Academic journal article SRA Journal

The Brave New World of Virtual Organization: Creating a Distributed Environment for Research Administration

Academic journal article SRA Journal

The Brave New World of Virtual Organization: Creating a Distributed Environment for Research Administration

Article excerpt


Research administrators at all levels and in all kinds of institutions are facing a brave new world. Many pressures and forces (as well as vacuums) shape this world. The principal threat is the drastic reduction in governmental support for research. How shall institutions configure their support services to cope with this potential problem? Does it call for aggressiveness or retrenchment? Many institutions are facing declining federal and state revenues and reduced enrollments. In addition, national attention is focusing on skyrocketing tuition rates and medical costs. Institutional and corporate boards increasingly are concerned about meeting the demands of their major consumer groups - be they students, patients, state legislatures, or tax-paying citizens. Frequently, this concern translates into reductions in administrative costs so that money is available to hire more teachers, doctors, or scientists.

Research administration also has pressures specific to the profession. Foremost among these are the dreaded deadline creep, information overload, and the challenges created by electronic research administration. These pressures increasingly affect the way we do business. As research administrators, we need to optimize our business practices to take advantage of ERA, and simultaneously deal with the pressures of deadline creep and information overload.


Penn State University manages a $250-million sponsored programs operation, 75% of which is provided by federal grants and contracts, 5% by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contracts, and 20% by industry and other private sources. During the past decade, Penn State's research base grew 2.5 times larger, while professional staffing in the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) shrank by nearly 25%. In this organizational climate, research administration has changed from a centralized operation to a decentralized one.

In the late 1980s, Penn State recognized the trend toward decentralization and instituted what became known as the ACOR-II group - a committee of key college and institute staff who were significantly involved in administrating grants and contracts. The group received its name when it formally became a subcommittee of the Administrative Committee on Research (ACOR), a key advisory committee of the vice president for research made up of associate deans for research and institute directors. ACOR made policy; ACOR-II implemented it. ACOR-II's purpose was to provide a forum for discussing research administration - to identify problems, to inform everyone of changes in agency policies and procedures, and to provide networking opportunities for research administrators from across the campus. Before ACOR-II, it was not uncommon for a campus research administrator in one unit to be unaware of research administrators in other units. Initially, ACOR-II met twice a year, then quarterly, then bimonthly. Now, it meets monthly.

Shortly after its inception, ACOR-II noted the need for a formal training program to instruct newcomers to research administration in both the basics of sponsored programs administration and the particulars of Penn State's processes. The program also would refresh and update experienced research administrators in new developments. To meet this need, ACOR-II began a series of workshops intended to create a cadre of trained professional research administrators across the campus. This effort was previously discussed in an SRA Journal article entitled "Developing an In-House Training Program for Research Administration" (Eyerly, Killoren, Meyer, Erwin, McKee, McCormick, & Fornwalt, 1993). The training program was expanded in subsequent years to include seven basic courses and several advanced workshops each year. This training program was described in an 1995 SRA publication entitled A Guide to Preparing and Presenting Research Administration Workshops (Moore & McKee, 1995), which was commissioned by the SRA Education and Professional Development Committee. …

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