A Child's Life
Volume 25 Number 2
Photo courtesy Carnegie Foundation
Photo by John McDermott
A Steward of IU
by Lauren J. Bryant
George Walker likes change. Its a good thing. Although hes
been at Indiana University for more than three decades, hes
experienced his share of change, starting with his decision to come
to IU in the first place.
While finishing a postdoctoral assignment at Stanford University,
Walker had decided to take a job at one of two places, neither of
them IU. But IU needed new physics professors and called on a senior
faculty member at Princeton who had met Walker. I had a really
strong argument with him, actually, says Walker. He told
them I was opinionated, but he recommended me.
Walker took the IU Bloomington job and came to campus in August 1970 as an assistant professor of physics. In 1974, he served on a search-and-screen committee for a new IU dean of research and graduate development.
He was still opinionated, he says.
With a laugh, Walker recalls that because of the way I acted
on that committee and my general opinion about administrators, senior
people were saying, The only person we dont worry about
ever becoming an administrator is you, George.
More change was in store, though. When Walker became full professor
one year later, he was asked to be an associate dean in the IUB College
of Arts and Sciences. After a stint as a budget dean for
three years, he once again concluded hed never be an administrator.
But in 1986, John Lombardi, then dean of the College, persuaded Walker
to chair the physics department. In 1991, Walker was named IU vice
president for research and dean of the Graduate School, a post from
which he retires on June 30.
Announcing Walkers retirement last Septemberand the appointment of Michael McRobbie as the new vice president for researchthen-IU President Myles Brand cited hard work, irrepressible optimism, and a can-do attitude among the hallmarks of Walkers tenure. That attitude comes by birth and profession, Walker says.
I think an optimistic, confident view of life is in my chemistry
somehow. But also, as a scientist, you learn that though your theories
may be wrong, you have to figure out how to make the experiment positive,
he says. Even though it may be an objective failure on one hand,
it should be possible to learn useful lessons from it.
What lessons has Walker learned from his 30-plus years as an IU faculty
member and administrator? Stay flexible, and try to do the right thing.
In the university, Ive never thought it was a good idea
to look in the mirror and see dean or vice president
or physics researcher, he says. If we have
simpler ideasthinking of ourselves as simply signing on to help
IU and serve as stewards of our disciplineswere on safer
ground. If youre a good ensemble actor, you can play many roles.
At the same time, when you get a role, take it seriously and put everything
The record shows that Walker took his role as vice president and
dean seriously, resulting in an increase in sponsored research funding
from $113 million in 1990 to $339.5 million in 2002. He administered
dozens of centers, institutes, and museums while also creating new
ones such as the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics, the Center
for the Study of Congress, and the Center for Mathematics Education.
He also coordinated awards from the $4 million Presidents Arts
and Humanities Initiative, championed intercampus research collaboration,
and enhanced graduate education opportunities. Under Walkers
leadership, the Office of Research also sustained this magazine into
its 25th year of continuous publication.
In July, Walker makes yet another change, beginning as full-time
director of the Carnegie Foundations Initiative on the Doctorate,
a five-year program aimed at restructuring Ph.D. education in the
United States. As he leaves an administrative career he never intended
to have, Walkers optimism about the university he has served
remains in force: Michael McRobbie has terrific instincts,
Walker says, and I know hell follow them to successes
that promote teamwork and quality research.
Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.
Building a Better Research Environment
If Michael McRobbie seems to be everywhere these days, its not your imagination. A season ticket holder to the Indiana University Opera Theater, the IUB Department of Theatre and Dramas play series, and IU basketball games, McRobbie can also be found attending events such as a luncheon on cultural creativity sponsored by the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. And thats when hes not at one of his two day jobsIU vice president of information technology and, as of July 1, 2003, vice president for research.
A native of Australia, McRobbie holds a Ph.D. in logic and served
as a faculty member and CEO of the Cooperative Research Center for
Advanced Computational Systems, an equivalent to the National Science
Foundations Science and Technology Center. In that role, McRobbie
created and oversaw complex partnerships between government, academe,
and industry, much as he has done since coming to IU in 1997, where
he has headed the Pervasive Technology Laboratories (funded largely
by the Lilly Endowment) and played a key role in the creation of the
Indiana Genomics Initiative.
Big projects seem second nature to McRobbie, whose career began as a researcher in artificial intelligence. He quickly established a research group and co-authored a book on the subject but, he says, very early on, I got interested in how you could harness computers to do things faster, better, and more effectively.
McRobbie and his group built up what was, at the time, one of the largest supercomputing centers in the world and, combining his love of research with his practicality, McRobbie became interested in the frontiers of the fieldhow you use the most radical architectures possible and still be competitive scientifically.
