skip to main content
Home  /  Interviews  /  Richard Seligman

Richard Seligman

Richard Seligman

Associate Vice President for Research Administration (Ret.), Caltech

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
January 12, 2024

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, January 12, 2024. It is my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Richard Seligman. Dick, it's wonderful to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.

RICHARD SELIGMAN: Thank you, David.

ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?

SELIGMAN: My most recent title is Associate Vice President for Research Administration at Caltech. I retired from that position in 2021, just roughly three years ago this week. I still am an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. It's a very part-time, occasional position. Technically my only affiliation with Caltech at the moment is that I'm still a member of the Athenaeum!

ZIERLER: [laughs] That's great. What is the Hopkins connection for you?

SELIGMAN: Almost 10 years ago, Johns Hopkins began a master's program in the field of research administration mostly aimed at higher education, colleges and universities. That being the field in which I was a practitioner for more than 50 years, I was invited to join the faculty. I have taught at least one course a year ever since. It's sort of ironic that in my retirement I have become a professor, having been an administrator for all those years. And I've had to take back many of the things I thought about professors, as a result of it!

ZIERLER: Some overall questions about the profession of research administration—is this a formalized job that mostly coincides with your career? Does the idea of having a professional research administrator go back even before you began your career?

SELIGMAN: It goes back just a little bit before I began my career. I would say it's something that started in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It was largely an outgrowth of World War II and the increased government involvement in the support of science, and the evolution of a profession, if you will, devoted to assisting researchers—faculty members—with the administration of their grants and contracts, mostly from the federal government. The profession has two aspects to it. On one hand, a research administrator is supposed to be assisting faculty members with the administrative aspects of their grants and contracts starting with the preparation of the proposal through the negotiation of an award if that occurs, and then negotiating what sometimes could be a tortured path over the course of the award, and then bringing it to a nice, neat conclusion.

The other aspect is that particularly important when dealing with the federal government, which is what I did mostly, is that the awards are made to the institution. That is, in the case of Caltech, the award is made from the government agency to the California Institute of Technology to support a particular project to be carried out under the direction ofa specific researcher or group of researchers. The grant is to Caltech, and so it is Caltech that is ultimately responsible for making sure that all of the terms and conditions associated with the award are met and carried out. Sometimes it puts the research administrator in an awkward position because on the one hand, our primary client is the investigator, but at the same time, we are supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the institution. Most of the time those coincide, but occasionally they don't, and that can be a very unpleasant situation.

My graduate study at UCLA was in the School of Education. My concentration was higher education. I was expecting to have some sort of administrative role at a college or university. But if somebody had said to me, "Have you thought about going into research administration?" I would have looked at them with a very strange look on my face, as if to say, "What's that?" In my life as a graduate student in higher education, and even in the first couple of years after graduating, I wasn't aware that there was such a thing as research administration. I think like most people, particularly of my generation, we fell into this field almost by accident, rather than having set out, "Now I'm going to go to graduate school, and I'm going to learn how to become a research administrator." That simply didn't happen. In the case of Hopkins, they have recognized that there is a need for people with a certain amount of training in this area, and that's how they came about developing this master's program. There are a couple of other universities around the country that have similar programs.

ZIERLER: Does that mean ultimately that to some degree you need to gain some level of expertise in what the professors are doing? As you were saying, if Caltech institutionally is responsible for the proper and correct use of the grant, how do you know if the chemistry experiment, or the physics experiment, or whatever it is, is actually doing that? There must be some level of technical expertise that you must gain over the years in order to make those determinations?

SELIGMAN: I don't want to shatter your [laughs] myth, but—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SELIGMAN: —the truth is that while I probably picked up a smattering of chemistry and physics and astronomy, I absolutely am not an expert in any of the fields in which Caltech faculty are doing research. That brings up a very important point, because at least in the United States, the research administrator is not the administrator of research. That is, the research administrator is not responsible for the specific research project that the investigator is carrying out. Rather, it is the administrator for research to support the investigator. Fortunately, I did not have to demonstrate any particular expertise in any of the scientific or engineering disciplines in which I was assisting Caltech faculty. Occasionally there are people who end up as research administrators who started out in an academic discipline that is typically supported by research, but I would say that's the exception rather than the rule. It certainly wasn't true in my case. I always found it ironic that I ended up at a place like Caltech, where the thought of applying for admission as an undergraduate never, not even for a nanosecond, crossed my mind, because that wasn't what I wanted to do or what I thought I would be able to do.

ZIERLER: The term "sponsored research," is that an umbrella term that applies both to private benefactors and the government? Does it just mean the funds are coming externally?

SELIGMAN: That's the generic meaning of sponsored research, yes. There's a bit of a debate that takes place at many universities, including Caltech, as to, if a donor makes a gift to Caltech, for the support of a particular activity, is that sponsored research? The question there is, if it's truly a "gift," then there shouldn't be any "strings" attached. That is, obviously the gift is given for a particular purpose, but there shouldn't be any terms and conditions about the rules and regulations under which the funds are going to be spent, and there shouldn't be any particular benefit accruing to the donor. That is, they don't get any intellectual property rights or have the ability to review or approve manuscripts or other products resulting from the research. But the more generic term "sponsored research" really means any research that is funded from a source outside the institution.

ZIERLER: As you said, most of the work that you did fell under the category of federal research. In terms of the overall—I don't know what the right word is—fiduciary responsibility, moral responsibility, just making sure that Caltech is doing the right thing in however you determine that—are the considerations, the approaches, the metrics—obviously with the federal government there is going to be much more red tape and bureaucracy, but just in terms of checking the right boxes, is it more or less the same approach regardless of where the money comes from?

SELIGMAN: Yes, I would say so, and it was true, particularly when I began in this field, that the funds coming from the federal government had all sorts of strings attached, all sorts of restrictions and requirements. But I can tell you that over the years, the funding from the private sector has begun to mimic some of the worst characteristics about government funding.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SELIGMAN: It's no longer the case that you can say, "If this project is funded by private industry as opposed to the federal government, we can do whatever we want and there will be no restrictions or requirements imposed on us." That may have been true long before my time, but it's definitely not true today. I just want to make sure that I'm being clear about this. The funding from non-government sources comes in two different ways. It comes in the form of gifts or charitable donations, which can come from an individual or from a company or a corporation. There are also formal research projects that are funded by corporations or companies. In some cases, the corporation has received funding from the federal government and is involving Caltech as a collaborator on a project, so the money is coming to us, say, from Boeing or an aerospace company, or from Google or Amazon, but the funds still have to be administered with some attention to the federal requirements that flow down with those funds.

ZIERLER: Is it always the case where the professor or faculty member is going out and looking for these funds, or is it sometimes the case that the funds are made available and the faculty successfully respond to that availability? Does who starts the conversation affect how the research administrator approaches these issues?

SELIGMAN: That's a very good question. I'm trying to think of a way to respond to it that doesn't make it any more complicated than it is! Most government agencies that support research have mechanisms by which they publish solicitations for grant applications, for instance, or solicitations for a proposal for a contract with a government agency to perform a particular activity. That is less true in the case of non-government organizations, although some of the larger private foundations do have programs for soliciting grant applications. The importance of the investigator learning about the opportunities are out there cannot be underestimated. One of the great success stories of Caltech is the ability of its faculty members to know what's out there and to be able to go after funds or the support of the particular type of research that they want to do. They are frequently aware of those opportunities long before they are published formally or officially.

ZIERLER: Because the role of the research administrator is so central obviously to what Caltech needs to be successful, who are some of the other key administrators that you need to work with closely in order to do your job well within Caltech?

