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GW’s first research chief leaves behind transformed role for research

The University announced Thursday that Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, will step down from his role July 1.

After a nine-year tenure, the face of GW’s improved research reputation will step away from his role as officials evaluate the future of the research office.

The University announced Thursday that Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, will step down July 1 to take a sabbatical before returning as a professor in the medical school teaching pharmacology and physiology. His tenure marked a transformation in the role of research at GW as it moved from a relatively small part of the University’s mission to a key tenant of its identity, but some researchers said it’s time for a change.

While faculty lauded Chalupa’s efforts to raise GW’s research profile, some said the Office of the Vice President for Research and Chalupa’s overarching role limits ability of individual schools to manage their own projects – an issue they hope the upcoming faculty research task force will begin to remedy.

“Like any leaving of a top official, this is going to be a good opportunity to evaluate where GW stands and what more we can do to achieve those goals.”

Chalupa said in an interview with The Hatchet last month that he looked forward to lead the task force alongside Provost Forrest Maltzman. Chalupa could not be reached for comment for this story.

Chalupa’s departure comes during a re-evaluation of the role of research at GW as University President Thomas LeBlanc attempts to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in the research profile and faculty examine ways to improve processes they have found frustrating around hiring, human subject research and applying for grants.

Former University President Steven Knapp created the research office and Chalupa’s position – the first of its kind at the University – in 2008 as part of his effort to take research from an afterthought behind traditional GW strengths in law and public policy to a major part of its educational mission.

Chalupa, a distinguished neurobiologist, came to GW in 2009 from the University of California, Davis. He was given a $5.4 million budget to support faculty efforts to secure grants and start projects.

GW’s research profile grew significantly during his tenure, climbing more than 20 spots in the National Science Foundation’s ranking of research universities and taking in millions of dollars more in federal subsidies.

In 2014, Chalupa worked to shift the research emphasis to specific departments, moving staffers into specific offices to better support faculty researchers.

He also set out to strengthen research into autism. Chalupa helped launch GW’s autism institute in 2010 – one of a string of interdisciplinary institutes OVPR helped create in recent years. The Computational Biology Institute, a research center on the Virginia campus with a focus on life sciences, also started in fall 2012.

In recent years, Chalupa has worked to secure research faculty more funding, in particular turning to corporations and international partnerships to bankroll major projects.

Chalupa also set out to increase undergraduate student involvement in research. This year, GW will publish its first undergraduate research journal.

Faculty said Chalupa’s departure is not surprising given the number of long-time administrators who have left in the first several months of LeBlanc’s tenure. Seven top level officials have announced their resignations since LeBlanc came to GW in August.

Faculty also said many professors would prefer individual schools manage their own research rather than one overarching office, an arrangement some said was inefficient and leads to a neglect of some departments.

Harald Griesshammer, an associate professor of physics and a member of the Faculty Senate, said the staffing change allows the University to re-evaluate the office at a time when LeBlanc has ordered a full examination of research at GW.

“Like any leaving of a top official, this is going to be a good opportunity to evaluate where GW stands and what more we can do to achieve those goals,” he said.

Griesshammer said Chalupa was instrumental in boosting GW’s ranking as a research institution, in part by securing more funding.

He said Chalupa has focused on the societal value of the University’s research projects rather than simply how much money they brought in, and recognized a need to bolster research in the humanities and arts – priorities that LeBlanc has also addressed.

Last year, OVPR offered a $20,000 humanities seminar grant in addition to $1,000 research incentives for faculty in the humanities to spur projects in areas beyond science, technology and engineering fields.

“He brought his passion to his work, and he was a very good salesman for GW,” he said.

Griesshammer said Chalupa’s replacement should listen to faculty and evaluate the role of the office before making any significant changes.

“When he came nine years ago, research was not a priority for GW at all, and I think he really made it a top priority.”

“I’m very suspicious of people who come into a new environment and immediately know what needs to be done and changed,” he said. “People first have to listen and then come up with the solution, and President LeBlanc was a poster child of how to do it right.”

Keith Crandall, a professor of biology and director of the Computational Biology Institute, said Chalupa has helped move GW’s research agenda forward by bringing attention to “hot topics” like neuroscience and sustainability. He said the next vice president for research should push for a greater focus on service.

“I think the next VP of Research will really have the opportunity to focus on service,” Crandall said in an email. “How can the OVPR really help the fantastic researchers hired over the last 10 years move their research agendas forward? How can OVPR facilitate research applications, interdisciplinary research, and help break barriers to collaborations across schools and colleges?”

Michael Bukrinsky, a professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine, said as the University looks to fill Chalupa’s role, officials should consider giving more power to researchers within individual schools as opposed to having OVPR oversee all research operations.

“It just sets up huge bureaucratic entities that doesn’t really function very well,” he said. “So ideally OVPR probably should retain certain functions, but I think they should downgrade it to more concrete administrative functions.”

But Bukrinsky said Chalupa made tangible progress on GW’s long-time goals of becoming a more research-focused institution, working to secure large grants and pushing for more long-term projects.

“When he came nine years ago, research was not a priority for GW at all, and I think he really made it a top priority,” he said.

Liz Konneker, Cayla Harris and Sarah Roach contributed reporting.

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