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After serving as interim in the role for almost two years, Jack Hu, the University’s current vice president for research, was approved for a three-year appointment, effective Jan. 1, 2016 through Dec. 31, 2018, in December.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily on Jan. 12, Hu outlined several goals for his role, including supporting creating opportunities for students, supporting faculty research and innovation and fostering interdisciplinary initiatives.
The search process for Hu’s position was consulted by University President Mark Schlissel with the aim of identifying and evaluating senior officers who would be qualified for the position, according to University Regent Kathy White (D–Ann Arbor). During the process, Schlissel consulted with the Board of Regents and asked for their input, leading to their December vote on appointing Schlissel’s recommendation, Hu.
In the University Board of Regents’ action item from its meeting in December, Schlissel summarized several reasons why Hu was a viable candidate, citing his leadership skills and experience in particular.
“Professor Hu’s proven leadership skills, breadth and depth of experience, vision and demonstrated commitment to the University of Michigan make him ideally suited for the responsibilities of vice president for research,” Schlissel said.
Hu was originally appointed as interim vice president following former vice president Stephen Forrest’s announcement to step down from the position and return to teaching in 2013. Prior to his appointment as interim vice president, Hu served as associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Engineering, and was also associate dean for research and graduate education.
Because then-current University President Mary Sue Coleman was retiring in the summer of 2014, Hu said she did not want to choose someone to serve in the position long-term.
Instead, Hu was given a two-year interim appointment from Coleman, who knew him through their work experience together on the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a selection of leaders assembled by President Barack Obama to develop recommendations on strengthening U.S. manufacturing.
During Hu’s tenure as interim vice president, two significant University initiatives were launched, including the M-City test environment at the University's Mobility Transformation Center as well as a campus-wide initiative in data science.
Hu said moving forward, one key initiative he wants to facilitate at the University is creating more opportunities for undergraduate research. Because of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which is run by LSA, he said in the past the vice president’s office did not provide as much direct support for student research.
“Whether that is support or making the faculty more visible to the students, I want to enhance that,” Hu said. “I don’t have a concrete plan, but I had some ideas (being formulated) last year — that is to support student teams. I think we will have something hopefully in the fall that I can announce.”
Hu said he believes there could be research opportunities available for every student, though he noted the question remains as to how many students the University can support. However, he emphasized that he believed students from all disciplines should be able to participate in research.
“For the University, the goal is to continue to strengthen our reputation,” Hu said. “How do we make the University of Michigan a recognized research university? We are, but the question is whether we are at the top. We have to have certain strategies in continuing to promote our reputation.”
University Regent Andrew Richner (R–Grosse Pointe Park) said it is important for the vice president to have a strong academic background, be a well-respected academic leader and have vision and intellectual curiosity.
“(Hu) is widely respected among the campus community,” Richner said. “He is an outstanding academic leader … he brings real discipline and intellectual curiosity to his position.”
Along with new research opportunities, Hu said he also hopes to continue projects he began as an interim, including supporting research across all three University campuses and developing large-scale interdisciplinary research initiatives by facilitating the research that faculty members want to do.
Along with research initiatives on campus, Hu noted that much of his job encompasses obtaining funding for research.
Currently, the University receives one of the highest amounts of federal funding for research in the country, with an estimated $1.3 billion in research expenditures.
“I travel to D.C. and go to companies…to diversify the sources of funding for research,” Hu said. “The government funding has been on a decline for some time after the great recession. During that time, we had the American Reinvestment and Recovery Project, ARRA, so a lot of money was put into NIH, for example. But steadily we’re on a decline, so we have to find other sources of money to support our research effort.”
Beyond the government, the University also receives funding from a number of other sources, including industry, individuals and public and private foundations.
In an e-mail interview, White wrote that she saw increasing research activity and funding, identifying new research opportunities and promoting the commercialization of University discoveries, as key parts of the vice president for research’s role. Because the University is among the largest research institutions in the world, and competition is high for research funding, White said she looks forward to continued success in the competition for that funding under Hu.
