Phillips steps down as AVP to pursue Paris sabbatical

UO Biology professor Patrick Phillips joined the Office of the Vice President for Research & Innovation three years ago as the UO’s co-associate vice president of research. Now Phillips is stepping down from that role as he prepares to spend a year in Paris on a sabbatical.

Phillips holds one of two AVP positions devoted to faculty — Beth Stormshak, professor of counseling psychology, holds the other position. Together, Phillips and Stormshak helped bridge the gap between faculty and administration during a time of transition for the office for Research and Innovation. New approaches were rolled out on everything from research protocols to research core facilities. A former department head whose research focuses on understanding the complex mapping between genes and traits such as behavior, reproduction and longevity and involves the use of the Caenorhabditis elagans roundworm as a model organism, Phillips brought his empirical approach to some of the challenges facing the office.

“You need to know a lot about sponsored research in order to serve in this role and it helps to have your own sponsored research portfolio as Patrick does,” Stormshak said. “Patrick was also thoughtful and steady in his communication and he’s able to negotiate with different groups of people. He has a clear vision of what needs to happen in order for the UO to retain its focus on research excellence.”

In addition to helping to make on-the-ground improvements to the UOs research operations, Phillips played a key role in setting the university on better path toward the future, and helping to lay the groundwork for such initiatives as the UO’s Faculty Excellence Cluster Hire Program program. Repeatedly, says UO senior assistant vice president for research Moira Kiltie, he asked the question, “Are we on the right course?” then helped make adjustments to assure the answer was “yes.”

“Patrick brings a measured approach to what is sometimes a difficult environment,” Kiltie says. “He’s incredibly smart, incredibly even tempered.”

As Phillips prepares to ship off to France in mid September, we caught up with him to ask about his past three years as AVP, his next year in France and the future of research at the UO.

QUESTION: I understand you are headed to France for a sabbatical. Where will you be located? What will you be doing?

ANSWER: I will be doing my sabbatical at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris for the next academic year. The ENS is the top science university in France. I will be doing a bit of teaching while I am there, but my primary activities will be around research and writing a book on the "Evolution of Genetics Systems."

QUESTION: Why France? What are you looking forward to about living there? Do you speak any French?

ANSWER: One of the top researchers in my field, Marie-Anne Félix, is on the faculty of the ENS. She is the world's expert on the natural biology of the nematode worms that I study. I always enjoy being in Europe and am especially fond of the cafe culture. I wish that we had a few more outdoor spots to hang out and people watch in Eugene. I took three years of French in high school, but somewhat to my dismay, that turns out to be 30 years ago. My wife and I have been trying to brush up with lessons over the last few months, but it is sobering how far we have to go.

QUESTION: When you leave, you will be stepping down as Associate Vice President for Research. What have been some of the major challenges you’ve tackled in that role?

ANSWER: It has been no secret that the last three years have seen some trying times for the UO. The research office faced some unexpected financial challenges when I first got started in the office, which led to a great deal of confusion about faculty start ups and other support issues. The federal climate for research has been degrading over that time period as well, which has led to year over year cuts in the research budget. These issues came to increasingly dominate my time in the office.

My fondest memories of the position were actually during my first year in the office when I helped to organize a series of "breakfast club" sessions about the future of research at the UO. A number of great interactions and ideas emerged from those sessions, some of which have continued on as part of our current cluster hire process.

QUESTION: You and Beth Stormshak shared the AVP role. How did that work out? How did you divide the responsibilities?

ANSWER: Early on in our appointments (and somewhat to our surprise), Beth and I took on responsibility for some of the compliance activities of the research office. This created an obvious separation of duties, and there has never been a shortage of things to get done. I have always prided myself on trying to know as much as possible about what is going on on campus, but getting to know all of the terrific activities of the College of Education through conversations with Beth and other COE faculty has been the biggest eye-opener during my time in the research office. I believe that the university could benefit tremendously from continuing to build on synergistic activities between the College of Education and other areas of strength on campus.

QUESTION: What do you think are the most important issues facing UO as a research institution?

ANSWER: The entire research infrastructure in this country is caught in a narrowing corridor of shrinking research support, increased costs, and continually rising expectations for investments in new faculty start ups and retentions. It is clearly not sustainable, but the question is, “Which institution is going to blink first?” Since we have always run such a lean research operation, the UO does not have a natural resilience to these changing conditions. The advent of our new board and the investments that we hope to see in research infrastructure in the coming year or two, as exemplified in the cluster hire process, will determine whether we can stay on course to become one of the great public research universities. I remain quite optimistic that we can continue to build on our strengths to achieve this goal. We won't be able to do it without significant outside help, however.

QUESTION: Any advice for your successor?

ANSWER: There is not a single person on this campus who doesn't think what they are doing is the most important thing in the world. This is what makes them achieve at the highest level. It is a great strength of the UO. It also means that people don't tend to be happy with the limitations that naturally arise from not being able to do everything simultaneously. A sense of humor is definitely helpful. Through whatever trials we faced, the staff of the research office always enjoyed working together as a team. I have been extremely fortunate to work with such a terrific group of people.