Northwestern Office for Research


University Research Center Proposal and Evaluation Guidelines

The Highest Order of Excellence, Northwestern's strategic planning framework, provides a broad, flexible set of ideas aimed at moving toward an overarching interdisciplinary vision that will enhance the University's value to students, faculty, staff, and society. Northwestern wants to leverage its "size, diversity, and interdisciplinary culture into competitive advantages that lead to reputation gains."

The interdepartmental, interschool, and often interinstitutional University research centers epitomize Northwestern's interdisciplinary culture. Reporting to the vice president for research, the University research centers play an important role in broadening the knowledge base which leads to new discoveries and which informs new policies that ensure discoveries are incorporated into society in a productive and beneficial manner. These same centers also, simultaneously, play an important role in educating and training the next generation of innovators, upon whom the quality of the ideas of tomorrow depends.

University research centers differ considerably in scope and organization. They may be called centers or institutes; they may be linked to broader consortia or be primarily University based; they may be large or relatively small; they may have a long history - the Program of African Studies, for example, was established in 1948 and the Materials Research Center in 1959 - or be of recent origin. Because of their diversity, University research centers are not readily susceptible to concise definition and, instead, may best be understood in terms of the characteristics of a successful center outlined below.

University commitment

The Highest Order of Excellence underscores the University's commitment to "strategic and potentially transformative initiatives ... from the establishment of entirely new centers or institutes to the reorganization or redesign of existing programs." The document also stipulates that "high expectations and standards for performance will be set for both new centers/institutes and existing ones; less productive centers and institutes may be reorganized or closed. Procedures for regular review will be established to ensure that such decisions are informed and timely."

The Highest Order of Excellence identifies eight general criteria for strategic initiatives, which should, as applicable, guide both the development of a proposal for a new University research center and the annual evaluation of current centers.

  • Is the focal area critically important to the success of the University?
  • Is it potentially transforming; will it allow us to become the leading program among peer institutions?
  • Does it successfully raise funds to support itself?
  • Does it draw new kinds of exceptionally talented faculty and students?
  • Does it lead to new curricular development?
  • Does it strengthen the Northwestern "brand?"
  • Does it influence others beyond those participating in the initiative itself?
  • Does it make an impact on the outside world?

Guidelines for Proposing a New University Research Center

  1. Preliminary Activities

    A number of activities should normally precede the preparation and submission of a proposal to establish a new University research center. The objectives of these preliminary activities are to secure commitments of support from relevant school deans and department chairs, engage appropriate faculty and build sustained faculty involvement, define faculty leadership, and identify potential sources of research funding.
    • Assess the alignment of the proposed center with the University goals and priorities set forth in The Highest Order of Excellence; clearly identify the ways in which the proposed center will advance those goals and priorities.
    • Consider the relationship between the proposed center and current academic units, including school or college centers as well as University research centers; clarify the need for and "value added" of the proposed center.
    • Engage the appropriate school deans in discussion of the proposed center and seek their support for the proposal, including commitments of space, funding, and administrative assistance.
    • Engage the appropriate department chairs in similar discussions and seek their support, particularly for the participation of department faculty members in the proposed center.
    • Create a working group of investigators that meets regularly; include a broad range of faculty in the initiative to create disciplinary diversity and enhance interdisciplinary opportunities.
    • Organize a series of luncheon meetings, symposia, or seminars with potential center faculty.
    • Organize a Domain Dinner in conjunction with the Office of Administration and Planning. (See for further information.)
    • Demonstrate the center's potential for attracting research funding from external sources by seeking/securing awards from foundations or the corporate sector; program project, center, or training grants; or other types of awards.
    • Engage the provost, vice president for research, associate vice presidents for research, and other members of central administration in discussion of the proposed center; address the financial and other commitments that will be needed from central administration if the proposal for a new center is approved.
  2. Proposal

    The characteristics of a successful University research center outlined above should be addressed as they apply to the proposed new center. In addition, the proposal to establish a new University research center should address the following points.
    1. Need. Provide persuasive evidence that new activities or an increased magnitude of activity could not be undertaken in the absence of the proposed center; explain what the proposed University research center could do that existing school or college centers or informal faculty clusters cannot do.
    2. Opportunity. Describe the combination of intellectual capital, research environment, and external factors that creates favorable conditions for the center's success.
    3. Current activities. Describe interdisciplinary research collaborations already underway that provide a foundation on which to build the center's activities.
    4. Leadership. Identify a director (or co-directors) and a steering committee; justify these selections.
    5. Commitment. Provide specific details regarding the commitment and resources being requested and the commitments and resources secured to date from University or external sources.
    6. Timeframe. Describe the proposed timeframe for securing the requested commitments and moving forward with establishment of the center.
    7. Budget. Develop a budget, taking into consideration the full array of programs and activities the center plans to undertake. Following are illustrative examples of items that should be considered in developing the proposed budget.
      • Contracted start-up reconnaissance and planning support
      • Workshops/seminars
      • Faculty and/or steering committee meetings/luncheons
      • Seed research project funding
      • Promotional materials and/or newsletter
      • Creation and maintenance of a website
      • Creation and maintenance of internal databases to share information regarding funding opportunities and faculty resources and projects
      • Travel to promote awareness of center
      • Travel for fundraising campaign
      • Staffing and operations costs
      • Computer hardware and software and associated costs
      • Educational and outreach programming and development
      • Director salary and/or supplement (if relevant)
      • Space
    8. Funding opportunities: Provide information on currently available research, education, and research training opportunities.

Guidelines for Annual Reports

  1. Changes from prior year. An assessment of changes from the prior year in the center's status with regard to the basic characteristics of a successful University research center outlined above.
  2. Progress. A summary of progress toward the objectives cited in the prior year's annual report.
  3. Objectives. Updated short- and longer-term objectives.
  4. Quantitative benchmarks. (See following section for listing of possible benchmarks.)
    • In a center's initial annual report, a listing of quantitative benchmarks should be accompanied by retrospective tables providing historical performance.
    • In subsequent annual reports, the center's current year performance with respect to its quantitative benchmarks should be added to the data compiled for prior years.
  5. Publications. A listing of publications that are a part of the center's programs.
  6. Awards and proposals. A summary of the center's research awards and proposals. (These data can be provided by the Office of Sponsored Research.)

Possible Quantitative Benchmarks

Center publications: number; index of quality/impact

Citations of center publications

Intellectual property disclosures, patents, licenses, start-ups

Center faculty who are members of the national academies or comparable bodies

Center faculty awards from professional societies

Other center faculty honors/recognition

Externally funded research awards administered by center

Total center award activity (including awards to center-affiliated faculty that are an integral part of the center's program but are administered by the department)

Research funded by University or center funds

Research expenditures

Research proposals submitted

Internal: departments/schools represented by faculty involved in collaborative research

External: academic institutions, industrial partners, federal laboratories, other external entities involved in collaborative center research

Diversity of funding sources

Amount of discretionary funds


Facilities and assets

Educational programs leading to a degree

Courses which are part of a degree program

Training programs

Other educational programs, including symposia and colloquia for internal and external audiences

Tangible return to Northwestern
Fiscal return

Support for students/fellows (doctoral, postdoctoral, undergraduate)

Shared research facilities

Intellectual property

Industrial/external relations programs

Educational outreach programs (e.g., high school students, teachers)

Service to society

Northwestern University  

Research Home  |  Research Administrative Offices  |

Office for Research   633 Clark Street, Evanston, IL 60208-1108   |   847-491-2101

The Office for Research promotes, facilitates, and enhances research at Northwestern University.


© 2016 Northwestern University |University Policy Statements