Richner said he thought the has already had success, in terms of of federal grant funding and research funding, during Hu’s tenure as interim vice president.
“(Hu) recognizes that it’s really important to emphasize to policy makers and to other funding sources the importance of showing the progress that we’ve made in University research — what progress has been made in terms of research successes and what is being accomplished for the funding that we do receive,” Richner said.
Beyond funding, Hu noted that his position also requires him to extend his work through all three University campuses because his office supports the research process and manages their government compliance programs at all three. As well, his office works with the Office of Technology Transfer, an office that manages the University’s intellectual properties for all three campuses.
Overall, Hu said he wants to use several strategies to ensure the University maintains its reputation as an excellent research facility.
“(The University should) promote our faculty, nominate them for the most important prizes in the field, promote our research (and) try to demonstrate how we’re impacting society, impacting policy through research,” he said.
White wrote that she hopes that Hu finds new opportunities for the University to focus its research strengths on problems and issues of great importance to society.
“Finding innovative ways to utilize the depth and breadth of the University to solve societal problems is something I hope we continue to do,” she wrote.
Rackham student Marc Paff, a nuclear engineering Ph.D. candidate, said during his time at the University, the research programs have been beneficial, allowing him to further his own projects and network. Paff is currently working on devices often installed for border crossing that screen incoming vehicles and trucks, as well as airport baggage, for smuggled nuclear radiological material so nuclear weapons and bombs can be prevented from entering the United States.
“To me, the research that I do I think is really interesting from an intellectual standpoint,” Paff said. “I also see that it has real world application … it makes me feel like my research is relevant.”
Paff said he decided to attend graduate school at Michigan due to its highly ranked nuclear engineering program and its overall reputation as a well renowned research university. However, he also noted that he would like to see research at the University become more interdisciplinary and collaborative.
“Sometimes I feel like research at the University feels very particular,” Paff said. “You don’t collaborate with a lot of people outside of your immediate peers within your research program or department.”
Paff cited MCubed, a project that aims to bring together grad students and professors from departments across campus, as an example of good collaboration, and said he would like to see more like it.
Toni Antonucci, associate vice president for research, social sciences and humanities, said she agreed more interdisciplinary research would be good, but also noted that he thought Hu had been successful in working toward to creating opportunities for collaboration over the past few years.
“He’s committed to high-quality research and to providing the support that our faculty needs to do the best research that they can do,” Antonucci said. “He is interested in disciplines and areas of expertise other than his own … When I compare what we do with many other universities, those I’ve visited or that I have former students at, it’s really impressive. We are committed to high quality work, we try to support our faculty in a lot of different ways.”
However, despite the positive things that University research has to offer, Antonucci said there are still many challenges that the University has to face.
Echoing Hu, she said it’s sometimes been difficult to receive funding from the government.
“We as a nation are not instilling in our citizens and in our young people an appreciation for what science can and has contributed,” Antonucci said. “What I think is a challenge that we’re facing right now is how to encourage interdisciplinary work within our current budget structure … We are facing challenges that need to be addressed in a different way (than they have been addressed in the past).”
Those challenges, she added, include genetic research, climate change and how to increase educational levels, particularly in light of the recently revealed educational issues in Detroit. In recent months, Detroit school teachers have protested poor school conditions, resulting in closings of over two-thirds of the city’s schools.
She noted that many of these issues have been considered by Hu, and that the importance of supporting collaboration is well ingrained at the University.
Ultimately, Richner said beyond his experience and ideas about research, he thought Hu’s knack for dealing with people in a friendly and positive way, were also what made him an ideal vice president for research.
“He’s just a pleasure to work with,” Richner said. “He really has just such a positive attitude and it’s contagious. I think that’s an important leadership skill. I think everyone that works with him enjoys working with him.”