University research centers: heuristic categories, issues, and administrative strategies.

Author:Hall, Kelly


University-based research centers can bring prestige and revenue to the institutions with which they are affiliated (Brint, 2005; Feller, 2002). Collaborating with corporations, governments, and foundations, centers provide services to organizational leaders, policy makers, and communities. Growth in the number of centers since the 1950s reflects their increased presence in the university setting. There are 17,000 research centers in the US and Canada, an increase of 1,500 since 2009, when there were 15,500 (Miskelly, 2011; Wood, 2009). Growth is estimated at a rate between 5% and 10% a year since 1965, when 3,500 centers were first identified (Palmer & Kruzas, 1965). In the United States, unlike in other nations, most research organizations are housed at institutions of higher education and are not independent (Orlans, 1972).

For the purpose of this study, centers are defined as non-department entities, encompassing a broad range of sub-organizational structures in higher education: bureaus, clinics, institutes, laboratories, programs, and units. Here, the term center is used to connote all forms of organized units that may exist beyond and between academic departments (Ikenberry & Friedman, 1972). Beyond research and training as their primary services, centers vary across a number of dimensions: size of support and research staff; the position of faculty versus professional staff researchers; level of separation from academic departments; degree of integration with the university; funding mix; extent of inter- or multidisciplinary focus; and relative emphasis on applied research (Vest, 2005; Klein, 1996; Stahler & Tash, 1994). Universities considering creating or evaluating research centers are urged to plan carefully before launching or maintaining them. A number of inter-related issues affect center success. This article presents survey and interview data to illuminate center types, issues, and strategies used to address issues. Center stakeholders can use findings to create policy regarding center start-up and maintenance. Center type categories provide a frame in which to place different types of centers to serve different functions within a university system. Resources could be allocated based on the promise and purpose of the center as aligned with the university's mission. University and center policies and priorities could be informed by research findings presented.

Heuristic Categories

Ikenberry and Friedman (1972) proposed a heuristic to categorize university-based centers into three types: standard, adaptive, and shadow. Types were distinguished by four characteristics: (a) the ability to store resources; (b) the degree to which procedures are specified; (c) stability in goals and tasks; and (d) stability of resources to achieve goals and tasks. For this study, these and characteristics available from The Research Centers Directory (2002) were operationalized into survey questions to confirm and rank heuristic characteristics. Survey responses were received from 176 of 296 (60%) educational research center directors to whom the survey was sent. Cramer's V was used to calculate nominal variable coefficients of association based on center type for each characteristic. The result was a rank of characteristics that differentiate between center types. Table 1 presents ranked characteristics. Note that nine heuristic characteristics are better at distinguishing among center types than six directory characteristics. Nine heuristic variables were strongly associated at varying levels of strength based on a moderate interpretation of the Cramer's V. Six other variables, operationalized from The Research Centers Directory, were weak to moderately strong as coefficients measuring characteristics among center types. Note that the moderate strength of having a presence on the World Wide Web is a distinguishing characteristic among center types. The Internet is a new phenomenon since Ikenberry and Friedman's heuristic was developed that has affected centers' reach into the external environments they serve. After 40 years, Ikenberry and Friedman's heuristic categories are still valuable as a way to categorize center types. Standard, adaptive, and shadow designations can be used to categorize different types of center. A description with examples follows.

Standard Type

A standard center or institute has stability in goals and resources to house, equip, and support employment of a full cadre of administrative/professional, clerical, faculty, and student personnel. Financial resources are from diverse streams including institutional and federal funding (Brint, 2005). A standard center holds status similar to other academic or administrative units within an organization of higher education, such as a computing lab or admissions office, occupying permanent allocation of space and sometimes an entire building. A standard center has its own advisory board and its own policies and procedures that its personnel follow in addition to university governance guidelines. Based on these characteristics, two examples of standard type centers were selected--the National Center for Rural Health Professions and Learning Systems Institute. The Learning Systems Institute was selected as a standard type based on survey data and the National Center for Rural Health Professions was selected based on the author's personal knowledge about its characteristics, having served on its founding national advisory board.

National Center for Rural Health Professions. In 1998, the Director of the Rural Medical Education Program, Michael Glasser exclaimed to me from across a small hospital conference room in rural Illinois, "We should start a center!" Dr. Glasser was the faculty champion with the vision needed for center start-up. Today, the National Center for Rural Health Professions (NCRHP) serves as the centerpiece program for University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford's campus, where Glasser now serves as assistant dean. The campus is undergoing a major building transformation after a campaign that leveraged federal, state, and local dollars to raise capital using the national center as a signature program. NCRHP was granted center status by the Illinois Board of Higher Education in 2003 after three years of holding temporary designation.

Statewide, the purpose of the NCRHP is to meet the health care needs of rural Illinois residents and communities. Nationally, the center serves as a place for research and development of programs effectively training and retaining rural healthcare practitioners. NCRHP is the lynchpin of inter-disciplinary projects involving multiple health professions: dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and social work. "The center employs 12 staff members and is guided by a 23-member advisory board comprised of the dean; representatives of partner disciplines; state agency and network representatives; outreach, recruitment, and retention specialists; and a hospital administrator. NCRHP houses three programs that focus on five activities: interdisciplinary education, faculty development, community outreach, research and evaluation, and policy.

Learning Systems Institute. Florida State University's Learning Systems Institute's History webpage describes an exemplar of a standard center.

Dating back four decades, the Learning Systems Institute (LSI) has evolved over the years to adapt to changes in technology, educational trends and client needs. The institute began as two separate organizations launched in the late 1960s on Florida State University's campus. The Center for Educational Technology helped institutions outside the university with training needs, while the Division of Instructional Research and Service provided similar services to Florida State faculty. In the mid 1970s the two organizations combined to create a more robust LSI. LSI founder Robert Morgan served as the organization's director for 30 years. Under his leadership, the institute attracted some $150 million in projects and earned a reputation as an expert manager of international development projects related to education. Among the largest of these was a U.S. Agency for International Development project to revamp South Korea's public school system, a highly successful multi-year, $60-million effort. Morgan drew top talent to the LSI, including renowned educational psychologists Robert Gagne and Robert Branson. As the organization evolved, these and other faculty designed and conducted major training for the U.S. Army, developed educational technology for several foreign countries, and pioneered Florida State's distance learning, among other efforts. In 2001, Laura Lang was named LSI director. Building on Morgan's legacy, she has continued to move the institute forward, expanding the institute's range in K-12 education and the study of expert performance. Between 2000 and 2009, contract and grants funding increased significantly, spurred in part by the creation of two major educational research centers (the Florida Center for Reading Research and the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) entrusted to LSI by the Florida Legislature. Standard centers are easily recognized and are perceived not only as part of the institutions with which they are affiliated but also as separate organization entities. Adaptive centers are less easily recognized as...

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