Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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George Walker
Photo courtesy Carnegie Foundation

Michael McRobbie
Photo by John McDermott

A Steward of IU

by Lauren J. Bryant

George Walker likes change. It’s a good thing. Although he’s been at Indiana University for more than three decades, he’s 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 don’t 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 he’d 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 Walker’s retirement last September—and the appointment of Michael McRobbie as the new vice president for research—then-IU President Myles Brand cited “hard work, irrepressible optimism, and a can-do attitude” among the hallmarks of Walker’s 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, I’ve 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 ideas—thinking of ourselves as simply signing on to help IU and serve as stewards of our disciplines—we’re on safer ground. If you’re a good ensemble actor, you can play many roles. At the same time, when you get a role, take it seriously and put everything into it.”

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 President’s Arts and Humanities Initiative, championed intercampus research collaboration, and enhanced graduate education opportunities. Under Walker’s 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 Foundation’s 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, Walker’s optimism about the university he has served remains in force: “Michael McRobbie has terrific instincts,” Walker says, “and I know he’ll 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

by Michael Wilkerson

If Michael McRobbie seems to be everywhere these days, it’s not your imagination. A season ticket holder to the Indiana University Opera Theater, the IUB Department of Theatre and Drama’s 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 that’s when he’s not at one of his two “day jobs”—IU 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 Foundation’s 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 field—how 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 IU’s 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 McRobbie’s tenure as vice president, but that’s 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. We’ve 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 can’t try to attract new sources of funding and new money if we don’t 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 haven’t 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 environment’s 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, McRobbie’s vision of the arts and humanities dovetails with his interest in opera, theater, and other arts. He notes IU’s 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 researcher’s core enterprise, however, will still be of primary importance. “Going to hear a colleague’s paper, whether it be in quantum computing or Byzantine history, generates intellectual connections between areas that you hadn’t thought about before,” McRobbie says. “To me, that’s 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.

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