SELIGMAN: The way Caltech is structured—and has been for far, far longer than I've been around—the person in my position reports to the vice president for administration. That is not the case at most other research-intensive universities, where the person in my position typically reports to someone on the academic side, either the provost or a vice president for research or a vice provost for research. Caltech is small enough so that in many respects it doesn't matter how the organization is structured. Although I reported during my tenure at Caltech to the vice president for administration, on a day-to-day basis I probably worked more closely with the vice provost for research, the provost, and some of the academic administrators—the division chairs and the division administrators.

On the non-academic side, I worked very closely with the finance side of Caltech, because we're talking about funds, we're talking about money, and the actual accounting for the funds is done under the chief financial officer. There is a department within the finance organization that handles the accounting for sponsored projects, and I worked extremely closely with them. I also worked closely with the chief compliance officer. Caltech doesn't use that particular title, but the current person who handles that is Grace Fisher-Adams, and she is responsible for research compliance and research policy. The compliance areas that I was mostly involved with include human subject protection, protection for animals used in research, biosafety, conflict of interest, those kinds of things, which frequently impact specific sponsored projects. I worked very closely with Grace and her predecessor and their staff.

Another thing about Caltech which is quite different from most research-intensive universities is that in my position, I was able to work directly with many of the investigators themselves. I would say in my first year at Caltech, I probably got to know more faculty members than I did in a comparable position at UCLA for 29 years. Certainly over 29 years, I did get to know a number of faculty members at UCLA—not only the 29 years, but plus the fact that I had also been a student there, a graduate student and an undergraduate—but it was very different at Caltech. It is so small, and there are fewer layers of bureaucracy, so it was much easier for me—if I needed to speak to a division chair, I didn't have to go through three layers of associate division chair, assistant, assistant-to; I could get directly to the person that I needed to speak with. That was also true, for the most part, for the faculty members that I interacted with.

There are lots of people at Caltech who do things that I would call research administration but they themselves probably don't think of themselves as research administrators—they are accountants, or compliance specialists or whatever—but in fact what they're doing is another branch of the same thing that I was doing: that is, assisting the investigators to get their work done, and protecting Caltech, to make sure that we were using the funds properly and that we were following the rules. There are probably many more research administrators at Caltech than would ever admit to doing that.

ZIERLER: I asked you about the most important partners internally at the Institute. What about externally, for example private foundations like the Kavli, or the NSF, or the DOE, the key funding agencies? For private benefactors and also government funding agencies, who were the key people, the key administrators that you worked with both on the government side and the private benefactor side, within those organizations?

SELIGMAN: To be clear, my primary work was with the government sponsors, the government agencies. In many cases, with the private sponsors, the development organization at Caltech has a very close relationship with private donors, including some private foundations. So, my work primarily was with the federal agencies that support research at Caltech. One of the things that I was able to do at Caltech was to continue something that began when I was at UCLA, and that is take an active role in a couple of national organizations that are concerned with research administration at institutions of higher education. As an active participant, I would go to meetings in Washington, D.C. several times a year. Frequently, there would be my counterparts from the sponsoring agencies, whether it was the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research. Over the years, I was able to develop some very close relationships and friendships with my counterparts in the sponsoring agencies. That was extremely important and beneficial, not just for me personally but definitely for Caltech. When there's a problem, it can be very helpful to know which person or office to contact at a particular agency. We're talking about very large government agencies. That doesn't mean that if I was the one making the contact, I would be getting any kind of special treatment or favorable action, but at least I would be able to get to the place where that particular issue or problem ought to be addressed.

I think that Caltech benefited from that over the years, even though I wasn't always sure that the people at Caltech appreciated that. I think some of them wondered, "Why is he going to Washington all the time?" I wasn't going to Washington all the time, but I did go several times a year. I think over the course of the years, Caltech benefited from that activity on my part, at least to the same extent that I did. It was a very important part of my career as a research administrator, because not only did I get to know and work with people in the sponsoring agencies, I got to know and work with my counterparts at the other major research universities.

There's one aspect of research administration that is perhaps a little bit different from other parts of higher education, and that is, even though on a certain level we might be competing with UCLA or Stanford or Berkeley or the University of Minnesota or NYU, when it comes to research administration there's a tremendous amount of cooperation and collaboration among the people who do what I was doing. That comes as a big surprise [laughs] to some of our faculty, who would say, "Why are you talking to somebody at Stanford? Don't you know we're in a death struggle to beat them, get more money than they're getting? Why would you be talking to them?" The answer is because of what I do and what my counterpart at Stanford does—we are not in competition, at all. I guess we are, in the sense that we are competing to stay out of the newspaper—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SELIGMAN: —but it's not as though we're fighting over the same—we want to get those funds before you do. Other people may be engaged in that sort of competition, but we were not. It was extremely helpful, if one of our faculty members was having a problem with a collaboration with the University of Michigan, if I could call my counterpart at the University of Michigan, and certainly not every time, but frequently, we could resolve the problem and keep it from becoming even worse than it was. Part of that was because I knew my counterpart from the University of Michigan because we would meet several times throughout the year at some of these meetings that I was talking about earlier. The irony is that over the years, some of my very closest friends have been my counterparts at other research universities. Even though I am retired, I still keep in touch with a number of them. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that when we would get together, we were able to speak a common language and understand what each other was talking about, which was sometimes more difficult at home, where there were fewer people who worried about some of the administrative minutiae that we had to deal with. It was like finding someone who speaks your language, and that led to close working relationships and friendships.

ZIERLER: In all of your travels to Washington, D.C., did any of them involve going to Capitol Hill, to the ultimate source of where the money comes from? I don't know if lobbying is the right word, but would you ever get involved at the policy level in these decisions?

SELIGMAN: First of all, I absolutely never engaged in lobbying, because that was absolutely not my job, and if I had done that, I would have gotten into trouble with somebody, if not at Caltech then certainly in the government agency. My job was absolutely not to go to government agencies seeking funding for Caltech activities. I did, however, get involved in some policy issues, where either what is now called the Government Accountability Office—GAO—or a branch either on the legislative side or the administrative side were looking into a particular topic or issue and wanted to hear from representatives of universities who would be impacted in this area. I did participate in that type of activity, but I absolutely would not call it lobbying. There are organizations that Caltech belongs to that do engage in lobbying, and they do it without shame; that's what their job is. Everybody knows who they are—they don't have to wear a red armband or a badge—but they are lobbyists, and they are allowed to do those things. The rest of us really are not, and we have to be very careful we don't cross the line.

ZIERLER: You referred to an informal community of your colleagues of research administrators, and that you would know them, you would visit with them. Is that community formalized in any way? Is there an annual conference, a journal? What does that look like?

SELIGMAN: Yes. There are three organizations that I think do the kinds of things you're talking about. The first is the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA), which is a professional organization of individual members, people who do what I did. The organization has grown over the years, and there are many, many more—it's not just the chief research administration person. That is an organization, as I said, of individuals, and its primary function is professional development, and they do that through a variety of activities including annual meetings. They also publish a variety of monographs and a journal, Research Management Review.

Another organization is the Council on Governmental Relations, known by its acronym of COGR. That is an organization that started out to be around 50 research-intensive universities that are focused on advocating on behalf of the higher education research community. Caltech is one of the founding members of that organization, which recently celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. COGR is an organization of institutions rather than individuals. During my time at Caltech, I was Caltech's primary representative to COGR, so I attended their meetings and I served on their board of directors. There are other people from Caltech who also attend those meetings.

