The Elevation of Research at A&M-Commerce
To say that Texas A&M University-Commerce president Mark Rudin carries a flame for institutional research is a bit of an understatement. It's his passion, and it shows clearly in this conversation with KETR's Jerrod Knight. This episode of The President's Perspective is the second in an initial series on the subject of the 2019-2024 Strategic Plan for A&M-Commerce. The plan introduces five strategic priorities and goals, the second of which is a commitment to "Elevate Research."
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A transcript of the episode follows:
Jerrod Knight: This is the President's perspective, a podcast with the purpose of sharing what's important and what matters to the president and CEO of Texas A&M University-Commerce, Dr. Mark Rudin. I'm Jerrod Knight. We started this project with a series dedicated to the 2019-2024 strategic plan adopted by A&M-Commerce. The plan spells out the vision and mission of the institution, as well as its four foundational principles which are a commitment to be transformative, innovative, inclusive and sustainable. The plan itself is online at TAMUC.edu/strategicplan and we'll link to it everywhere the podcast is available. Included in the planner five strategic priorities and goals which are student preparedness, elevate research, create an inclusive community, align our initiatives and transform our operations. In this installment, we're focusing on the strategy to elevate research. Dr. Rudin, thank you so very much for being here.
Mark Rudin: Great to be here, Jerrod.
JK: Research, and we referenced this before, it holds a special place in your heart.
MR: It does. It does. That's... I probably spent the last two dozen years being a research person, Chief research officer at other institutions before I came here. So it's an area near and dear to me.
JK: You've worked on the side, not only of, leading teams who conduct research, but also on the side of development, right, in order to fund research,
MR: Oh, absolutely.
JK: Research is not free to conduct and so you've got to find sources of revenue in order to support the research.
JK: Talk about why you have such a passion for it.
MR: You know, and I think people have heard me say this before, I think sometimes at a higher ed institution, that people say, okay, Mark, what is going to be: teaching or research? What are we going to be? What are we going to be as an institution? Where we're going to take this institution? But I would, I would argue that those two items teaching and research are not mutually exclusive activities. Right? The way I view it is that teaching in the in the studio or in the classroom contributes to student learning. I would make the argument that research, whether it's out in the field in the laboratory, or in the studio, or the stage, also contributes to student learning. I can't tease teaching out from research when it comes to creating an opportunity and experience for our students to learn and our faculty and our staff to learn. I would say, teaching and research together contribute to student learning and move the university forward and contribute to academic success.
JK: So I had very little hands on research... I'm not going to say, "opportunities," because that's not entirely true. I didn't conduct a lot of research whenever I was in school, but since then, I've learned quite a bit about the necessity for data gathering and processing and and using the data gathered in order to drive decisions moving forward. I'm excited about the idea of research being something that is accessible to all students across the campus and across the institution.
MR: Yeah, Jerrod, you know, if I had it my way, I would love to have every student, as part of their undergraduate experience, to be somehow involved in a research project. I really think that it it. You know, going back to prior discussions you and I have had about this whole student preparedness piece, how do you develop the skills as a student involved in research, you learn a lot of different types of skills. Research doesn't go well sometimes. Sometimes it fails. Sometimes you have to say, "Boy, this did not work," and get up off the ground and dust your britches off and headed in a new direction, right? You have to be able to show discipline, you have to show resiliency, you have to be able to look at analytics of how the research is going. And I really think it really infuses great skill development in our students. So I'm really keen... I think folks think that when we talk about elevating research at our university that, full speed ahead on getting the national Science Foundation grant or the National Institutes of Health grant or an Engineering Research Center as part of the NSF National Science Foundation. I'm not quite there. What I'm interested in is: Yes, let's do go after grants; let's do go after some money to fund interesting and fun projects to work on. But let's get our students involved; be an integral piece of that research enterprise at A&M-Commerce.
JK: I want to break down a little bit of what's behind the strategy itself to elevate research. We're talking about some of the individual things that will happen over the course of the next few years. One, verbatim here, "strengthen infrastructure for research and creative activity." When we're talking about strengthening the infrastructure, what are we talking about?
MR: Yeah. If you're a faculty member, you need help to advance your research program. And particularly if you try to get into the grant game, you need help. I mean, we have hard working faculty at this university that can say, "You know what, I'm going to take the next semester off and I'm going to write a grant." I don't have that capability right now as an institution. And so, when you want to grow research at a university, there are certain things that the university can do to help that faculty member, or staff member, or students be able to pursue research grant opportunities. So for example, you can provide that service, right? You can provide breakneck service. The institution staff can provide breakneck service to those faculty and say, "You know what, I did a little bit of homework, Jerrod... Dr. Knight. We know you want to write a grant. I've done a little bit of homework in areas, grant opportunities that may pertain to you and may be able to use your expertise to be able to respond to the call for this for these grants. And I've done a little bit of work and I'm starting to assemble some teams around you to be able to help put the grant together because there's more than just Jerrod's expertise and I in writing these grants." And so also putting the grant together, maybe grant writing expertise that helps you along the way. This whole effort of providing this support for you is an area that's called research development. Okay? And if you take it to its extreme, again, we don't have the staffing right now with the university to do this, but where I would like to take this university is to be able to approach a faculty member and say, let us manage the proposal process for you. Now, you're the talent, you have to write the narrative. You have to... you're the expert, we need you to do that. But in terms of laying out a schedule, laying out expectations, laying out responses, keeping you on track, let us manage that process for you. And then when their grant comes in, you're the principal investigator, you take it over, you run with it. But there's opportunities for us to, I believe, when we get to this point, to provide these wraparound services for research and really support the faculty in their research grant writing.
