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50th Anniversary Recap: Founders’ View on SRAI’s Creation, Principles and Vision - Part 2

By SRAI News posted 02-22-2018 12:00 AM


Lawrie RobertsonAuthored by:
Lawrie Robertson
Retired Assistant Dean for Finance and Administration
University of Washington

This is Part 2 of a 3-part article. For Part 1 from January's Catalyst, please see here.

Fifty years of service to the profession has been celebrated and documented in numerous interviews, videos and panel session. These have involved such SRAI thought leaders as Cindy Kiel, Marjorie Piechowski, Karen Wilson, Bill Schweri, Dan Oshiro, Angela Volpini, Micahel Owen, Elliott Kulakowski and Sandra Nordahl - please see here for more.

This is the second of three Catalyst articles tracing SRAI’s 50-year evolution. January’s article focused on three core principles which guided the SRAI founders’ vision: a mantra of “administration FOR research”; creating an inclusive and diverse membership environment; and offering administrators the opportunity to build and expand a personal network of subject-matter experts (first local, now global).

Now we turn attention to how SRAI has become a global force for professional development and collaboration. Four long-time SRAI members were selected for in-depth interviews: Alaska Chapter Founder Merit Helffrich; former SRAI Presidents Michael “Spanky” McCallister and Jim Hanlon; and INORMS Co-founder and first SRAI International Section President Peter Townsend. These interviews covered their views on SRAI’s guiding principles and characteristics; why they joined SRAI and continued to attend SRAI Annual Meetings; SRAI’s evolution, changes, globalization and challenges faced; how they envision SRAI best serving its global membership going forward as a relevant resource to help address the research management challenges in the coming decade.

Guiding Principles and Attractive Characteristics:

Merritt HelffrichMerritt Helffrich has witnessed a lot of changes since first joining SRAI in 1976. Over that period, Merritt most appreciated how SRAI members value the connection between the researcher and administrator. We are all in this together. “Administration for research summed up SRAI’s and my values.” Collectively we are all part of whole. SRAI’s solid program content and networking opportunities were key to his ability to support research at his institution

Jim HanlonCanadian Jim Hanlon found SRAI’s attraction to be its commitment to inclusivity, a diverse membership (institutional roles, affiliations, nations, organization circumstances), and an openness to new ideas. He felt he “belonged” immediately to this collegial welcoming environment. At sessions, he found it refreshing to meet colleagues from across the world who shared similar issues and challenges. As a Canadian, he enthusiastically witnessed SRA’s move in 1998 to adding “International” to its name. For Jim, this change recognized that the researchers are not bounded by borders; thus, those who manage research need to be globally savvy.

Mike McCallisterMike McCallister identified with the sense that offering your ideas and solutions is far more important than years of membership. SRAI’s inclusiveness and support for immediately contributing meant you were coming to a meeting which made room to build your knowledge and impact as well as a venue for building a network of expert friends and engagement. In SRAI, he found a group of kindred spirits who get what you do for a living, who want your ideas and openly share theirs.

Peter TownsendAs ARMA’s President, Peter Townsend attended his first SRAI meeting in Vancouver. In 2001, he came to inaugurate the creation of INORMS (International Network of Research Management Societies) and has never left. Coming from the U.K., Peter found SRAI to be welcoming and supportive. In creating an International Section and supporting INORMS, SRAI seemed eager to facilitate rather than dominate global collaborations. SRAI’s programming breadth, international content, and attention to interest groups ensured Peter access to the information and colleagues which well matched with his faculty’s needs.


Merritt has sustained a 40+ year SRAI membership because of friendships made, continuing value of the sessions, SRAI’s values and a shared commitment to building a team relationship between the administrator and the researcher. SRAI seeks to enhance everyone’s work.

With each meeting, Jim notes he expands his global connections. People who can help him solve local challenges. He also credits the spirit of collaboration, appreciation and respect between SRAI’s headquarters staff and its volunteer leaders. This partnership helps us to promote research administration as a collaborative process where everyone’s contributions are to be valued.

Mike found SRAI to be an “automatic fit for this misfit – SRAI changed my life, gave me a home.” He loves that to be innovative, SRAI is sometimes messy; leading it to take risks and challenge our complacency. SRAI is not an “insiders” organization, not snobs in administering research. Instead, he is attracted by the fact that members are willing to live on the bleeding edge, even fail gloriously, and then learn from that experience to arrive at a breakthrough victory. He hopes that SRAI will never lose its desire to tolerate messy and remain innovative.

Peter finds SRAI openness to innovation and ideas makes it a good cross-societies collaborator. Affiliations with groups like SRAI and ARMA enabled him to realize the value of professional societies in supporting both personal and institutional development. After each meeting he brings back to his U.K. colleagues valuable information and new ideas he has captured from SRAI colleagues across the globe.

SRAI’s Evolution, Changes and Challenges

As SRAI’s membership has grown to over 5,000, it has sought to respond to evolving member needs and expectations. In doing so, it is challenged to find entry points, affordable access, and a pathway for professional growth and engagement, and new contacts. Merritt and Jim strongly believe in the value of chapters and sections as an entry point. They assert, chapters and sections are essential to attracting new members, trying SRAI, making meeting participation affordable to a broader cross-section of work roles, and offering less daunting meeting sizes. They see chapter and section meetings as introductory experiences. These gatherings can be idea incubators and a launch pad for discovering the next great session presenter, inspired innovator or super volunteer. Merritt believes that when a new member’s first SRAI meeting experience feels large and formal, it can leave them feeling less valued and anonymous.

Initially, all four agreed that large meetings can overwhelm a new administrator. Size can make it harder for them to build their personal network, identify how to engage, or see opportunities to contribute. However, they also agreed that annual international meeting attendance brings access to higher-level program content and networking, and an exposure to a global membership. Thus, they like SRAI’s emphasis on providing the first-time annual meeting attendee priority attention, arming her/him with tips for getting the most out of the meeting, and encouragement to get involved from the first moment is a key to sustaining membership. Jim asserts that SRAI must find ways for junior staff to create networks less expensively, while continuing to address the more advanced content needs of senior managers and institutional executives. Its tracks system is helps all members to navigate and find value.

In working with partner societies, SRAI should continue to focus on facilitating rather than controlling. Sometimes our collaborative nature can work to SRAI’s disadvantage. Jim is concerned that other organizations will seek to become the dominant voice in international groups such as INORMS, so SRAI must remain engaged, facilitative and reaching out to those societies in their nascent development.

To this end, Michael thinks SRAI must constantly work to maintain our unique diversity to help global and local colleagues address common interests and challenges by offering multiple perspectives. We can prosper from our different personalities, organization types, experiences in the profession, and roles by maintaining an openness to new ways of doing things. In doing so, SRAI must focus on the big picture and sustaining our core values rather than allowing organizational politics to distract us from building relationships across our global affiliations.

In becoming truly global, Peter credits three significant indicators of SRAI’s willingness to evolve with the times. First, the inclusion of an outside North America Co-Chair for every Annual Meeting. Second, the elections as SRAI President John Westensee of Denmark and Australian Mark Hochman to the Board of Directors. Third, formation of the International Section and its Section meetings in Hawaii and Iceland. These actions made clear statements that SRAI’s globalization goes beyond merely adding “International” to our name.

For Peter, SRAI’s openness and Board transparency are also impressive. He cited how SRAI’s Board meetings now broadcasted on the web worldwide for any member to view. He adds that SRAI is also embracing the research environment’s diversity and global reach by promoting the whole spectrum of the research and technology innovations, giving every voice value, and sharing openly.

For a look at the future, don't miss our March Catalyst with Part 3.