting. While the link seems clear between research, discovery and invention, on the one hand, and application and innovation, on the other, academic research can sometimes defy easy interpretation as economic development. Universities are only now going into the business of commercialization and legal questions crop up frequently enough to suggest that this is new territory for vice presidents for research and their institutions to take on.

These are only a few of the results of this important survey; no doubt more will be forthcoming with the publication of the entire analysis. For the moment, however, they confirm that the role of vice president/vice chancellor for research continues to evolve and change. On the one hand, the position appears to carry much greater weight and responsibility within the institutions than it did even 10-15 years ago. Research-intensive universities, not surprisingly, thrive or wither on the strength or weakness of their research enterprise. Vice presidents bear hefty responsibilities but themselves command virtually no troops, relying on persuasion and incentives to coax faculty to do more and more strategic research.

Younger and less research-intensive universities, by contrast, are wagering heavily on research to advance them in their comparative standings and some have leaders who persist in their belief that research can be a source of much-needed revenue, veteran vice presidents for research notwithstanding.

More than forty years ago, Michael Cohen and James March wrote of the American research university as “organized anarchy” – a place in which inhabitants are generally free with respect to what they pay attention. Gaining faculty members’ attentions is no small feat or any easier than it was in 1974, so the role of the vice president for research continues to evolve and change, if only to hold attention long enough to produce research.



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