Big Shoes

Big Shoes

NOTE: “Leadership Reflections” shares views of the different members of the University Leadership Council on matters related to campus life and the operations of the University. As well, it features opinions on issues of national and/or international relevance.

Filling Big Shoes and Making a Niche in Research
By Dr. Enrique G. Oracion, Director, Research and Development

(Message delivered during the 2012 United Board Fellows Program Seminar at Silliman University on July 23 to 26, 2012.)

I always see myself as a reluctant leader, but it does not mean that I cannot seriously take on a responsibility and deliver the goods when compelled by circumstances to assume certain leadership roles. I am more of an invisible type who prefers to work in the sidelight. At first, I perceived the position of a Research Director as a herculean task because being into this job in a big university always offers great responsibility.  

A leader, in general, has many things to do for the organization and to those that the latter serves and, supposedly, less for personal gain. And there are complex skills required to perform and deliver the goods expected, more so, in a big organization. And these skills are not only technical but also psychological, social, legal, institutional, and so on. Therefore, I believe before that a leader must be so extraordinary because he or she has all or a combination of these skills.

My academic life, since college, has been connected to research as field interviewer, research assistant, research supervisor, data manager, report writer, study leader, project holder, and now research director—the last has more attached responsibilities compared to the previous roles where I greatly depended upon someone with higher position.

I persisted and enjoyed being a researcher because I love to explore ideas and places. But I never dreamed to become a Research Director because I was already contented as an anthropology professor and a researcher managing my own project.

But as they always say, the higher one goes up educationally in an academic institution, the greater the responsibility one assumes. And this became more real when I earned my Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology degree on a United Board grant through Silliman University. I was inspired to pay back. Also, as I was a product of mentoring, I was convinced that it was my turn to continue the legacy of the past research leaders of the university who had unselfishly molded me. There was this compulsion then to accept the position.

So the question that confronted me when I first assumed office was how to fill-in the big shoes of the former Research Director, my immediate predecessor, whose name is a trademark at Silliman University.

Being an anthropologist, my research bias is expectedly towards the social sciences, and many would think that I would be more supportive of researches within this field. But that would be an injustice to those in the natural sciences. If the mandate or goal of the research center is the promotion of the culture of research and scholarly publication within the university, then I have to be in the middle to bridge the divide between the two fields.

My interdisciplinary training and open attitude towards holistic, liberal education has made my task easier. It has also enabled me to comfortably work with various types of research projects. I could appreciate and understand the value of what others are contributing to my own discipline and what I could contribute to theirs. So the first thing I did in 2007, together with the research coordinators of various academic units, was to frame the research agenda of the university which will be in effect up to 2013, when I would be finally ending my term.

In the past, Silliman University became known both locally and internationally, because of its natural science researches which were associated with certain personalities. The same researchers left a legacy in the area of marine conservation and environmental education. Although there were also prominent social science researchers that had made major contributions to knowledge production and development work, they were less appreciated in favor of those in the natural sciences. This disparity may be due to disciplinary biases and stereotyping at that time when the latter was perceived to be more of science and, therefore, held greater importance.

It was then a major challenge to persuade faculty in the social sciences and humanities to engage in research, particularly that getting external funding in this field was difficult. Funding seemed to favor the natural sciences. During my term, the university allocated a modest annual budget as seed money to support the projects of junior researchers in order for them to be able to establish a track record that would eventually make them competitive for generating external funds. This is the context within which research mentoring is being undertaken. Interested faculty members are assisted in writing fundable research proposals and publishable manuscripts in refereed journals.

The principle applied in the mentoring program is that every research proposal is worth pursuing no matter how simple it is, because great researchers always start from small projects. Turning down a research proposal of an eager neophyte will not help, but looking into how one could be helped becomes more inspiring – and that becomes the beginning of making someone great. It is inspiring that a few budding researchers had come out and taken on the challenge. Since not all faculty members can or may do research and publish, having a critical mass of researchers in each academic unit is already an achievement.

As my term is about to expire, and I have learned some research leadership roles, I contemplated that I may have not exactly filled in the big shoes. But while that might be the feeling, I also think I my feet fit right inside them. I am making a niche in terms of developing a research culture in the university. And this I continue to do for the benefit of faculty members who have the potential but may have opted to remain in the sidelight or are just waiting to be harnessed.