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Get to know Northwestern’s new vice president for research

 Northwestern Vice President for Research Eric Perreault

Eric Perreault discusses his leadership style, priorities and how he uses metrics (and when he doesn’t)

Northwestern named its new vice president for research this month: engineering professor Eric J. Perreault. A University faculty member since 2002, Perreault studies the neural and biomechanical factors involved in the control of movement and posture—and how these factors are modified following neuromotor pathologies such as stroke or spinal-cord injury. The research has importance for physical rehabilitation, which is why Perreault holds a joint appointment at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, as well as in the McCormick School of Engineering and the Feinberg School of Medicine. He embraces a collaborative, data-informed leadership style that has defined his previous roles at Northwestern, including most recently his service as McCormick’s associate dean for research administration and oversight. Prior to that tenure, he was chair of the biomedical engineering department, leading its recruitment of 10 new faculty members and spearheading an expansion to the University’s Chicago campus to facilitate additional cross-disciplinary research with the medical school.

Transforming Research sat down with Dr. Perreault to learn more about his approach to administrative service.

Why did you want the job of vice president for research?

 Eric J. Perreault: This is an important position for Northwestern, and I think that my experience and longstanding commitment to service are well matched to the role. I have a deep understanding of many operations in the Office for Research (OR). As a faculty member, I conduct human, animal and computational work that depends on many resources in OR. As the associate dean for research in McCormick, I gained a different perspective on OR's activities – how the office operates in collaboration with Northwestern’s schools and other administrative units to support our phenomenal research enterprise. I have observed how effective research operations can lower the barrier for pursuing bold ideas, and I am committed to ensuring that OR continues to push in this direction so that our research can continue to grow and have a positive impact on the world.

What do you see as your administrative strengths?

EJP: I’m a strong believer in coordination and collaboration and enjoy thinking about systems-level interactions. OR is a big, multifaceted team that connects with many other parts of the University and we need to think holistically about these interactions and how they serve our research program. Our staff is dedicated to system-wide efficiencies, but I’m interested in discovering where we can be even more innovative and effective together. I’m also committed to building communities where everyone can thrive. That’s something we focused on during my tenure as associate dean at McCormick: we expanded intra- and inter-school collaborations, helped junior faculty launch research programs, and assisted senior faculty in submitting ambitious, complex proposals – all contributing to a growth in research funding by 30% over two years. In addition, we restructured the administrative team to enhance service while providing growth opportunities for staff. I am optimistic we will have many similar successes in OR.

How would you describe your leadership style?

EJP: I am a collaborative problem solver who strives to be forthright and transparent. I value open communication and seek knowledgeable team members willing to provide alternative viewpoints to my own so that we can collectively assess challenging issues from multiple perspectives. I don’t just like to hear what I already know.  As vice president for research, I see a key part of my job as building partnerships and community; creating productive teams that really serve our research mission. To do that well means creating a healthy, inclusive workplace where people are appropriately supported and feel a shared sense of purpose and connection with one another. I’ve been a strong advocate for inclusive excellence as a crucial foundation for achieving success at all levels – from my laboratory to my administrative roles to the many training and mentoring programs in which I have participated. I’ll bring these same attributes to my role as vice president.

As you begin your tenure as vice president, what are some key strategic priorities?

EJP:  An important goal will be lowering barriers to enable faculty to do their work in the most efficient and effective way—while also ensuring we maintain a safe and compliant research enterprise. Delivering the highest quality of service to our research community is vital, and that is something that aligns well with our OR Values. Of course, we also will be supporting the University priorities related to research and innovation. President Schill has outlined many important and exciting opportunities, including advancing interdisciplinary work in the biosciences, and harnessing the power of data analytics and artificial intelligence. I have already started to connect with my colleagues in OR and across our university to determine how to enhance Northwestern’s impact in these and other areas.

Speaking of data analytics, what role do metrics play in your leadership efforts?

EJP: Candidly, I’m a data nerd. I find metrics fascinating. They often are a powerful tool for informing decision making and understanding what’s working well and what isn’t. Metrics are also important for helping establish institutional identity and benchmarking performance so that we can assess the impact of innovations and investments. That said, “metrics fixation” can be detrimental to meaningful progress when used to supplant rather than augment institutional experience and insight. So, I prefer to think about data-informed rather than data-driven decision making and hope to use it judiciously to guide our research operations.

                                                                                                                                                                           --Matt Golosinski