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

Author:Droegemeier, Kelvin K.

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. Thus, institutions may consider whether alternative pathways to the CRO position may be possible and perhaps more likely and appropriately helpful for institutions in the future.

There is a substantial need to better document the necessary responsibilities, skills, and knowledge of the CRO position, and the variety of ways in which the role is enacted, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the position itself, assist those interested in obtaining the position in the future, and help university leaders and administrators responsible for hiring CROs choose candidates most likely to be effective in the role. Clarity about the essential characteristics of the role will assist universities not only in selecting the most promising candidate, but in providing guidance for encouraging and training future candidates.

The current study examines the above questions, providing a description of the structure and function of CRO offices, portraits of current occupants of the CRO role, expectations for change in the future of the role, and the means by which universities might best develop procedures to encourage skill development, recruit potential candidates, and evaluate current CROs. More specific knowledge in these areas is expected to contribute to enhanced means by which individuals, universities, and professional organizations can promote more effective training and mentoring for developing the necessary competencies of future CROs.


The present study arose from a Spring 2013 meeting of the Council on Research Policy and Graduate Education (CRPGE, recently renamed the Council on Research, or CoR) within the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). APLU, as North America's oldest higher education association with 195 public research and land-grant university members, serves as a microcosm of higher education at large. Across many meetings and discussions, it came to the attention of CoR--which is comprised of chief administrative officers who oversee research policy, administration and graduate education--that no comprehensive survey had been conducted of CROs. Because the chair of CoR at the time was an administrator at the University of Oklahoma (OU), APLU agreed to collaborate with OU researchers in developing and administering the survey.

The survey questions and design were finalized by a team of faculty and graduate students in Industrial/Organizational Psychology who have expertise in survey development and data analysis. The team received approval from OU's Institutional Review Board before administering the survey. The finalized online questionnaire was sent to 1552 members of APLU who were identified as serving in a research leadership role. Invitations were sent to email addresses provided by the individual to APLU's CoR, which directed participants to an online survey using the Qualtrics platform. The initial response period lasted approximately one month, and participants were emailed two survey reminders during this period. The original sample resulted in 57 completed responses. Preliminary data from these responses was presented at the annual meeting of the APLU in November 2013.

Multiple requests were made by attendees to reopen the survey to allow additional responses from those who had not previously completed the survey. The survey was thus re-opened at the end of 2013 for an additional four-week period, during which 22 additional responses were received. The majority of the items in the survey consisted of Likert-type items in which individuals indicated the degree to which they agreed with various statements, such as, "I have control over the allotment of space at my institution." Participants also were asked to respond to open-ended items to gain a fuller picture of the position (see Appendix 1 for a list of all questions in the survey).

In order to analyze these responses, one member of the research team read through each response, determined themes that represented the responses, and then rated the themes of each response. A second researcher compared the themes with the responses and examined the ratings. Any disagreement among the two was resolved through a consensus discussion. Any given response could reasonably express multiple themes and was coded accordingly.


Efforts were made in conducting the survey to include only those individuals who, at that time, served as the highest ranking administrator of the research enterprise. However, it is possible that some others individuals were contacted. Thus, the response rate of 51% (79/155) is likely an underestimate of the proportion of members of APLU actually holding the CRO position.

Of responses received, the vast majority (92%) came from research universities: 51% from Carnegie Very High Research Institutions (now called Carnegie R1 or Highest Research Activity), 33% from Carnegie High Research Institutions, and 8% from doctoral research institutions (Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). Responses overwhelmingly (97%) were from public universities, including 41% from land-grant institutions (institutions historically designated by state legislature or Congress with the mission of teaching agriculture, military tactics, mechanic arts, and classical studies as set forth in the Morrill Acts). On average, the universities represented included 1354 FTE faculty (Standard Deviation (SD) = 918) and had $201 million (SD = $228 million) in yearly research expenditures.

In the following sections, we present survey results thematically, examining the structure and function of CRO offices, the role of CROs in university planning and resource allocation, demographic composition of CROs as a group, professional and background experiences of CROs, future challenges to institutions, potential changes in the CRO role in the next five years, and suggestions for preparing future CROs. All analyses discussed in the results section are statistically significant at p


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