Research Administrators Learn New Ways to Manage Millions

Staff members attend campus symposium on managing sponsored research

The third annual symposium for research administrators at Duke included presentations from senior leaders at Duke and other universities. From left are Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for Duke administration; Scott Gibson, executive vice dean for administ

Grant managers from across Duke University gathered last week to learn more about new technologies and business process changes Duke is implementing to help manage more than $900 million annually in  sponsored research.

About 400 staff members attended "Re-engineering Research Administration," an Oct. 16 symposium offered at no charge to employees who manage research grants. The symposium was sponsored by Duke's Research Administration Continuous Improvement (RACI) initiative, an effort led by senior leadership to create an infrastructure of administrative support for faculty researchers.

"We have world class research at Duke," said Tim Walsh, vice president for finance and chair of the RACI initiative. "We should also have world class research administration."

Duke has approximately 1,000 employees who spend the majority of their time handling grant revenues and expenses and ensuring each grant complies with dozens of federal, state and institutional regulations. The symposium offered participants the opportunity to learn from senior leaders, peers and industry experts from across the country.

Scott Gibson, executive vice dean for administration for the School of Medicine, outlined the importance of efficient and effective handling of research money for Duke.

"Approximately 53 percent of Duke's revenue comes from sponsored research," he said. "That funding, and what we do with it, affects Duke's programs, Duke's reputation, and Duke's culture. The goal of the RACI initiative is to minimize the administrative burden for faculty by improving process efficiency, which requires investments in both human resources and information technology."

The morning sessions were devoted to reviewing progress made over five years since Duke created the RACI initiative in 2007. These include implementing technologies that have streamlined administration such as paperless payroll and Buy@Duke and supporting employees who manage research administration by providing better education and career opportunities.

Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration, described the behind-the-scenes work completed in Human Resources to create research administration job classifications linked to training opportunities offered at Duke so that an employee can clearly see steps on the career ladder.

"One of the great things about having so much research at Duke is that it is possible to have an entire career in research administration at just this one institution," Cavanaugh said.

The afternoon involved peer-led sessions on data security, new technology tools and other Duke-specific topics.

Daphyne Bennett, a financial analyst I in the Heart Center, attended the afternoon session on Professional Opportunities to learn how Duke could help her prepare for the Certified Research Administrator exam offered by the national Research Administrators Certification Council

"There's a lot more opportunity in research administration now at Duke," said Bennett, who has worked with research funding for most of her 34 years at Duke. "When I started, it was learn as you go by trial and error. Now we have opportunities like this to help us stay abreast of new rules and new tools."

The annual Symposium, now in its third year and already broadly recognized as an industry best practice, is organized and facilitated by Jim Luther and Julie Cole, both of whom are leaders within the Research Costing and Compliance program of Duke Finance.   

"The Symposium and the administrative innovations coming throughout the research enterprise all reflect Duke's commitment to our world-class faculty and the administrators who support and facilitate their research programs each day," Walsh said. "The RACI vision is to promote the most efficient and effective support for our faculty possible, by surrounding them with best-in-class technologies, people, and business practices."