COGR is an advocacy group, and as an organization, they do lobby the government, not so much for funding but for pushing for the government to make changes to certain policies and procedures that would benefit the research community. While individual institutions would be very reluctant to go marching up Capitol Hill to talk to some of these people and demand changes, if an organization like COGR does it on their behalf, it is a little easier for the institutions to accept. No university wants to be sticking its neck out and fighting for something with a chance that they're not going to be successful, and with the chance that things will backfire and the government agency will say, "You guys are a bunch of troublemakers, and we're going to get you for that." No university wants to put itself in that position, so they rely on this organization to do battle on their behalf.

The third organization that I was involved with is called the Federal Demonstration Partnership or FDP. That organization is completely different from the first two that I mentioned. It's different because it's an organization that includes close to 200 colleges and universities, but it also includes 10 federal agencies, all of whom are grantmaking agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, et cetera. The third rail of this organization is faculty researchers. In this one organization, you have university administrators, their counterparts in federal agencies—federal grants managers—and you have faculty researchers. The purpose of this organization is to reduce the administrative burdens associated with federal research grants. What is different about this organization is that when it is functioning in an ideal manner, the university and the government representatives are sitting around the table and they are essentially on an equal footing. That is, they are working together to solve some problems. It's not us versus them. That's an organization that, again, Caltech was one of the founding members of that organization, and I think it has been relatively successful over the years.

The irony is that as a measure of its success, every few years they sponsor something called a faculty burden survey, or a faculty workload survey, in which they try to get researchers to estimate, of the portion of their job which is supposed to be devoted to research, how much of that research time are they spending doing administrative stuff rather than doing research? Over the years, it has been hovering around 40 percent. That means that if a researcher is spending 20 hours a week on research, 40 percent of that 20 hours is spent doing administrative functions related to their research. The goal of this organization is to reduce that 40 percent, but in fact the number has gone up. Some people have said, "You obviously have been a complete failure, because the number is going up. It's not going down." My response to that was, well, if we hadn't been around, the number would have gone up a heck of a lot more than it did, because for every step forward, every time we are able to agree on a step that will reduce administrative burden, four more requirements come down the road. So, it's not fair to say that because the number has gone up a little bit over the years that the organization hasn't been effective. Obviously it could be more effective, but I would argue that had that organization not existed and had there not been collaborative efforts on the part of both the grantors and the grantees to try to make things better, things would be much worse.

ZIERLER: In all of your opportunities to interact with faculty in your role to support them, to help them be successful in their research, at least on an informal basis, have you served as a coach for what we might call storytelling? That the key to a great, successful research application is the capacity to explain the science, explain why it's compelling, ultimately explain why it should be funded? At least informally, did that ever fall within your responsibilities?

SELIGMAN: The honest answer is no, it did not. Part of the reason for that is that the kinds of research that Caltech faculty members are doing is at the very cutting edge of their fields, and without being an expert in that field it would be very difficult for me to read the technical portion of the proposal and have anything halfway intelligent to say about it or how to improve it. That is absolutely not something that I did at all during my career, both UCLA and Caltech.

ZIERLER: Institutionally, does Caltech offer that as a service, or is the idea that if you're a Caltech professor, you've got to be the complete package and you have to be able to have that as part of your skill set to begin with?

SELIGMAN: I'm sure that's what they would like everyone to believe, but I think there is an informal process that occurs, particularly with younger faculty, who consult with their peers, particularly people in their field, in their department or division who have been around longer, and with their division chairs. There is certainly some of that, that takes place, and I think that's probably the way it works at a place like Caltech. But you're right, unless somebody is a star in their field, they're not going to end up at Caltech even as an assistant professor, so there's a certain selection—I was going to say natural selection, but I'm not sure how natural it is!—but there's a certain amount of selection that takes place prior to the time that somebody arrives on the scene as an assistant professor. This is hardly, hardly a cross-section of the new PhDs across the country. It absolutely isn't. To a certain extent, they arrive already knowing something about how to do this, much more so than at other larger universities, even research-intensive universities.

ZIERLER: I'm curious if the role of the research administrator and the responsibility to make sure that the process is as smooth and successful as possible, if that is seen as an important tool for faculty recruitment and retaining faculty, as a selling point to come to Caltech and to stay at Caltech, that we have a robust system, we have the resources, we have the track record, to help you get the grants that you need for your research to be successful.

SELIGMAN: I always thought it would be a great selling point [laughs] but I'm not sure that anybody else ever agreed with that or used any of those kinds of arguments. I really don't think so. In the grand scheme of things, I don't think that that particular topic influenced anybody's decision as to whether or not to come to Caltech. But we used to say, particularly for people who had been at Caltech for a long time, or maybe their entire academic career, "We ought to send you to some of these other universities for a semester, and then you will come to appreciate just how good you have it being here at Caltech!" Of course, it being Caltech, we would never presume to say that to anybody, but it was sort of a silent wish. In some cases, when a Caltech faculty member went on a sabbatical leave to another university, they would report upon their return that they had a new appreciation for some of the support that was provided at Caltech which they did not receive at the other university where they had spent time. That's not to say that the other university was totally worthless. Of course not. But that is one of the things that I think helps Caltech to be perhaps a little bit more successful than it might otherwise be.

One of the things that we started measuring, close to 20 years ago, was the success rate of the proposals submitted by Caltech faculty to federal research agencies. We started doing that in part because there are two federal agencies—the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health—that publish success figures for the proposals that are submitted to their agencies. They provide kind of a national figure for all the proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation, what percentage of them actually get funded. By trying to collect comparable data at Caltech, we could say, here's how Caltech's proposals compare to the national average. It was always the case that Caltech was way, way ahead of the national average. There are all kinds of theories as to why that is the case, but it has been very consistent over the years. For instance—and this is perhaps a somewhat extreme example—but there may have been a time where 20 percent of the proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation were funded, but for Caltech proposal submissions to the National Science Foundation, the success rate was more like 40 percent. That's a gigantic difference.

That has been true for both NSF and NIH over the years. They are the only two agencies that publish the success rate figures. I am sure that the other agencies are collecting that information, but they don't publish it. But we know, at least in the case of NSF and NIH, that as an institution Caltech is doing much better than the national average. The national average can be pretty depressing if you think about it. If only 20 percent of the proposals being submitted—the number has gone up a little bit over the years—if only 20 percent or even 25 percent of the submitted proposals are being funded, that means that there are a whole lot of them that are not being funded. From the perspective of the faculty member writing the proposal and submitting it, it can be a pretty dismal situation.

ZIERLER: Let's go back now and establish some personal history. Tell me about where you grew up and what your childhood was like.

SELIGMAN: I am a native of California. I was born in Los Angeles. Actually, my family lived in Pasadena for the first eight years of my life and then moved to the Hollywood area. I went to junior and senior high school in Hollywood. Then I went to UCLA and I majored in history. As I got closer to finishing my undergraduate degree, I began to wonder, what in God's name am I going to do with a bachelor's degree in history? I didn't regret having studied history—I enjoyed it very much—but I thought, now what can I do with this? At the time, there were all kinds of companies and organizations that were hiring people with bachelor's degrees in history to do all sorts of jobs, but none of that really appealed to me. I thought more about education and possibly becoming a secondary school teacher or counselor.

Before I graduated, I applied for admission to a graduate program at Ohio University in what was then called Human Relations. It became over the years subsumed under the Department of Guidance and Counseling in the School of Education. I learned about that program from the chief advisor for the dorm at UCLA, where I lived. He was a graduate of that program, and the more he talked about it, the more interesting it sounded. I thought, well, I've never been to Ohio and I have no idea what it would be like to live there for two years—but I took a chance. I went off to Ohio University. I don't know if you've ever heard of Ohio University. It is in Athens, Ohio, and it is the oldest university in the Northwest Territory. Normally we don't think of Ohio as being in the Northwest, but in the late eighteenth century, it was the Northwest Territory, and in 1804, Ohio University was founded, long before most of the other more well-known Midwestern universities were founded. I had a very good time there as a graduate student.

