University-based research centers: characteristics, organization, and administrative implications.

Author:Sa, Creso M.


Research centers and institutes ("centers" hereafter) have become indispensable to U.S. universities. They have been created in greater numbers since the Second World War, as universities adapted to the rise of the federal government as the main sponsor of academic science (Geiger, 1990). Universities have created centers to advance research of interest to industry, state governments, policy makers, and community organizations. Federal agencies continue to provide incentives for universities to create centers, through a range of center grants and programs to induce boundary-crossing (inter-disciplinary, inter-departmental, inter-institutional) research (National Academies, 2005). While centers allow universities the opportunity to advance innovative research and gather resources, they also raise organizational and administrative issues. This paper examines some of the key characteristics, challenges and opportunities associated with university-based research centers. It draws on a review of the literature and on empirical data obtained from a larger research project. Sources of evidence include policy and planning documents, reports on centers from the leading 100 research universities, and 45 interviews with senior administrators and center directors in six campuses.

The section below sketches general characteristics of centers, focusing on functions and organization. The following section examines three interrelated themes that underscore much of the previous debates on the administrative challenges that centers bring to universities. Implications for research administrators are considered next, and the final section concludes the paper.

General Characteristics of Centers

Unlike schools and departments, centers are dedicated primarily to sponsored research and derive legitimacy from the resources they control (Ikenberry and Friedman, 1972). They extend the academic mission of universities by rearranging and re-directing the research efforts of faculty towards areas that are deemed important by external agents. Centers usually form to mobilize experts in different fields to address scientific and real world problems that may not be adequately addressed from the perspective of a single discipline. Centers may involve the formation of interdisciplinary teams, academic-industrial partnerships, and other interactions with knowledge users (e.g., policy makers, doctors, educators). Surveys of centers report multiple roles and functions in addition to research, including support to academic units in instructional and training activities, consulting, and outreach (Friedman & Friedman, 1982; 1986; Melnick, 1999; Marion and Bunton, 2005). Despite the huge resource differentials, this occurs across fields: centers in areas of industrial technology, biomedical research, policy studies, and the arts and humanities are common among research universities.

Structurally, centers take multiple and variegated forms (Ikenberry & Friedman, 1972; Alpert, 1985; Geiger, 1990; Mallon and Bunton, 2005). Some centers are networks of scientists from multiple departments that count on little or shared infrastructure. These units typically emerge from the bottom up and rely on the common interests of participants and some discretionary resources accrued from the academic units with which they are affiliated, or from external sources.

Other centers are organized around a dedicated laboratory, which might host teams of investigators on a more or less permanent basis. Centers providing core facilities to a range of users on campus have become common, as universities attempt to rationalize investments in the research infrastructure. These units provide equipment, services and temporary lab space for faculty and, in some cases, to external collaborators. A number of universities have in recent years invested in such cross-disciplinary facilities (Sa, 2007). Yet other centers based in dedicated labs manage specialized, sophisticated instrumentation such as nanofabrication units. These centers fulfill a service role to internal and external users.

Alternatively, some centers have an academic identity and behave as schools without walls, partnering with academic units to offer joint degrees, co-recruit faculty, select post-docs and graduate students. Some of these units evolve to become departments or schools.

Centers may also be created to meet external expectations and requirements of sponsors. Federal agencies have consistently funded research through center programs, such as the NSF Engineering Research Centers and the NIH P30 grants. The organizational requirements of these programs vary substantially within and among agencies, contributing to the diversity of forms centers take. Some of these agency-funded centers involve multiple universities and other public and private organizations (Bozeman & Boardman, 2003).

Finally, other centers are umbrella organizations that coordinate several units in a broad area of research, encompassing many of the units described above. These forms described here are not mutually exclusive and can be found in different combinations in a single center. In summary, it is no easy task to define what centers are, but it is possible to observe patterned variation across campuses along the lines described above.

Senior administrators often support the establishment of centers in areas perceived to be important because of the organizational flexibility they afford (Mallon, 2006). Centers allow a university to explore emerging research fronts without making the long-term resource commitments associated with a new college or department. Through the establishment of a center, not only do academic scientists gain an organizational framework to access information and resources, but universities also increase the visibility of the campus research that takes place in multiple schools and departments. Over time, centers may develop a unique identity and become a significant source of funding, student and faculty talent, and prestige. A strong record...

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