California Institute of Technology: Richard Seligman, Associate Vice President for Research Administration, Retires

Richard Seligman, Caltech’s associate vice president for research administration, retired on January 8 after 25 years of service to the Institute.

His longtime deputy David Mayo is now responsible for all research administration duties and has assumed the new position of senior director for research administration.

Seligman, who joined Caltech in 1996 as director of the office of sponsored research, served in roles chiefly responsible for supporting researchers as they sought grants, providing guidance and assuring compliance as well as negotiating, accepting, and receiving funds on their behalf. As associate vice president for research administration, he oversaw as much as $400 million in private and government funding annually.

“Sponsored research is a critical aspect of Caltech’s operation, so the main purpose is to make sure that things get done properly and that we follow the rules and provide adequate stewardship over the awards,” he says.

Margo Steurbaut, vice president of administration and chief financial officer, praised Seligman as “a nationally recognized leader whose intense knowledge, combined with a sense of humor and a warm personality, set him up as the gold standard for research administrators.”

Seligman recalls that when he started at the Institute, the system for tracking and administering grants was based on piles of paper 3 x 5 cards, with stacks for proposal submissions, awards, and various other categories. Over the years, he says, he oversaw a much-needed modernization of the process. “In the good old days, people would come to the office carrying piles of paper so that the proposal could be signed off and put in envelopes and sent by Federal Express,” he says. “Now virtually all of the proposals, particularly those going to federal agencies, are submitted electronically.”

He also oversaw an effort to create written policies and procedures to explain the grant process and its requirements, replacing an unwieldy system that relied primarily on word of mouth. He expressed satisfaction that the current written policies and procedures now explicitly “answer the questions, ‘Why do I have to do this? Where does it say that I have to do this?'”

Seligman says what he will miss most about Caltech, aside from his work, “is the interaction with other people at Caltech. Caltech is small enough that you can really get to know people. And if you need to, you can speak to a division chair, you can speak to the provost, or even the president. You can do it without going through four or five layers of assistant chairs and assistants to the president, and people who really make it difficult to easily communicate. I will miss that very much.”

Seligman says he always saw his role as striving to ensure that researchers spend as little time as possible dealing with the administrative hassles of securing grants so that they can maximize the time they spend actually performing research.

“It’s a constant battle to try to eliminate or reduce the administrative burden,” he says, noting that researchers do notice and often express appreciation that his office is looking out for them.

“That’s very heartwarming,” he adds. “That’s sort of confirmation that, somehow, I’ve been achieving some of the aims that I was hoping to achieve.”

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