ZIERLER: What did Human Relations mean? What would it be called now?

SELIGMAN: It might be part of organizational management. If one could summarize what the Humans Relations program was all about in one sentence, it was "working with and through people to get the job done." It's a combination of—you might say project management, even. It is working with other people to get the job done, to resolve problems. Again, I wasn't sure exactly where that was leading me, but I had been leaning in the direction of higher education as the place where I wanted to spend my time, so I applied to a number of universities, including UCLA. I was married at the time. When I got my master's degree at Ohio University, my wife received her bachelor's degree. We were both from California. She really wanted to go back to Southern California. So, I applied to a number of graduate programs, and among those where I was accepted was UCLA. We came back to Los Angeles. She got a job as an elementary school teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and I got a job as a graduate research assistant in the Higher Education program at UCLA. It took three years from the time I finished my master's degree until the time that I completed by doctorate at UCLA.

As I was getting closer to finishing, I then of course was wondering, "Well, what's next? What am I going to do now?" I had applied for a variety of different jobs at a number of universities, mostly in Southern California, but nothing was really all that exciting. However, as a graduate student at UCLA, I had been working as a research assistant for one of my professors, and the research was part of a research center that was sponsored by an agency that is now called the Department of Education, but at that time was known as the United States Office of Education. As I was getting ready to finish my degree, the director of that research center offered me a job. He said, "I would like you to consider becoming the assistant to the director, assistant to me, to help me manage this large educational research contract." I thought, "I don't know anything about contracts. I don't know anything about managing research." But, it was a job offer, and the salary was $13,000 a year. In 1969, that wasn't so bad! It's a little bit of a joke today, but at the time, it was nothing to sneeze at.

That's how I ended up—I started at the departmental end of research administration. Neither my boss nor I had ever heard the term "research administrator" before, but that in fact is what I was doing. After I had been doing that for almost five years—one of my classmates from the graduate program at UCLA had recently moved into the office at UCLA that was responsible for research administration;it was called the Office of Contract and Grant Administration. I knew a little bit about what they did because in my job in the School of Education I worked with some of the people in that office. One of the things that was troubling me about the job that I had in the School of Education was that it was dependent upon the continued funding of this research contract, and those things don't last forever. I kept wondering, "Okay, I'm buying a house, I'm starting a family, I need something with a little more certainty to it." My friend told me about a job that was coming open in that Office of Contract and Grant Administration, and I applied, and I got that job. That moved me from being supported by a federal research contract, which could have gone away at any time, to being part of the central administration, which was part of the university budget, and unless the university was somehow thrown into bankruptcy, I would have a permanent job. The irony is that that research center is still in existence. Had I not been concerned about that—well, other possibilities may have occurred, but that's really how I got into this field.

When I started in that office in 1975, my boss said, "In November we are going to a meeting in Washington, D.C. of this organization called the National Council of University Research Administrators, and you're going to start learning something about this field and about what you're doing and how to do it better." I joined that organization the first year that I was in the central office. Over the years, I became pretty active in that group. I was the president at one time. Now I'm an emeritus member, so for a mere 10 dollars a year, I am able to keep my membership in the organization! I would say I learned more from interacting with other people at other universities at those kinds of meetings—it was an incredible, incredible experience. I'm grateful to my boss at the time who thought it was a worthwhile expense for the department to incur, to send a couple of us to these meetings in Washington. I think he made a wise choice. I think it was a worthy investment.

ZIERLER: You mentioned earlier that the concept of having a research administrator started a bit before you began your career. What aspects of the profession felt new to you where you were inheriting something that was already built, and what aspects do you feel like you were really creating the profession in track with your own career?

SELIGMAN: The basic functions haven't really changed all that much. They involve assisting with the assembling and review and submission of proposals, reviewing awards before acceptance to make sure that everything is okay, and then dealing with the issues that arise once the award is in place and things are being carried out. Those basic functions really haven't changed very much, but when I started, everything was on paper. On proposal deadlines, people would show up in the office with these piles of envelopes stuffed with proposals, and somebody had to review them, sign off on them, and call Federal Express or somehow get them out the door in time to get to wherever they had to get to by the deadline. All of the dealings with the sponsor were done by letter. The internet really didn't exist. Email did not exist. Electronic document creation did not exist. Over the course of my career, all that paper pretty much went out the window. It's not completely gone—there are still some remnants of it—but the vast majority of the transactions from the submission of the proposal to the submission of progress reports and final financial reports, all of that is now electronic. That has had quite an impact on the way in which the work is done.

Another area that has changed quite a bit is the increased focus on research compliance, particularly dealing with human subjects and research animals. There were always regulations, but I would say they have grown in number and complexity, and that there's an awful lot of work that needs to be done when an investigator has a project that requires human beings as subjects for the research, or animals, or biologically hazardous materials. All of that has grown tremendously.

Another area that did not exist at all is an area called export compliance. I don't know if you've come across that term. Caltech does have an export compliance group. Export regulations have been around since the country was first established, but if you had stood in the middle of the campus of any university and yelled at the top of your lungs "export compliance!" as recently as 15 years ago, nobody would have had a clue as to what you were talking about, or they would say, "This is a university. We don't deal with export compliance. Somebody else handles that. We do research." Well, yeah, we do research, but we now have to be aware of issues related to export compliance. It's not so much because of things we're shipping from this country to other countries; it is the intellectual side of export compliance and of not making certain kinds of information readily available to organizations outside of the United States. In a way, this is a contradiction. Universities are supposed to be about learning and exploring and understanding and collaborating and sharing the knowledge to make the world a better place. The export regulations are kind of a damper on that whole process, but there are all kinds of rules and regulations that have come into place that have to be adhered to. That's an aspect of research administration that no one ever thought about or heard of until I would say about maybe 15 years ago. I certainly don't want to claim any responsibility whatsoever for the fact that that is now an issue that we have to deal with, but I think we've learned how to do some of that, and that certainly was not something that existed when I started.

When I went to that first meeting of the National Council of University Research Administrators, there were maybe 200 people at the meeting. Their annual meetings now are several thousand people. Among the 200 people, I would say the vast majority were balding, slightly overweight, middle-aged, white males. I wasn't balding and at least at that time I wasn't overweight, but I was a white male. Today, there are still a few balding, overweight, white males, but they are in the vast minority. The majority of the people who work in that field at all levels, including the very highest, are women and minorities. The field in that regard has changed dramatically, far more dramatically than I would have ever imagined. For the most part, I think that's a good thing. Definitely things have opened up, and there are many more opportunities than there were when I started working in the field.

ZIERLER: Over your nearly three decades of service at UCLA, tell me about your increasing responsibilities, your promotion, how your portfolio grew over the years.

SELIGMAN: My first job in the research administration office, the Office of Contract and Grant Administration, was assistant director, so I really didn't start at the bottom, although in terms of what I knew, I was very much a neophyte. Eventually over the years I was promoted to associate director and eventually director. When I left UCLA to move to Caltech, I was hired as the director of the Office of Sponsored Research. Over the course of my 25 years, 26 years, at Caltech, I became the senior director of the Office of Sponsored Research, and then later on the associate vice president for Research Administration. At that time, there was a reorganization of several of the offices at Caltech that then came under this umbrella, the organization that I headed up. That was the title I had until I retired. Of course, things change, and so my successor at Caltech has a different title! They got rid of the associate vice president title, and his title is Senior Director of the Office of Sponsored Research Administration.

