On Campus with Joseph McNicholas
Joseph McNicholas Ph.D., has worked at LMU for four years, and is very active in the National Council for University Research Administrators (NCURA), serving as the Secretary Elect for Region VI, the past chair of the Membership and Volunteer Coordinating Committee, and a member of the Predominantly Undergraduate Institution (PUI) Neighborhood Committee. Joseph and his wife, Diane, live in Simi Valley and recently became parents of a bouncing baby boy, Michael.
How did you become a research administrator?
Accidentally, like just about everyone else. After I completed my Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of Texas, Austin, I found myself living in Oneonta, NY, a beautiful little town where the State University needed a grant writer more than they needed another professor of American Literature. Then I moved San Bernardino, CA, and, surprise, they too needed someone to work with faculty on grant proposals more than they needed another professor of American Literature. By that time, however, I was completely hooked on research administration. I love the work. I love the people I associate with, and I don’t look back. The real question is why did I move from Austin to Oneonta to San Bernardino. . . but that’s a question for a different time.
At what kinds of institutions have you worked?
I’ve been a research administrator at predominantly undergraduate institutions for 10 years now. And during that time, I worked at two state schools and two private schools, and though there are certainly differences between those categories, all the institutions I have had the pleasure to serve have been committed to their mission, their students and their community.
Whether state or private, an institution’s pursuit of funds is most directly influenced by the institution’s vision of itself, its strategic use of research funds, its ability to find a balance between teaching and research. What’s the mission, vision, the strategic plan and how well to the members of community embrace and act upon that plan?
PUIs have extremely talented researchers, teachers and leaders who can do outstanding work, but they must be on guard against two barriers. The first is internal. Too often people at PUI’s fall into the trap of thinking they can’t compete against the big schools. This simply is not true, as any research administrator at a PUI can tell you. The issue is to compete smart and in the categories that make the most sense. The second is external. We, as a profession and as individuals, must remind decision makers of the extraordinary contribution that PUI’s can and do make. Increasingly sponsors include specific tracks for the needs of PUIs, and that’s great. Wherever we see policies and programs that inadvertently disadvantage us, we should communicate that the program officers. My sense is that they are very receptive to better understanding how their decisions affect different classes of universities.
Do you think that there are benefits or limitations being at a religious private?
Just for the record, LMU is a premier Catholic university rooted in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions. Our enrollment includes 5,509 undergraduate, 1,962 graduate and 1,374 law school students. Our 150-acre bluff-top campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean is located in West Los Angeles and was recently named in the "10 Most Beautiful Campuses" by the Princeton Review.
In terms of the core responsibilities of a research administrator, there is little difference between a public and a private school. In either kind of organization, we assist faculty prepare and submit grant proposals in compliance with university and federal regulations; we provide faculty development opportunities, promote sponsored research, creative activity and service projects, we consult with units conducting strategic planning, we spread the word about external funding opportunities, and we look for opportunities for our organization.
In either kind of organization, we work to advance the mission of the school. Personally, I find the focus of a school like Loyola Marymount University extremely helpful. Among our goals is the education of the whole person and a commitment to social justice. These higher ideals animate faculty and staff alike and provide us with common values and help us come toward consensus.
How has the economy affected your work? Has your professional development been limited? Are you less able to provide the services that a pre-award office would want to provide…COS, Foundation Directory etc?
We continue to provide all the same services we always have, but we are still in wait-and-see mode here at LMU. Our budgets depend not on decisions at a state legislative level, but on the individual decisions of thousands of separate people. We have met our targets for fall enrollments, but we are waiting to see how many people actually arrive on campus in fall and pay tuition. In the meantime, we are moving cautiously with office expenditures and trying to preserve as much professional development money as possible. Members of our office will continue to attend the national and regional meeting. . .maybe just in smaller numbers.
How has the swine flu affected you professionally? Have you and your institution had to make accommodations for the illness and its prevention?
We have been fortunate in not having a case of H1N1 virus at LMU to date. Therefore, we continue to offer our series of classes in grant writing and development, often attracting a good-sized crowd. We do plan post more of our training materials online, not in response to the virus per se, just to allow greater flexibility for those seeking knowledge in this area.
LMU is following the recommendations for institutions of higher education provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Services and the Center for Disease Control with regard to the virus. Our Senior Vice President for Student affairs has issued a comprehensive response to common questions and a resource website for those with concerns.
Thinking back to when you started in research administration, how would you characterize the changes in the profession and how you have handled the changes as they have appeared?
As late as ten years ago, we were still compiling paper copies of proposals and having that mad dash to collate, package and ship—sometimes driving or flying to Washington to deliver by hand—which seemed to embody the urgency and excitement of grant submitting. I miss the fun of those days, but the electronic modes of submission have helped us develop better proposals with broader input from teams of people. With the strain placed on grants.gov under the weight of the stimulus package, I am expecting even more improvements to the pre-award process. I am confident that things are progressing in this area.
Also, like many other research administrators, I am concerned about the additional burden the ARRA reporting requirements place on us. But I applaud the effort to render the spending of federal dollars more transparent.
What other profession would you consider other that RA?
One of the best parts of being an RA is that we can partake in the professional lives of so many different people. I have worked with historians and guitar professors, biologists and computer engineers, health professionals and lawyers, entrepreneurs and social workers—a whole range of professions. And to each I bring something useful and unique as a research administrator. It is very rewarding.
At this point in my career, my goal is less to change to another profession, than to integrate more of what I love into the profession I have. I truly enjoy helping people succeed, and I would like to do more to facilitate PUI success by using resources strategically, leveraging skills into successful projects, and cultivating outstanding faculty and education programs. On a personal level, I would like to contribute more to wildlife conservation by helping our faculty in ecology or by volunteering to help outside organizations.
Of course my wife and I just had a child this past July, so most of my volunteer efforts are going into diaper changing and early morning baby bouncing.
Interview reproduced with permission from NCURA. http://www.ncura.edu/content/