The Roles of Chief Research Officers at American Research Universities: A Current Profile and Challenges for the Future

by SRA International on Thursday, August 31, 2017

In a series of articles, we will present the newest in research administration from the Journal of Research Administration. To read the full JRA, please see here

This article is the 2017 JRA Rod Rose Award winner.

Kelvin K. Droegemeier, University of Oklahoma; Lori Anderson Snyder, University of Oklahoma; Alicia Knoedler, University of Oklahoma; William Taylor, University of Oklahoma; Brett Litwiller, University of Oklahoma; Caroline Whitacre, The Ohio State University; Howard Gobstein, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; Christine Keller, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; Teri Lyn Hinds, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; Nathalie Dwyer, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities

A Current Profile and Challenges for the Future

American research universities currently face an environment of change, marked by broad opportunities for growth in terms of research development, as well as many challenges (Brint, 2005). Opportunities arise in research from new and diversified sources of funding, via partnerships with private industry, and by focusing on innovative and interdisciplinary areas of inquiry (Brint, 2005). Challenges emerge from a variety of sources: unpredictable federal and state funding, escalating competition for resources, increasing regulatory and compliance requirements, and the erosion of public support for the importance of university research (NRC, 2014; NSB, 2012; RUFC, 2012). Thus, the ability of the individual charged with leading the research enterprise (e.g., Chief Research Officer or Vice President/Chancellor for Research, hereafter referred to as CRO) to balance a multitude of conflicting forces has a substantial influence on the institution’s capacity to maintain and increase its research productivity (Kulakowski & Chronister, 2006).

However, the only study published to date examining the role of CROs revealed that little consistency exists among job descriptions of the position of CRO across institutions, suggesting that responsibilities of the position vary widely (Nash & Wright, 2013). Nash and Wright (2013) found that actual job descriptions for the CRO position focused on skills and knowledge different from those CROs view as essential. Their study indicated that incumbents typically have led a prolific research career and cited their scholarly work as vital to obtaining their position, while CRO job descriptions focus more on the leadership skills and business acumen necessary for
success in the position.

Despite the insights provided by Nash and Wright (2013), questions remain about the skills, knowledge, and personal characteristics needed to succeed as a CRO. In addition, the means by which individuals acquire necessary skills and experiences to excel in the role are not clearly identified, nor is the process by which an institution might best ensure a strong and diverse pool of candidates to fill the role in the future. Given rapidly changing elements of the CRO role (Kulakowski & Chronister, 2006), it is imperative to look to future demands when developing a plan by which to fill the position in the future, ensuring that skills, knowledge, and characteristics representing the scope of the entire role are incorporated, including those that may not be easily developed in a traditional academic career path.

One particularly salient unanswered question is whether the processes (e.g., search committees, leader training and development, succession plans*) currently in place to identify and select CROs are adequate. Nash and Wright (2013) found that 83% of the individuals who become CROs were faculty members upon assuming the position. They also found that the CROs they surveyed cited their experience in research, and as faculty members, as the most helpful attributes in preparing them for the role of CRO. However, given the role of many CROs in compliance, intellectual property, export controls, economic development, and building relationships with the public and private sector, thereis a need to clarify whether the expertise possessed by faculty members meets the minimum qualifications required or highly desired for the role of CRO.

To read the full manuscript, please click here

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