I would say over the years at Caltech, and also at UCLA, I got involved in more things sort of outside and beyond my immediate office. At Caltech, for instance, I was a member of the Institutional Review Board, or IRB, and that is the committee that reviews and approves all research involving human subjects. For a time, I served on a comparable committee dealing with animal research. I was also on a committee dealing with biosafety. I was involved in some policy issues related to conflict of interest. So, I got to do a lot of different things at Caltech, some of which I would never have imagined that I would have anything to do with. It certainly was not dull. I never had a day—well, I may have had one or two days over 26 years, but not many more than that—where I didn't have something interesting to do. My successor, who had been in the office as the number-two person for a number of years, after I retired I was talking to him one day and he said, "I used to wonder what you did all day, because I could never figure it out. But now that I'm sitting in your chair, I have to go all these meetings all the time, and I don't have time to get my work done! Now I think I'm beginning to understand [laughs] what you were doing all those years!"

There are plenty of meetings that probably could be handled more effectively and efficiently, but there is something about being there in person, with other people, and I worry a little bit about the tendency for people to want to work remotely. I think in some fields that's probably fine, but I don't think it's fine in the area in which I was working. I think there's a tendency at Caltech and at other universities for people to come back, not to the point of everybody being in the office five days a week—that probably won't happen—but certainly being there more than not. There are some things that happen when people are there in person that don't happen, or at least not as well, when everybody is working remotely. If it were up to me—which it isn't, but if it were—I would certainly advise people to not try and have a situation in which the majority of the work is done by people who never set foot on the campus.

ZIERLER: Tell me about your decision-making to move from UCLA to Caltech. What was compelling to you about that?

SELIGMAN: I could give you some very socially acceptable reasons, but the truth is that there was some turnover at UCLA, and a number of the people that I had worked with for many years retired. Some of the new people who came along to replace them just had a very different understanding of what UCLA should be about. The person who was my immediate supervisor, the Vice Chancellor for Research. I worked very, very closely with his predecessor, who had come to that position after having a long academic career at UCLA as a professor and department chair. The new person had really not seen the inside of a university since he graduated with his doctorate in engineering. He came from Bell Labs, which I think no longer exists. It was a very highly intensive research organization that was organized and funded by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. This was the laboratory in New York state that did all kinds of research in chemistry, physics, and what would now be called computer science.

The person who came, who was hired from there and became my boss, had some very different ideas about what my job should be. At one point he said, "Your job is to increase UCLA's research volume by 10 percent every year." At first I thought maybe he was joking but [laughs] he was not joking; he was deadly serious. I said, "Wait a minute. That's not my job. The research volume at UCLA is going to increase not because of anything I can do, but because of the faculty. If they write more proposals and they get more awards, then UCLA's research volume will increase. Certainly my job should be to help them as much as I can, but if you say I'm responsible for that, then I don't see how I could possibly be successful." Much to my surprise, the research volume did increase by 10 percent the next year, and he said, "See, I told you so." I said, "No. I am not the person who is responsible for this."

I knew then that I probably could outlast this person. I didn't think he had a very long future ahead of him, because in addition to giving me a hard time, he was used to giving orders to researchers, which maybe you can do at Bell Labs when they are basically your employees, but you don't give orders to tenured faculty members at a university, at least not for very long. So, he ran into some real conflicts with the faculty. Anyway, while I thought I could outlive him or outlast him, it was beginning to be at a very high cost to my health and my enjoyment of the work I was doing. He had brought in several people in between him and me, and I was very unhappy with the people I had to work for. I was very good friends with the person who had my position at Caltech, and I ran into him at a meeting in Southern California. He said, "I've decided that I'm going to retire this coming year. We're trying to drum up some good candidates for the job. Do you know anybody who might be interested?" I said, "Well, as a matter of fact, I do." He said, "Well, who?" I said, "You are speaking to him!" He started laughing, and he said, "Oh, come on. We were all convinced that you would die at your desk at UCLA. I never even told you about this because I didn't think you would even consider it." I said, "Well, things change [laughs], and now I would consider it very seriously."

Ironically, the person who was doing the hiring, the vice president for research, was someone who had worked at UCLA prior to going to Caltech. I didn't know him well, but I did know him. I agreed that I would apply for the job, which I did. At the time, and this was in 1996, there were no senior administrators at Caltech who were women. Not one! Maybe the highest ranking female administrator was the head librarian, but I'm not even certain about that. In any case, certainly on the administrative side, none. So, the vice president was under a tremendous amount of pressure to hire a woman for this job. He convinced someone—actually someone I knew very well, who was at Brown University at the time—to apply for the job. She kept saying, "I don't want to move to California. I've grown up on the East Coast. That's where I've lived my whole life. I have no interest whatsoever in moving out to the wilds of the West." He said, "Well, just come out and spend a day here and see." She did, but she kept telling him, "I'm not really interested in this job." They wined her and dined her and did all sorts of things, and they offered her the job. And, she politely declined, based on what she had been telling them from day one! After that, they offered me the job. I've been thanking her ever since, for the last 26 years. Her aversion to living on the West Coast is what enabled me to get that job at Caltech, for which I've been deeply grateful. When I first took the job and first started at Caltech, I didn't really fully appreciate the differences between UCLA and Caltech. I knew that there were vast differences in size, in terms of the number of students, the number of faculty, et cetera, but I didn't appreciate many of the other differences. It turned out to be a really fortunate decision, because I ended up with probably the best if not one of the very best positions in my field anywhere in the country.

ZIERLER: Did you relocate to Pasadena?

SELIGMAN: I did not. We were living in the San Fernando Valley in Encino at the time. The irony is that the distance between my house and UCLA was about 13 miles, and the distance between my house and Caltech was about 26 miles, but because of the vagaries of traffic, I was getting to Caltech in about the same amount of time as it had taken me previously to get to UCLA. Coming home was a different story, because I would start very early in the morning to try to beat the traffic. I suppose I should have been more diligent about this, but I never really thought seriously about moving to Pasadena. By that time, Pasadena real estate was getting pretty expensive, and anyway, I just stayed in Encino. Since retiring, I've moved to Simi Valley, where I now live. That would be a 40-mile commute to Caltech one way, and I don't think I would want to do that [laughs] on a daily basis.

ZIERLER: Was the move as you saw it lateral, a promotion, or was it so different that you couldn't even think along those lines?

SELIGMAN: It was certainly a promotion in terms of the compensation. It was a significant promotion. It was also a promotion to the extent that I would now be reporting directly to a vice president. At UCLA, there were many intermediate layers of bureaucracy. I didn't really appreciate the extent to which this area would be growing over the ensuing years at Caltech. Just looking at the job titles, you would probably consider it a lateral move, but in terms of the compensation and ultimately the responsibility, it was a step up the chain, so to speak.

ZIERLER: What were the big responsibilities? What were the priorities for Caltech that you were in charge of?

SELIGMAN: One of the priorities was the successful implementation of an Institute-wide computer system primarily focused on the financial side of things but for which there would be a grants management component. This was going to take Caltech from the three-by-five cards and everything on paper to actually using computers, and to making the transition, which would impact not just the central administrative offices but all of the departments and all of the grant managers in the six divisions and ultimately the faculty. It has always been one of the ironies that the California Institute of Technology, which has cutting-edge research in virtually every aspect of science and engineering, including computer science, never thought it was a particularly important or worthwhile investment to bring the administrative side up to a par with the academic side when it came to the availability of state-of-the-art computing systems. That was a very big deal for the first few years that I was there. It took far longer than anybody had ever imagined to achieve this migration from a paper-and-pencil-based financial system to a computer-based financial system. It's still—many aspects of it have remained on paper, and there is now under development hopefully a more complete electronic system that will handle more of the aspects of research administration.