JK: And grants can help a lot of things. In fact, I don't mind inserting here that managing this non commercial radio station, 88.9 KETR... its largest revenue driver is a national grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And just maintaining that grant... Someone who came before me, you know, wrote it and successfully, you know, achieved the status that would allow us to get the grant in the first place. But maintaining that grant is so much effort.
MR: Oh, absolutely.
JK: And I don't think of somebody who maybe doesn't again, spend their time inside the four walls of an institution really has - or even those who do - really have an appreciation for the amount of effort that you have to go to. Even if you're not like there's there might not be a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, you might do all this effort. And you might write this incredible grant and it might make a whole lot of sense. And you might get all the way to the table and find out that they've already distributed the funds or you're missing this one piece or whatever it happens to be. And it's it's a bit of a gamble, but one that you can't afford to get wrong. So you've got to make some front end investment, which is what you're talking about in the infrastructure.
MR: Yeah. And I would say that we have great talent in our pre-award staff that we have on campus right now. We just don't have enough of them to fully support the entire campus. We also have tremendous expertise and our post-award group of staff. They do a great job and and you're right, once, you think, "Okay, once the award comes in, it's going to be easy street here."
JK: That's right, "smooth sailing."
MR: It's not! The compliance needs and expectations can be totally overwhelming and and I think it's part, and the expectation on the university's behalf to help the principal investigator, the "P.I.", negotiate those waters and do the work that needs to get done, but do it in a very compliant type of way.
JK: And when you talk about compliance, too, we're not even really talking about your standard run of the mill, "There are rules you have to follow in order to be in higher education." I can speak to this too, personally, is the folks who issue the grant have the wherewithal to tighten up rules that might already exist. But they can tell you, like, how to find people and in ways that are stricter than what your own, you know, HR department might allow for, they can tell you, you know, how you have to spend the funds, they can tell you about discrete accounting and the way that they expect for the funds, which may go beyond the way that your own accounting department already handles funds. And all... being able to comply with the rules that are just set forth in the grant is its own sort of job, right?
MR: Oh, absolutely.
JK: Sometimes they're asking for things that you never had to do before. And now you've got to start tallying things you didn't have to tally, you know, but this is all part of the backend grant process. The granting organizations, they're investing in whatever thing you're trying to do. They're investing in the future and wanting to learn about whatever the thing is. In order for them to feel good about giving you the money, they have these rules they want you to follow. You might call them strings, you know, it's part of the strings that are attached. But nothing's free, right, this thing you know, this is part of it.
MR: Oh, absolutely not. And you know, if I wear the funding agencies hat for a second, there's a part of me that, I understand why they have these strings, right? They want to make sure that they are great stewards of the public money. And those agencies, the NSF, National Science Foundation and the NIH, National Institutes of Health, they had to go back to Congress and say, "Here's how we're spending your money. And here's how we're making sure we're doing it properly." Right? So those requirements, those strings have to be imposed on the people that are distributing the money to. I think the trick here, Jerrod, is to... yes, let's... if money comes into A&M-Commerce in a grant, let's abide by those rules imposed on us. But let's make sure we also have internal rules that don't create additional barriers, right? You know, from being a grantee, you just mentioned it's tough to do that. Let's not make it tougher in our policies and procedures at the university that would further handcuff you or make life difficult for you. So you know what, at the end of the day, you can just go do the work that's expected of you.
JK: Exactly right. And I've seen over the years, too, that what ends up happening is sort of the institutional requirements tend to come in line with what the grant organization is sort of expecting over time. And I say that to say, particularly whenever it's a, like you said, a federal grant, where Congress is, is using taxpayer dollars to fund it, we're already a state institution that already is funded by taxpayer dollars. So the expectation that we're doing the right thing with the dollars that we've got access to, is already extremely high. But I have seen over time where our policies tend to fall in line with the grant policies for the better, you know, we come in line with that. And then that's just how we do business. That's just day to day business. nobody's asking us to do anything over and above which is kind of nice.
MR: It is, it is. And to our credit, we place a high premium on being good stewards of the public money, too. Right? We want to make sure that we are spending their money, the public's money, on good things to advance the research that we're doing here. Simple as that. You know, another area I think so you know, you talk about what can we do to advance research at A&M-Commerce? We talked a little bit about developing processes that are a little more friendly. We talked about knocking down barriers. But I think another area that's also incredibly important is training incentives to do research, right? If there's a principal investigator or a faculty member in a particular area, and they just say, "I want to write a grant." Well, oftentimes you have to be able to demonstrate to the funding agency that you have the expertise, and the university has the environment and the skills for you to be successful. That's something you can't go in cold, right? You just, you wouldn't be able to write a grant and the spot to get funded for the radio, Jerrod, if if the radio consisted of this booth right here.
