As the senior department administrator in Computer Science, Karen Lavelle has had to master multi-tasking in the midst of constant interruptions. She deftly sorts out minor crises while managing the myriad processes involving facility use, accounting and expense approvals, and HR-related aspects of the largest academic department in the School of Engineering.
“After working for the Jones School for five years, I had advanced as far as I could in my area,” said Lavelle. “So I began looking for other opportunities to grow my career. One of the roles I applied for was the CS department coordinator.
“Although the department administrator (Darnell Price) informed me another candidate had been selected, she said she expected to have a more suitable role posted in a few months. Later, I was hired to work for Moshe Vardi, who had just been named magazine editor for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).”
The ACM recognized the enormous workload that would fall on the shoulders of an already prolific researcher and faculty member. Vardi had agreed not only to edit the journal but to re-create the flagging global publication, including adopting a new manuscript management system.
ACM offered to pay 50% of the salary for an administrative assistant to help Vardi with the task. The CS department would pay the other 50% of the salary, and Lavelle was hired for that role. Then she got a crash course in Vardi’s typical schedule.
“My interviews were primarily with Darnell, just a short interview with Moshe. Within a few weeks after I started working for Moshe, I had to organize an event for him at a hotel be the airport. This event was for all the ACM folks to meet and welcome Moshe as their new Editor-in-Chief. I barely recognized Moshe when I drove up to meet him in the lobby of a hotel. He and his ACM colleagues got off the plane, introduced me to another administrative assistant and we sat down in the lobby to begin learning the system, Manuscript Central. Then they left on another flight.”
Her job entailed tracking manuscripts, helping assign and remind reviewers, and ensure the new system was accurately notifying members of article submissions and approvals. Although she reported to Vardi, her communications on his behalf went to CS faculty members around the world. Between tracking correspondence and deadlines, she juggled expenses, meetings in different time zones, and Vardi’s busy conference and travel schedule.
Lavelle worked for Vardi on a quiet hallway in Duncan Hall for three years. After she had mastered the ACM system and deadlines, she began training with Price on grant processing. The new work proved interesting and she was good at it. So good in fact, that another department invited her to process grants on a full-time basis.
“I was there five months when Penny Anderson (new CS administrator) called me up to ask if I’d be interested in coming back to CS to process our grants full-time,” said Lavelle. “The new CS job was situated on the main hallway of the department and it took a few weeks to adjust to the traffic and interruptions. But because I was right there in the middle of things, I had the opportunity to learn more about the department’s finances.”
Having learned to work well in the ebb and flow of annual grant application, Lavelle looked for additional tasks to work on between cycles.
“Because I had learned from Lena Sifuentes how our accounting worked when I managed Moshe’s expenses, I asked her how I could help when I had downtime. That helped me understand more about how the department’s overall accounting system worked, what types of expenses can or cannot be charged to research or special funds.”
“All that knowledge helps in my current job as the senior department administrator. I have to approve a lot of things, and knowing what can and can’t be charged to different funds is important when we are trying to quickly process work to meet our deadlines.”
Lavelle also manages the department’s HR-related functions, from performance evaluations for the administrative staff to the hiring process for research scientists and lecturers, to contract reviews for faculty members and instructors.
She said a good day is when she checks off most of the items on her to-do list. “I get a lot of interruptions so time to work on my own list of action items gets whittled down,” she said. “Someone may be trying to start a meeting in a room they’ve reserved, but students are studying in there. They come to me to move the students out of the room.”
“Or one of our administrative staff will be out and I have to cover for them. I’m the backup for each of the administrative staff here. That doesn’t mean I do their job when they are out, but I help guide the people who come looking for them or need things in their office. As more and more people come to me to help solve their problems, I get less and less done. But that’s just the nature of the job.”
That busy-ness is one of the things she also loves about her job. Lavelle said, “I will be putting out fires and working on different problems, then realize suddenly that it is lunch time. Where did the morning go?”
Even when items on her own to-do list remain on the list for several weeks, Lavelle understands her priorities will continue to change. She said she has learned to balance the stress of meeting deadlines with the importance of a complete and accurate grant application.
“You may be focused on getting something out to meet a deadline, then discover part of the packet needs more attention. If something was overlooked or incomplete, you have to stop the process in order to gather more information. Meeting the grant processing deadlines will always trump everything else on my list.”
And she keeps learning. This year, the faculty recruiting process is using a new system, Riceworks. Although the university’s job application and evaluation system has been used for CS staff hires, this is the first year it is being used for the faculty recruiting.
“That’s going to be a learning curve,” said Lavelle. “Then we have sabbaticals, which are based on the number of semesters a faculty member has taught. We have two faculty members on sabbatical now, and one coming up next year and another the semester after that.”
Working in Duncan Hall also provides some interesting learning opportunities. Lavelle said, “Last week, one of our reserach scientists was deep into his work when he thought he heard someone try to open his door. When he went to the door, there was no one around, so he decided to stretch his legs and grabbed his keys for a quick walk. Although he never left the building, his key no longer worked when he got back to his office. When he came to see if my key would work, he mentioned passing some maintenance workers.
“Beth Rivera, who handles CS room assignments, called access control and learned the workers were supposed to re-key the office next to his, but re-keyed his by mistake!”
Although Lavelle enjoys being busy to a certain extent, she’s looking forward to filling the open positions in the department. “Let’s get things running smoothly again and hire more faculty!” she said with a smile, because she knows more faculty will mean more grants to process.