One of the other parts of my job that hadn't really been explained to me all that well was the need to improve relationships between my office and the six academic divisions, in terms of the division chairs, the division administrators, and the faculty. That was something that took much more effort than I would have imagined, but I felt quite a sense of accomplishment that we made a lot of progress in that area. I would tell people in my office, Caltech is small enough so you can get up out of your chair and walk across the street and be in the office of the chair of Chemistry or the chair of Physics, or the provost, or the president—although probably not very often. You didn't have to get in your car and drive 20 minutes. You didn't have to walk for 45 minutes to get to some of these places. You didn't have to go through four layers of assistant, associate, senior, et cetera, before you got to the person you needed to talk to. You have no idea how fortunate that is, and you need to get up out of your chair [laughs] and take advantage of the fact that we are a relatively small place and it is possible to have a personal relationship or interaction with the people that you work with. It doesn't have to be strictly over the phone or now Zoom or whatever.

I'm not sure I ever really won that battle completely, because there were people who really preferred [laughs] to hide in their office and not get up. I understand that. I had the advantage of at least having a doctorate from a major university. Admittedly, to a Caltech scientist, a doctorate in education isn't worth talking about, but at least I had the piece of paper, and that made it a little easier in some instances at least for me to get in the door the first time. I understand that it can be a little intimidating, especially to talk with some of our faculty, who can be somewhat intimating, whether intentionally or not. I never quite succeeded in getting people to get up out of their chairs and walk across the street, but that was one of the things I tried to do.

ZIERLER: What were some of the early successes you had working with faculty that were so satisfying to you in helping them achieve what they wanted to do in their research?

SELIGMAN: I'm having a hard time coming up with a very precise example, but—are you familiar with the LIGO project?

ZIERLER: I was going to ask if LIGO was one of them, and I figured it was.

SELIGMAN: LIGO began before I got to Caltech, but I would say its biggest growth spurt occurred after I got there, in terms of the building and the opening of the LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and of course ultimately the discovery of gravitational waves. In the early years, it was a project built on hope, and it was the largest project that the National Science Foundation had ever funded at a university or anywhere else. There was a lot of scrutiny of that project and of making sure that all the i's were dotted and the t's crossed, and everybody was paying attention. The very early years of LIGO before I got there became very rocky. In fact, the person who was the first director of the LIGO project had been removed at the request of the National Science Foundation, and a new director had come to town. That was Barry Barish, who remained director for quite a few years.

There needed to be significant improvement in the relationship between the LIGO project and the National Science Foundation, and I think I helped to bring that about by working closely with some of the administrators on the LIGO project and then with my counterparts at the National Science Foundation. Over the long haul, obviously the LIGO project turned out to be extremely successful, probably beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It's still going on. I've lost track of what the level of funding is, but it was well over $100 million a year for many, many years. I don't know what it is now, but I doubt that it has gone down very much if at all. Of course that was completely different from the typical Caltech research project, which was a single faculty member with his or her postdocs and research assistants working in the laboratory. Actually some of the faculty members were resentful of the LIGO project. They would say, "Look how many faculty members could be supported for the amount of money that NSF is pouring down the rathole supporting this crazy project which is based on a theory and it may never be possible to prove or disprove."

LIGO was not overwhelmingly loved and appreciated across the board at Caltech or probably other places as well, but it turned out to be a very well-managed project. Because this was the largest project that NSF had ever funded, NSF was under the gun to make sure that things were being done properly. That is in part what led to the replacement of the director. Within a few years after I got to Caltech, NSF conducted a business systems review—not a review of the scientific work, but a review of the business systems—of the LIGO project. This included things like the procurement of goods and services, financial reporting, proper record-keeping, proper review of expenditures to make sure that anything that might have been an unallowable expenditure was not charged to the National Science Foundation. That review, which took several days, turned out to be very successful. Obviously any review like that, they're going to identify some areas where improvements could be achieved, and they certainly did, but overall Caltech got, if not a gold star, a very high grade for the review of the business systems associated with the LIGO project. I certainly was very pleased with that.

ZIERLER: Where does JPL fit in this for you?

SELIGMAN: That's a very good question. JPL, as you know, is funded by a contract from NASA. Caltech is basically hired by NASA to operate the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The facility itself belongs to NASA, and all of the people who work at JPL are Caltech employees. Some of them have a hard time accepting that, but they are! It is certainly a sponsored project, but it is so large and so different from everything else that my office really had almost no involvement at all in dealing with the JPL contract. The area where we did get involved and continue to be involved is in the area of collaborations between JPL scientists and engineers and Caltech faculty, where funds from JPL come down to the campus to support some of these activities and vice versa.

JPL operates in ways that are different from the way any university in the world would ever operate. I'm not saying that to be critical of JPL. It isn't a university. It's a very different organization, and it has to be organized differently, and they have to work under different policies and procedures. Trying to find a comfortable interface between the JPL way of doing things and the Caltech way was always a challenge. Part of the problem is that neither the scientists and engineers at JPL nor their faculty counterparts at Caltech understood or appreciated the differences between the two organizations and the ways in which they had to work, so there was always, always, always a complaint about, "Why does it take so long to get these things done? Why can't you just do it? We're all one big, happy family." Well, we're not one big happy family [laughs] because NASA imposes a whole set of ways of doing business that don't apply anywhere else in Caltech. I would say that over time, the collaborations have become a little easier, and I am convinced beyond any doubt that JPL would not have been nearly as successful as it is without the fact that Caltech is part of the organization and that Caltech faculty members play a very key role in the scientific leadership of JPL. But it is a separate and distinct organization, and the interface is not always as smooth as one might wish.

ZIERLER: What about the institutes within the Institute, within Caltech—the Merkin Institute, Chen, the Keck Institute? Does that change things for you administratively? Does it streamline things to have a cluster of faculty associated within an institute at Caltech?

SELIGMAN: I'm sure there are some efficiencies, but in a way the presence of these institutes has made things a little bit more complicated, because each of these institutes is located within an academic division, and so it essentially creates an extra layer of bureaucracy that has to coordinate both with the division and then outside. I'm sure that there are efficiencies, because one institute can handle the work of a large group of faculty members, but it is somewhat of a different way of doing things. I think the good news is that the administrators working at these institutes are for the most part very, very talented, and they are collaborative. They recognize that they can't go it alone and that in order to be successful they have to work with other administrators across the campus. Overall, I think it's a big plus for Caltech.

ZIERLER: One thing we haven't talked about is the faculty need to support their postdocs and graduate students, which of course comes from research funds. Where does the research administrator play a supporting role specifically in that regard?

SELIGMAN: Most of the funding for graduate research assistants and postdocs is incorporated into the budgets of research projects, so as projects get funded, the funding includes funds for the support of graduate students and postdocs. There are separate grant programs for graduate students and for postdocs, and the office works with individual postdocs sometimes, and with the dean of graduate studies, for some of the support that comes directly for graduate research assistants. Again, I never considered the role of the research administration office to be one of fundraising—seeking funds for the support of postdocs or graduate students—but wherever there were such opportunities, the role was certainly to try to facilitate things so that they occurred as easily and flawlessly as possible. That is a critical, critical part of Caltech.

ZIERLER: When do you transition over from director of the Office of Sponsored Research to associate vice president for Research Administration?

