Leading a University Research Center

University research centers are delicate organizational systems.  They bring together faculty, research staff, and graduate students for several reasons.   Centers are often formed as a result of a large NIH or NSF grant or because of a large gift or grant from industry or wealthy alumni.  So, there is money on the table and researchers are naturally attracted to funding.

Researchers can also be attracted to the research agenda of the center.  They like the center’s portfolio and other researchers involved and want to affiliate with the endeavor.   This is also true for graduate students, who are often attracted to the research portfolio but also looking for graduate assistantships.  Prudence is needed to identify students who have the potential to make real contributions.

I have found that any university will embrace a research center that is totally externally funded and places no demands on the university.    Such centers provide resources, at least in terms of overhead, to pay for use of the brand on letterhead and brochures.  If all goes well, they hit a homerun; otherwise they quietly fold after the external resources are expended.

Universities tend to have two strategies.  For things that they view as mission critical, e.g., nanoscience and genomics, they will invest far beyond any possible returns – except bragging rights.  Other things have to earn their way onto the agenda, typically by paying returns far in excess of required investments.  This excess is used to further fund mission critical areas.

If your assignment is to run a university research center, here is some advice.  First, determine whether or not you are mission critical.  If you are receiving resources in excess of what you generate, chances are you are mission critical.  If you are, in effect, paying taxes on the resources you generate, you are a cash cow, at least as long as the cash lasts.

If you are mission critical, your success is assured – the university needs you to succeed and needs to trumpet your success.  If you are a cash cow, consider alternative futures.  A commercial spinoff might make sense.  Another possibility is to move the whole center to another university.   This might seem like being disloyal, but keep in mind that you have enjoyed little loyalty thus far.

While you are still a cash cow at your university of origin – where the center was founded – there are several tactics worth considering.  First, do your best to avoid taxes.  A primary mechanism to achieve this is to secure funds that allow no overhead charges.  Since you are not getting a share of overhead, why contribute to the pool?

Why would universities accept such stipulations?  Quite simply, they cannot walk away from money on the table.  Money received in this way makes you less of a cash cow.  However, you are not getting a share of the milk – or meat! – so why should your research center contribute?  If you are really good at this, you will find the university administration wanting to talk about how they can better support you.

When I was 12 or so, I came home from Charlie Boyd’s farm with a pigeon under my arm.  I proclaimed to my mother, “Charlie Boyd gave me a pigeon!”   My mother responded, “He didn’t give you a pigeon, he got rid of a pigeon.”  If you are directing a research center, especially one newly founded, you need to learn how to identify and avoid pigeons.

Pigeons, in the context of university research centers, are faculty members who are difficult to work with and/or consistently underperform.  Deans and department chairs often tend to recommend pigeons to research center leaders.  If you manage to transform their attitudes and performance, you have solved a problem for the dean or department head.  If not, it is now your problem.

One of the primary objectives of the leader of a research center is brand development.  You want the broad community to see your center as a prime time player in the areas of its research and teaching.  My experience is that the university will not help you with this.  Their marketing and communications staff members are oriented to serving the needs of the president, provost, et al.

Thus, you need to identify the constituencies with whom you want to communicate, develop the messages and associated packaging to communicate with these constituencies, and create the capabilities and opportunities to communicate. You will, of course, be the primary one to deliver these messages.  However, getting other faculty members involved with this messaging can contribute enormously to fostering a shared mental model of the center’s vision.

As soon as possible, you want to get to the point that you are not writing all proposals and leading all projects.  Mentoring faculty members, particularly junior faculty members, is the way to grow these competencies.  An important aspect of this is providing them opportunities to present their research to senior audiences from industry and government, not just academia.  Speaking skills, as well as writing skills, benefit from frequent opportunities to use them.

Finally, as the leader of a research center you should invest little time enhancing your resume and much time doing things that improve others’ resumes.  Your center needs to be vehicle for personal growth of faculty, staff, and students.  The outcomes from your center may include many articles, books, patents, etc., but the primary product of a university research center is the people who employ their knowledge and skills to address the needs of society, typically from a long-term perspective, but nonetheless as contributions to the common good.

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