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June 09, 2010

Turf wars between university administrators bad for research

Friction between a university’s research office and its development office can result in missed funding opportunities for researchers. For some funding schemes, it is unclear which of the two departments should handle particular funding applications and so this is causing internal clashes at many institutions, ARMA members were told.

For sources like the AXA Research Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is debatable whether the funding is a research contract or a gift agreement and so these opportunities may fall between the remits of the two offices. However, research administrators at the meeting are looking at ways of addressing this issue to improve internal co-operation and provide better support for their institution’s -academic staff.

Much of the conflict comes from a divergence in mission, values and staff backgrounds between those working in the different offices. Inward facing research offices are often process-driven and see their role in supporting research staff and protecting academic freedom to maintain funding. Development offices are outward facing and so are focussed on building relationships with external donors at the cost of engaging with academics. Research office staff will usually have backgrounds in research or finance, while development offices often prefer to recruit staff from charities or experienced fund raisers from US universities. So this creates two quite divergent cultures in university administration, members heard.

However, Chris Cox, director of development at the University of Manchester, described the changing role of development offices and their interactions with research offices at the meeting. He said donors now ask for clear agreements on how their gifts will be spent and how this will make tangible differences to the institution that they are supporting. So their working practices are gradually converging with the model that development offices are accustomed to working with. Hence, development offices are now trying to “be more consistent, co-ordinated and safeguard ethical integrity”, he said.
Heavy pressure on development offices to perform, combined with a lack of dialogue with academics can be major contributor to these internal disagreements. But many development offices are now following the research office practice of recruiting staff with experience of working in research. This enables administrative staff to communicate more effectively with academics. Although development offices remain facing outwards, “a university development officer who can’t work with an academic is no use” said Cox.

Other speakers agreed that it will be essential to develop closer ties. “We either need to come together as one function or work much better in co-operation,” noted John Montgomery, research manager at the Cass Business School, City University London.

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