Yesterday we celebrated Janet Mann, in her completion of a term as Vice Provost for Research. The vice provost roles are designed as three-year terms of senior faculty who want to improve the university through applying their energy to key aspects of its work – education, faculty affairs, and research. Each of the vice provosts lead a group of permanent staff, who are the real heroes of all the work of the provost’s office. A time of transition like this prompts reflection on what changes have occurred over the past few years.
The vice provost for research oversees one of the most challenging areas of the university. Georgetown is a small research university that is striving to increase its impact in the scholarly world. Much of the effort of the provost’s office, which Janet led, had the goal of supporting our faculty in increasing applications for external funding. In doing this we learned that basic processes supporting research could be improved. We had work to do.
Part of the challenge in growing research activity is that it has an administrative character that is quite different from that of the educational mission. External grant opportunities are a 12-month phenomenon. They do not disappear in the summer months. They are quite diverse in their time constraints. For example, some research contracts are one-year agreements; in that year, staff resources must be assembled, subcontracts let, space utilized, and research products delivered. The pace of academic administration typically does not have such time pressures.
Staffing decisions for externally funded research teams also produce different personnel issues. Commonly, research teams are assembled for projects and then disassembled when the project is completed. Thus, the notion that each position fills a permanent need doesn’t usually apply. Further, often the team proposed in the grant proposal is a large part of the reason that the grant was awarded. If one of the proposed members of the team was not a current university employee, unusual speed of hiring them is an important attribute of conducting the research. Over the past three years, we’ve made some progress on describing how research activities pose different administrative challenges, but much more is needed.
Janet and her colleagues also launched other mechanisms supporting faculty to increase their scholarly impact. The main campus tripled the number of internal Senior Faculty Research Fellowships for faculty, providing needed time to start or finish key research projects. We’ve attempted to improve the evaluation process for these, using best practices from other grant programs. We’ve created a course banking program for tenure-line faculty, which allows them flexibility to assemble more time for non-teaching research activities, under their own control. We’ve created partial sabbatical draws, which allow faculty to piece together other time for intensive research activity, when it can best benefit them.
Finally, it’s worth noting efforts to improve the practices of the Institutional Review Board for behavioral and social science research. This is an area undergoing external changes in policies for human subjects’ protection. An external review group connected to an accreditation group, the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs, helped us in identifying a set of practical changes that would serve the institution well. We’re pecking away at that list, attempting to provide better services for researchers, while strengthening the protections of human subjects.
Of course, there is much work remaining to be done on all the issues above. We thank Janet for launching work that will keep the provost’s office busy for many years.