SELIGMAN: I can't give you an exact date, but it happened during John Curry's administration. John Curry was the person who hired me. There was a subsequent vice president named Dean Currie. I sometimes get the two mixed up. Dean Currie was the vice president who reorganized things and created this new position for me. I would say that occurred in the early years of—after the year 2000. I can't remember the exact year, but it was before 2010, I'm pretty sure of that.

ZIERLER: You came in when David Baltimore was president? You left when Tom Rosenbaum—

SELIGMAN: Actually, David Baltimore was not the president.

ZIERLER: It was still Tom Everhart?

SELIGMAN: It was, it was.


SELIGMAN: I remember going to a meeting that Tom Everhart had with a bunch of administrators, and I was included in that, and he said, "I want you to know that every single day, you've got to be willing to break at least one rule. Because if no one ever broke a rule at Caltech, things would come to a screeching halt, and nothing would ever get done. So I'm telling you it's okay to break rule at least once a day." Now, of course, you have to have some judgment about which rule you're going to break—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SELIGMAN: —because not all rules are created equal! But he was very supportive of what I was doing. David Baltimore was as well. David Baltimore continued to have a research program along with his presidency. I remember something that he said at a meeting one time, which is, "It's okay to say you don't know." If you don't know the answer if somebody is asking you questions, it's a whole lot better to say you don't know than to try to fake it and make up something, which will in the long run create more problems than simply saying you don't know. But then you have to add, "But I will find out." No one expects you to know the answer to every question, and it's better for you, first of all, to know yourself what you don't know, and to be willing to admit to others when there is something that you don't know. But at least hopefully you know how to find out, how to get to the answer.

ZIERLER: The fact that you came in during Tom Everhart's presidency, my question stands even more, and that is, from your perspective, from the perspective of research administration, how does the president affect the overall priorities? The priorities that the president sets, his vision for the Institute, how does that translate to what the research administrator does?

SELIGMAN: I think all of the presidents for whom I worked, starting with Tom Everhart through Tom Rosenbaum, recognized or at least were willing to give lip service to the importance of having a strong research administration function at Caltech. They all seemed to understand or appreciate the fact that we need to do this well, we need to do it right, to support the faculty and also protect the Institute. I guess the biggest quibble I have with all of the presidents is their reluctance to spend money on administration. I understand that it is the Caltech way to try to somehow expect administration to happen miraculously and with a minimum of financial support, because every dollar that is spent on administration is a dollar taken away from the academic side of the house. I understand that. But sometimes I think they are cutting it a little too close. Of course Caltech has not gotten into big trouble in any way in terms of academics or scientific misconduct or research problems, nothing like any of the other universities around. Unfortunately that supports the notion that we can get by with what we're doing; we don't need to spend more money on administration. But sooner or later, there may be a problem. I certainly am not wishing that on anybody, but I think that to support an institute of the complexity of Caltech requires a little bit more administration than we currently have. If I were the provost or the president, I'm sure I would be subject to constant pulling and pushing from different parts of the organization, all of whom believe they are underfunded and need more resources to do a good job. I certainly recognize that there are no simple answers. I think that as an organization, Caltech has taken the minimalist approach to administration and has been very lucky, but at some point the time may come when they have to take another look at things.

ZIERLER: You're suggesting that they might learn the hard way. It might be, "Oh, boy, I wish we had the resources in place to prevent so-and-so."

SELIGMAN: I hate to sound like I'm saying, "Well, I told you so," but I guess I am saying that! But very gently. The problem that the vice president for administration, every last one of them during my time there, the presidents and the provosts want that person to solve Caltech's financial problems. They used to use the term "structural budget problem." Structural budget deficit. There are only two ways to solve those budgetary problems. One is to reduce expenses, and the other is to increase revenue—or some combination of the two. But at a place like Caltech, the opportunities for increasing revenue are very limited. The person who was the vice president at the time of my retirement, Margo Steurbaut, had been at USC prior to coming to Caltech, and I remember shortly after she got to Caltech, she said, "At SC, if they had a budget problem, they would just raise the tuition a little bit, generate millions and millions and millions of dollars, and the problem would go away," At Caltech you could double or triple or quadruple the tuition, and it wouldn't make a dent!

ZIERLER: Not if there's only 900 students.

SELIGMAN: That's exactly right. The point I was trying to make is that the vice president for administration is between a rock and a hard place, because on the one hand they are supposed to solve these budgetary problems, but they really don't have many tools with which to do that. Reducing the expenditures is very hard to do. What are the expenditures? Every time Caltech hires a new faculty member, there's a whole package involved in facilities, restoration, remodeling, configuration or whatever. It costs an awful lot of money to bring in a new faculty member. But we want the very best people out there, and so we have to compete with larger, more well-financed universities that can afford to do that perhaps a little bit better than we can. We want to have the most up-to-date equipment and facilities that we can possibly have. All of that costs money.

ZIERLER: To clarify, things like mega-gifts like from Betty and Gordon Moore, the Break Through Campaign, these are shots in the arm but they're not sufficient on an annual, year-to-year basis to make up the difference that you're calling for?

SELIGMAN: Let's set the Moore gift aside for just a minute and I'll come back to that. What the Institute really needs in order to resolve the structural budget deficit is permanent funding to support the infrastructure of Caltech. By infrastructure I mean both the physical as well as the administrative infrastructure of Caltech. But asking a donor to provide millions of dollars to support the infrastructure is not nearly as attractive as asking them to provide a large gift which will result in something that has their name on it. That's just the way the world works. Much of the fundraising has been incredibly successful, but many of the large gifts are for the support of some new facility or set of activities that didn't previously exist, and those things actually end up increasing the cost of the infrastructure without increasing the support for the infrastructure. I would like to make a plea for fundraising for the support of the infrastructure, which I know is not nearly as exciting.

The Moore gift is different in the following way. I don't remember now what the magnitude was of the Moore gift, but it was many millions of dollars. The main benefit of the Moore gift was that it left to Caltech the decisions about how to use these funds. It wasn't to build the Gordon and Betty Moore Building; it was to give the leadership of Caltech a large chunk of money and the freedom to decide how best to use those funds. I don't think very much of those funds got used for supporting the infrastructure, but at least they were used for things that the academic management of Caltech thought were the very most important things that needed to get done. I would say that anyone looking at the impact of the Moore gift would be very impressed with all of the things that were accomplished with those funds. I think that the key to that success was leaving it up to the leadership of Caltech to decide over a period of years how best to use those funds rather than having the donor tell them how to do it.

ZIERLER: Moving the conversation closer to the present, what traction have you had in getting this view across? Are there—? None, I see. Let the record state. [laughs]

SELIGMAN: Certainly other administrators agree with me, but I don't think it has had any impact at all other than a few people to commiserate with. The president and the provost are under the gun to raise funds to support new things, because raising funds to support old things is not nearly as exciting or appealing. I don't say this necessarily to be critical of them, because I think they're certainly trying to do the very best they can for the Institute, but I think it's a problem. One thing I am completely ignorant of is where the Board of Trustees fits into all of this. In my 26 years at Caltech, I went to only two trustee meetings, and in each case it was because I was making a presentation on some topic or other. To be clear, I am not suggesting that I should have been a regular attendee at trustee meetings. I don't claim to have any understanding of the ways in which the board members think and what their role is in some of these activities. I just don't know. But obviously you don't get to be a member of the Board of Trustees unless you have some considerable capacity for providing support to the Institute. I don't know how all of that works, and I don't know if there's something that could be done to make things better.

ZIERLER: Moving the conversation closer to the present, tell me about the considerations leading to your retirement. Did COVID play a role?

