A Statement from Randall Hewes, interim Vice President for Research, University of Oklahoma
I know that there has been considerable unease on campus about whether the Office of Research personnel layoffs last week represent cuts to research. I want to reassure our faculty, students, and staff that this is not at all the case. Instead, the layoffs stem from a shift in funding priorities with the ultimate goal of boosting research.
How can this be so? In recent years, the VPR’s Office has grown massively in terms of personnel costs while research has remained flat; we need to invest research budgets in faculty and infrastructure first. The changes instituted last week, together with other operational changes, will allow us to shift close to $1M of the annual VPR budget toward strategic investments in research and creative activity.
It is important to remember that until just a few years ago, the VPR’s office contributed up to a third of the funding for expensive start-up packages for faculty hires, mostly in STEM fields. This was appropriate, given that the VPR’s budget has been based on IDC recovery from grants. However, at the same time that many new staff were being added, the VPR’s office largely withdrew from its historical role of helping to finance start-up costs. The burden of funding start-ups then shifted squarely to the provost’s office. This in turn reduced the available budget for all new faculty hires on the Norman campus.
In addition to the staffing changes, I have also been working to do a complete reboot of the VPR office budget. This is in the context of needed budgetary reforms that are being made at the president’s direction for many areas across OU. The VPR’s office currently has about $18M in debt. Some of this debt is simply IOUs to the central administration (part of a dysfunctional budget system), and the rest is true debt (bonds) that should be held centrally. These issues are being corrected for the FY20 budgets, and the VPR’s office and OU will be much stronger when this work has been completed.
To be clear, our goal is and will always be to create the best possible education for our students – both undergraduate and graduate. The Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) has been closed, but undergraduate research is alive, well and growing. There is a rich ecosystem of research opportunities for undergraduates all across OU. For example, the Department of Biology offers sections of a course called Cornerstone, which are small, highly interactive classes where students engage in cutting-edge research side-by-side with dynamic professors. The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, together with the Honors College, offers the First Year Research Experiences (FYRE) program, which is now being expanded to other departments with a new grant from the National Science Foundation.
And regardless of whether a student is in architecture, history, visual arts, engineering, or geology, research can be done with a faculty member as a volunteer, or for academic credit, or even sometimes in a paid position. Funding can be obtained to support research through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (offered by Honors College to all students), and this research can be presented at Undergraduate Research Day.
While the cuts to the offices last week were undeniably painful and will result in some temporary disruptions, the needed functions performed by those offices can and will be shifted to existing staff in the Office of Research Services and elsewhere on campus. We must be responsible stewards of OU’s resources, and these changes will enable us to make more impactful future investments in graduate education and research. As I have visited with researchers across campus over the past few months, I have seen first-hand the innovative research and ideas we are moving forward. As we get our fiscal house in order, I am looking forward to what I think will be transformative investments in graduate education and research. I am very optimistic about OU’s future.