Electronic Research Administration and the Culture (and Subcultures) of Higher Education

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

ERA can be viewed as a cultural problem, and analyzed according to what anthropologists and social historians call "material culture": the tools, implements, and various material products of a culture. ERA can be examined from the perspective of a narrow segment of the university, the Office of Sponsored Projects (OSP) or the Post-Awards Office (PAO), which can help us understand some of the complexities involved in implementing ERA. Other dimensions of academic culture also should be explored. A detailed picture of the complex culture of public higher education will provide an understanding of cultural impediments and inducements affecting the implementation of ERA.

Culture includes behavior, attitudes, values, and institutions as well as language and ideology. The more complex a culture, the greater its diversity. Complex cultures are not homogeneous; the balance between conflict and consensus is always precarious. Cultures include stratification systems, often based on the distribution of wealth. Diversity, exacerbated by an unequal distribution of wealth, means that on careful examination, cultures that appear unitary are really a collection of subcultures. This is the case with American higher education, where such parameters as public or private status and level of wealth tend to define subcultures.

Institutions pioneering the implementation of ERA often are drawn from the ranks of leading private universities, endowed with financial and technical resources (including personnel), and led by people with vision and political skill. Institutions that have spent vast sums developing in-house systems for ERA are role models only for institutions with the same level of resources. Informal conversations with participants at ERA workshops reveal that many research administrators are impressed by the achievements of elite institutions, but depressed because they cannot imagine how these lessons could be applied at their institutions.

At the March NCURA workshop, a panelist from a major West Coast university was asked how much had been spent on reengineering research administration. The answer brought laughter from the audience: between $1 million and $2 million, exclusive of the medical school and college of engineering.

Perhaps the most striking example of cultural diversity occurred at the San Diego workshop, when an administrator from a well-funded Midwestern university was asked how he secured the support of his superiors to implement ERA. The question had no meaning. Support was not problematic at that university; it was a given. But for those closer to the mean, or several standard deviations away, it is very much an issue. Listen carefully to informal conversations at workshops. Repeatedly, they center on the lack of support from top administrators, and a feeling of helplessness because of the difficulty communicating with senior leadership.

Knowing the culture of state universities and state colleges is invaluable in effectively marketing ERA. While painted in broad strokes, the following may help ERA champions understand cultural factors that prevent implementation of ERA, as well as the factors that can be turned to its advantage.

Higher education in the United States is diverse. Material, administrative, and technical resources are not uniformly distributed. While elite institutions are blessed with adequate, if not superior, technological support, other institutions make do with less. A show of hands at a session at the March NCURA workshop suggested that many participants still used 386 microprocessors. The recommendation from the panelists - get new high-end machines - was not really helpful. One audience member responded, "Will you pay for them?"

HIGHER EDUCATION CULTURES

Let us begin by looking at an important segment of the academic population. Administrators preside over a diverse and remarkably independent faculty. …