SELIGMAN: COVID did not play a role. I think if I had stayed at UCLA and things had gotten better—and by the way, within a couple of years after I left, those people that I was talking about were all gone, so I might have been able to outlast them, but I'm not sure at what cost, and whether I would have survived physically and mentally if I had stayed there. If I had stayed at UCLA, I might have retired at an earlier time, but when I came to Caltech, it was almost like getting a new lease on life, so to speak, starting not quite from scratch but a new start in a new place. I was very fortunate in not having had a repeat of the experience at UCLA. I was 79 when I retired from Caltech, and that's considerably older than most people when they retire, unless they're faculty members and they can go on forever in emeritus status. There is no emeritus status for mere administrators, so you're either there or you're retired.

At the end of 2014, my wife passed away, and after she died, the thought of retiring was really terrifying to me. I had been married over 50 years, and I was having enough trouble figuring out how I was going to get along just continuing to do what I had doing. To retire on top of that was just unthinkable. Fortunately, I really was enjoying my work. Eventually, I got to the point where I decided, I want to retire when people are still asking me not to retire rather than waiting until they can't wait—"When the hell is he gonna finally hang it up? Enough already!" I didn't want to get to that point. I wanted to retire while I was still in possession of most of my faculties and still doing the job well, rather than waiting until things declined or deteriorated. And, I had a very good successor already in the organization. I gave Margo and the provost about a year's notice. I didn't want to surprise them. I wanted to give them plenty of time to figure out what they were going to do.

I talked about this in the summer of 2020, which was a tough time, because that was right in the midst of COVID. I never really thought much about, if I retire sooner, maybe I won't be as exposed to COVID as I would be if I continue working. I did retire in January of 2021. Things had gotten much better as far as COVID was concerned, but we're still not completely out of the woods. I'm not sure we're going to get out of the woods anytime soon, but obviously it's better now than it was when I retired. It was a hard decision for me to make, because I did enjoy what I was doing, and I thought I was still pretty much able to do the things that were required for my job. I didn't feel like I was losing my capability or capacity. But I certainly didn't want to wait around until that started to happen. I wanted to leave while things were pretty much intact, and leave them wanting more rather than less.

ZIERLER: Did your partnership working with David Mayo make the transition smoother for you, that you were leaving your work in good hands?

SELIGMAN: Absolutely. I take credit in hiring David Mayo to Caltech. We stole him—or liberated him, depending on which word you prefer—from UC Santa Barbara. I actually first met David when I was at UCLA and he was at Santa Barbara. He came to Caltech I think around 2001, somewhere in there. When I became the associate vice president, he became the director of sponsored research. I think he's one of the very best people in the entire country as a research administrator, so I felt very confident that—obviously I couldn't offer him the job, that [laughs] had to come from somebody else, but at least I felt as though I was leaving Margo and the provost and the president with a very strong option. Obviously they could have decided that they wanted to do a national search and consider other possibilities. In the end, they didn't. I felt very good about that. Obviously David learned a lot of things during the time that he and I were both there working together. I think Caltech is very fortunate to have him in that position.

ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, if I may, a few retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. In listening to you recount your career, it's obvious to me that the role of research administrator is really in the background. It's to play a supporting role so that the research can get done. I wonder if you can illuminate the importance of this work, through a thought experiment. Both in looking back at your time at UCLA and of course at Caltech, let's imagine the role of research administrator was not there and did not exist. What would research in higher education look like, and how can we appreciate the importance of what research administrators are able to do because they're there, because they play that vital role?

SELIGMAN: I think if research administrators weren't around that the portion of time that a faculty member spends on research administration would vastly increase, because they would have to do a lot of those things themselves or have an administrative assistant of some sort who would do those things, and that person might or might not be sufficiently knowledgeable about some of the requirements and functions. I think maybe in a large research organization, like the Chen Institute for instance, maybe it might not be as noticeable there, because of course they have administrators for that Institute who help the faculty with a lot of these things. But I think for the most part, faculty members would be spending a lot more time managing their research projects and getting really frustrated, I think, because everything takes so long. They might also find that they're getting into more trouble with regard to the oversight of their projects, making sure that the funds are being spent appropriately, making sure that all of the reporting requirements are being met.

It is actually a little bit difficult for me to imagine what it would be like without this function because I've been part of it for so long. I guess the closest example I can think of is some of the smaller colleges and universities whose research programs are a tiny fraction of what they are at a place like Caltech or UCLA, where they don't have the breadth of research administration support. At Caltech, the sponsored projects—at least when I was there—accounted for at least half of the operating funds of the Institute. There are very few universities in the country that would even come close to that. Some of the large research-intensive universities like UCLA or Stanford or the University of Michigan medical schools, and they have hospitals, and they have healthcare systems. That generates a staggering amount of the annual operating budget, so research isn't quite as critical there as it is at a place like Caltech. Caltech doesn't have a medical school. Many people would say that's a good thing. Caltech doesn't have a hospital. Caltech doesn't have patient care. Caltech doesn't have collegiate sports that generate millions of dollars in income. So, research is really critical. When you go to some of the smaller colleges and universities, one of the reasons that their research activity is as limited as it is because they don't have the infrastructure to support it. Those are probably good examples of places where you could probably find out what it's like to be in a place that doesn't have good, effective research administration. I can't imagine that being the case at a place like Caltech or UCLA.

ZIERLER: As a composite sketch, what is most satisfying to you in thinking about all the research that you have made possible?

SELIGMAN: That's a very difficult question for me to answer, because over 50 years [laughs] there have been so many things! Clearly what the LIGO project has done has changed physics and astronomy and cosmology beyond any imagination. I don't claim to have had much to do with the scientific side of that, but I feel as though I helped make it possible for the project to be successful and for the people to focus on the science and not on some of the other stuff.

When I was at UCLA, there were a couple of professors in the School of Medicine who invented what is now known as the PET scan, positron emission tomography. When they started doing research in fundamental physics, they weren't trying to develop what turned out to be the PET scan; they were just experimenting with some very basic concepts. Over the years eventually they were able to create this technology that is a vast, vast improvement over x-rays or CAT scans. They did that because they were able to get a lot of funding along the way for basic research. I'm not claiming that I had anything to do with the development of PET technology, but at least I could see that having basic research grants over those many years eventually led to something very worthwhile, which nobody could ever have predicted. Maybe what I'm saying is that I have learned the value of supporting basic research. Without that, we will be in big trouble. Yes, there has to be taking the basic research to the next step, but you've got to start at the beginning. I've seen that in many cases over the years at both UCLA and Caltech.

ZIERLER: There's key importance for just supporting curiosity-driven research, and amazing and unforeseen things can happen.

SELIGMAN: Exactly, without any regard to what will be the outcome and how society is going to benefit from supporting this fundamental research grant. Maybe society won't benefit at all, or maybe we won't know for another 20 years. You might call it faith-based research!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SELIGMAN: You've got to have that curiosity-driven activity in order to make progress.

ZIERLER: Last question, looking to the future. Either in your role as a professor at Hopkins where you can interact with students, or in your communication with younger practitioners in the field, what are the things that people at the beginning of their career in research administration should be looking out for? What are some of the trends that you might be able to extrapolate based on your long experience in this work?

SELIGMAN: That's a very, very difficult question. My answer is that to be successful in this field, they have to be willing to accept the fact that their primary role is that of helping other people get the work done. They're not going to be the star of the show, necessarily—in fact, they won't be—but they have to be able to find pleasure and fulfillment in helping other people do important, worthwhile things. I'm not sure that's the answer you were looking for, but that's how I would think about it.

ZIERLER: This has been a wonderful conversation. I'm so glad we were able to do this. Thank you so much.