Illinois State University has a new campus leader of research. On July 1, Dr. Craig C. McLauchlan replaced fellow Department of Chemistry colleague Dr. John Baur, as the University’s associate vice president for Research and Graduate Studies.
Baur had served in the role for seven years, ushering in several new programs including the launch of this magazine. He established the Office of Student Research in 2019 and revamped the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, which in recent years has recorded some of the highest amounts of external grant funding in the University’s history. Under Baur’s direction, the University also joined the Illinois Innovation Network. The statewide initiative will provide funding for an ISU- run startup incubator and makerspace at a new location in Uptown Normal.
Baur has returned as a professor to the Department of Chemistry, where McLauchlan has been a professor and had served as chair for the previous seven years.
McLauchlan arrived at Illinois State in 2002. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Northwestern University and completed postdoctoral work at Harvard University. His research has been focused on turning petroleum into more useful products and creating new compounds containing the metal vanadium.
Redbird Scholar Editor-in-Chief Kevin Bersett interviewed Baur and McLauchlan via Zoom last spring during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In the following Q&A, the former talks about his tenure and the latter about his plans for the job. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you want to take this position, Craig?
I am really committed to research and graduate education. And this offers me a chance to continue to give back to ISU, which gave me a start in my career and helped me become a teacher-scholar.
John, have you given Craig any advice on how to handle the job? It’s a big responsibility, with a scope much wider than a single department.
I’ve been trying to fill him in a little bit on the different aspects of the job. I think he’s learning that there’s more that you’re responsible for than he expected. But the responsibilities are very different than in a department.
You have a different level of responsibility, and you’re another step removed from the day-to-day operations. You’re in a strategic and support role—strategic in terms of research for the University, but support in terms of supporting faculty by working to provide the services that they need.
One of the best parts of the job is just learning about all of the interesting work going on and sometimes having an impact on it. You also meet a whole bunch of new people across campus. Although you have a lot more people blaming you for things, you also have a lot more people thanking you as well.
Craig, what do you feel is the biggest challenge you face?
Right now, it is this current climate (of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order). Since March 6, the challenge is determining how we continue to navigate all the disciplines, and the mentoring of graduate students, and the ability to conduct research in this new reality. How do the laboratory sciences do what they do? How do artists get training? How do we do fieldwork or experiential learning? How do we operate in this new era?
But I think for me the biggest challenge, other than this global pandemic and how we operate in it, is thinking about how ISU would incorporate engineering into our research profile if we go that route. Also, I trust John a lot and I really respect him as a colleague. We worked together when he was my chair. In his current position, I have been very respectful of all the things he’s done. But what are some opportunities for improvement? I think John would agree that when you’ve done something for a while, there’s a chance for someone to come in and hopefully build on it and see things from a new perspective.
John, what are you most proud of during your tenure? And what did you want to accomplish that you weren’t able to?
While we’re still not perfect, we’ve made strides in being more supportive of faculty and student research. I’ve been a faculty member here for 27 years. And so I knew what some of the issues we’re facing as PIs (principal investigators). I think on the grant side, we’ve built Research and Sponsored Programs into a better position to serve faculty. The Graduate School is more student friendly, which I don’t take a lot of credit for because the graduate directors have done most of that work. Even our IRB (Institutional Review Board) process has improved quite a bit. IRBs are never going to be popular, but you can make the process a lot easier.
I’ve tried to be more supportive of all research areas, not just grants, because there’s a lot of research that’s not easily amenable to grants. So we’ve expanded some programs like the subvention support and publication support programs to assist these other areas. And we’ve added a little bit to the university research grant funds so that more non-grant related work can be funded.
What I would have liked to accomplish that we haven’t is to be farther along in several initiatives. Progress has been slow, and my philosophy is that you need a strong infrastructure before you ask everybody to be more active in research. We definitely have the talent to grow at the University, and I would argue that we have already started doing that just by improving our support services. But it’s hard to tell every faculty member they have to do more research when we don’t yet have sufficient infrastructure. So while I think we have a good start in building that infrastructure, we have a ways to go yet.
I would love to see us be more recognized as a research institution. I think students really want to be more involved in research. So I’m proud of getting the Office of Student Research off the ground. That took a while, and it’s not going full tilt yet, but it’s a good start.
Craig, how do you feel taking over some of these projects that John helped start?
There’s a lot of uncertainty. I have a new boss, and we have a new academic leader of the University. (Dr. Aondover Tarhule took over in July as the vice president and provost.) We have the Illinois Innovation Network, which is just getting going, and the Office of Student Research, which I would argue is still in a pilot phase. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure because there are a lot of really good things that have happened. And you don’t want to be the person who inherits the keys to the car and then drives off the cliff. I’d like to believe that I can continue to make those projects go and help us grow.
As for the Office of Student Research, I think people have been yearning for something like that to exist. I think that faculty and students really are going to get behind that. Whereas the Innovation Network, I don’t think there’s a broader consensus on exactly what that means. What does that look like? And what does that do? And how would that work with a makerspace? There is a lot of potential there.
And finally, Craig, what do you think faculty want out of your position?
Faculty, we just want to do the work, work with students, and pursue the projects we want to pursue. At least I did. And we’re not going to be focused on all of those guidelines and rules that are critical from the University perspective. I really want to follow up on what John has done in terms of reducing barriers.
I want to create a system where you make people aware of opportunities, and you try to really reduce the barriers. And then you trust a lot of really smart people who are really, really motivated and really creative from all over the University to do what they do best and try and set them up.