From there, McRobbie developed an interest in networking. Not surprisingly, one of his early accomplishments as IUs vice president of information technology was to help land the Internet2 network operations center in Indianapolis. Setting up new centers and projects at IU has been an important component of McRobbies tenure as vice president, but thats not his proudest accomplishment.
We have put every member of the university in a modern IT environment, both in terms of assuring that everyone has a desktop machine that is no more than three years old, and that everyone has access to most of the major software packages they need, whether it be Microsoft or SPSS, he says. Although these might seem mundane accomplishments to many faculty and staff, to McRobbie, that very ordinariness is the point.
People in a lot of universities can spend a tremendous amount of time trying to scratch up the money to get a computer or a piece of software, he says. And they never get it right because they invest once, but the problem re-emerges three or four years down the track. Weve shown the world how to do it right. Our people can worry about getting on with their real work, and that helps everybody.
As he prepares to move into the vice president for research role, the question looms: is there an analogue in research to the IT desktop environment he has nurtured?
There is, but its more complex, he says. Certainly since most areas of science and research are becoming IT-enabled, people are starting to refer to e-science, e-research. Its a natural fit for the research and IT offices, working together, to support these. More broadly, though, McRobbie believes other components are necessary to make the IU research environment flourish.
The No. 1 concern I have is space. We cant try to attract new sources of funding and new money if we dont have space to house people, and we are seriously short on both the large campuses. We have to work creatively to find ways of increasing the sense of urgency to acquire and build more facilities.
With those components in place, along with the long-standing research-nurturing climate that exists in most academic units at IU, McRobbie believes the university will be well poised for the major challenge of the future: big, interdisciplinary projects.
The NIH has doubled its funding in five years; the NSF will do so over the next five years; cybersecurity is becoming an extremely important area; and there as another area called cyber-infrastructure, the whole fabric of networks and supercomputers, that will have up to a billion dollars a year of new money in it, he notes.
As vice president, McRobbie intends to make sure IU gets its share of new federal initiatives, while continuing the strong traditions it has built in arts, humanities, social sciences, and other areas of primarily individualized research.
The university has done a very good job supporting individual and small group investigators, he says. But I think we havent been as successful in pursuing the large research centers, $2 million a year and up. There are going to be more and more of these centers, and we will need to pursue them by being a united university, across campuses, aggregating our research expertise to go after these.
In addition to genomics and pervasive technologies, McRobbie points to a new NSF-funded project, AVIDD, that is building an experimental infrastructure in computing across IUB and IUPUI. The steady proliferation of scientific instruments able to generate vast amounts of data is demanding a new generation of facilities like AVIDD, constructed specifically to support modern instrument-driven, data-intensive science. The project involves more than 30 faculty as co-principal investigators and, as McRobbie notes, requires considerably more work up front than an individual grant. As more and more such projects come to IU, he says, space availability and the IT environments continued robustness will be increasingly important.
A universitywide officer, McRobbie plans to involve the research office with the smaller campuses both as distance learning sites and as places at which key portions of large projects can take place. In AVIDD, for example, we are setting up part of it at IU Northwest. In addition to drawing on faculty expertise on the regional campuses, we can also take advantage of our system by projecting some of the educational capabilities of these new projects to all locations.
As a big picture thinker, McRobbies vision of the arts and humanities dovetails with his interest in opera, theater, and other arts. He notes IUs digital music library project, funded by one of the largest grants IU has ever received in arts and humanities. But putting IT aside, he says, I want to ask, is it possible for us to more effectively leverage all the wonderful capabilities we have, all the wonderful opportunities in arts and humanities? I want to think of ways to bring these opportunities together in a more coordinated way, perhaps by starting a major national arts event, which would help attract even more high-quality faculty and visitors in these areas and help to attract students. The research office could help us move to this next level.
As he prepares to take on a new vice presidency, McRobbie looks to a future where the two large campuses of IU will become more closely coordinated, where huge multidisciplinary centers and projects will become commonplace, and where scientific advances that we can barely imagine today will emerge from collaborations between Bloomington and Indianapolis, and from throughout the state.
The researchers core enterprise, however, will still be of
primary importance. Going to hear a colleagues paper,
whether it be in quantum computing or Byzantine history, generates
intellectual connections between areas that you hadnt thought
about before, McRobbie says. To me, thats what a
university has always been, and will always be, about. Those moments
justify the hard slog of making things happen day to day.
Michael Wilkerson is communications coordinator and director of the Indiana Retention Research Project in the Office of the IU Vice President for Student Development & Diversity.