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

By Droegemeier, Kelvin K.; Snyder, Lori Anderson et al. | Journal of Research Administration, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

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


Droegemeier, Kelvin K., Snyder, Lori Anderson, Knoedler, Alicia, Taylor, William, Litwiller, Brett, Whitacre, Caroline, Gobstein, Howard, Keller, Christine, Hinds, Teri Lyn, Dwyer, Nathalie, Journal of Research Administration


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 plans1) 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, there is a need to clarify whether the expertise possessed by faculty members meets the minimum qualifications required or highly desired for the role of CRO.

For example, most CROs are actively involved in a variety of professional organizations that are geared toward institutional leadership and development (e.g., Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, American Association of Universities, National Organization of Research Development Professionals), which may assist in building research-related skills and knowledge, as well as necessary relationships with the public and private sector (Nash & Wright, 2013). However, most faculty members are not involved with such organizations. …

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