JK: Right, if this is all there was!
MR: If that's all there was as part of the radio, right, you would have to demonstrate that yes, if you give me this money will be able to carry out the work as stated in the grant. And so there's a certain strategy of the university making investments strategic surgical investments in faculty and staff across the university to say, you know, "You're working in an area that I think is very interesting to some potential funders. So let's make some initial investments in you. Let's start, let's start you down the path of collecting data, publishing." And when you do and eventually put that grant together, you develop a bit of a CV or resume to be able to show the funding agency that, "Yes, I am kind of an expert in this area. And it's an area that's passionate to me." It's hard to start research from scratch, you're not going to be that competitive, we have to begin to ramp up our research and research areas of expertise at this university to position them to be attractive to these funding agencies.
JK: Well, and, too, you said earlier that it would be a feat to sort of suss out teaching from research, which I would assume also the reverse of that is true that because we've been so effective for so long at teaching, that we aren't starting necessarily from square one that this institution, A&M-Commerce, is already sort of along the way and the faculty sort of already realized some of the things that need to happen. And now it's just, you know, codifying that and turning it into a procedural thing and creating the infrastructure.
MR: Absolutely. You know, when I take a look at our - up and down the ranks of our faculty, there are some really neat, cool research going on here. We may be doing it as a part of a dissertation. We may be doing it as part of a master's thesis, we may be doing it as part of an undergraduate experience for our students. And we publish quite well. And quite regularly at this campus. Our faculty are nationally renowned in a lot of different areas. The trick is going to be how does that translate into writing grants, right? If you've started to develop a CV, a resume with all these publications in a particular area, how do we take that expertise and position you to get a grant out the door and potentially be funded? There is a lot of research going on at A&M-Commerce. We just gotta... we have to figure out ways to translate that into grant dollars coming to the university.
JK: On the additional bullets here that, not prop up, but... other things we've got to accomplish in order to get to a point where we're elevating research, this lists, "gain distinction as a high research activity institution," which I assume is a...
JK: Yeah, okay. Yeah. But, "High Research Activity Institution," is a moniker... is a something that actually there's a thing?
MR: Yes, as designated by the Carnegie Foundation.
JK: I understand. "By identifying and advancing targeted research initiatives." We're talking now about researching things that funders want researched, in order to make sure that we continue to lay the groundwork as a research institution.
MR: Yeah. And and as we sit here, if you take a look at what Carnegie (this is kind of the mothership that decides and, and gets all this data from institutions and starts to designate people at Very High Research, High Research, various designations,) they look at two primary things: the number of PhDs that you produce, and we do quite well in that area, and the research dollars you bring in. Okay? Really, actually, more specifically, the research dollars you spend versus the research dollars you bring in. And we need to do a little bit of work in that area. We got to get the dollars in here. I don't think it's a very valuable strategy. If we have resources to make investments or to focus our efforts on trying to get additional grants out the door. It's the term always used: to spread the peanut butter. How do we get everyone to get a grand out the door? I think we really have to examine and look at the expertise at this university and find areas that no one does that better than us. Okay? And I can give you an example. I'm currently having a discussion with our College of Ag with quail and quail research. We are national leaders in that and I really think there's fine, great opportunity for us to assemble teams and this whole quail wildlife management area for us to be competitive and outcompete other research teams across the nation in this area. So I really think that when we talk about targeted research initiatives, that's what we're trying to distill out now: Where are those opportunities across campus?
JK: Sure. And since we've already established that we just don't have as many warm bodies in place to support the infrastructure that we're talking about, it does make sense that you've got to kind of focus on the things where you've got the best shot, you know, where you can actually make some progress. And, as we... football terminology, move the ball down the field. And then finally, here, "Encourage interdisciplinary and student involved collaboration." Here we're talking about, and you mentioned this earlier about reaching across campus, across departments and across programs in order to make sure that not only are we researching something is valuable, but something that our students and our faculty want to be researching, I would assume.
MR: Well, you know, Jerrod, the days are over now, and the problems the issues that face our nation, and our society and our world are just too broad and vast, right? You look at energy management, climate change, those type of things. You cannot be the chemist in your lab saying, "Oh, I'm going to write a proposal and it's going to be dealing with climate change." Right? You have to assemble interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary teams that are able to come together and offer a comprehensive solution to some of these larger problems that exist out there. Right? So we like we'd like this idea and it's going to be necessary that we put these teams together and and tell the best story we can to be competitive for these grants.
JK: I appreciate your time today, Dr. Rudin.
MR: Thank you very much. Always good talking to you about this.
JK: The Presidents Perspective is produced by 88.9 KETR from the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce. Episodes are online at ketr.org. While you're there, consider making a contribution in support of public radio for northeast Texas. Click the donate button at the top of the page. I'm Jerrod Knight. Thanks for listening.