Blasting Academic Silos

American University officials say the insularity of colleges within universities is a bane to both I.T. efficiency and scholarly innovation.
January 18, 2010

BALTIMORE — A prevalent organizational model designed to strengthen individual colleges on university campuses might be standing in the way of necessary, innovative research collaborations, a team of American University administrators said Friday here at the Mid-Atlantic Educause conference.

At a session titled “Bridging the Silos: Creating Sustainable Research Infrastructure with Implications for Digital Scholarship,” the delegation said that while the “strong college” model — which emphasizes the individual brands of different colleges on a campus — empowers those schools to attract talented scholars and funding for important research in their particular disciplines, it can also reinforce insularity and make it less likely that scholars from different colleges on the same campus will come together and tackle a subject from an interdisciplinary angle. And that, they said, is a bad thing — from both a research and an information-technology perspective.

“For any of you who are involved in I.T. management or I.T. enterprise development, the silo is never a good thing,” said William A. Mayer, the university librarian at American. “Because if it’s happening in a silo, it’s very hard to leverage value across the enterprise. And the ‘strong college’ model can confuse collaboration, which makes it very hard to coordinate your activities.”

In other words, if each college has its own agenda, often each will need its own arrangement of systems and services — an inefficient prospect as far as the information staff is concerned.

And a potentially hindering one from the perspective of scholarship, said William Delone, director the university’s Center for Teaching Research and Learning. “Being a university that is looked to as having things to say about the big issues of our day — whether it be immigration, climate change, or whatever — by its nature requires interdisciplinary thought,” said Delone in an interview after the session. “So if we’re really going to achieve this goal of doing influential research on some of the most difficult issues of the day, we need to collect faculty resources from different disciplines, and bring them together.”

Cultivating a Culture of Collaboration

American, which Delone said is particularly interested in developing its reputation as a producer of research relevant to “the big issues of the day,” given its proximity to the seat of U.S. government and countless think tanks and political organizations, has been taking steps over the last few years to change the “silo” culture on its campus and make the university’s various colleges and their research activities more visible to one another.

Some of the university’s strategies for accomplishing this are technology-based. It just finished creating an electronic annual reporting system that will store faculty research information in a place where their colleagues in other colleges on campus can view it. “One of the things we hope to pull out of that is a database that captures the kind of scholarship the faculty do in a format that can be shared,” said Rosemary Wander, the university’s vice provost for research and graduate studies. “Because faculty across the campus are always saying, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you did that!’ And they want to know what their colleagues are doing.”

Wander added that American is poised to pilot a program where graduate students would submit their dissertations electronically — a practice that other universities have encouraged for several years — making it easy for scholars in different colleges to search, navigate, and draw upon on the research of their peers to help guide their own studies. As far as investing in further research technology, Delone said American has also formed a steering committee that brings together representatives from all the colleges on campus to discuss academic technology strategy — a move that could nudge the university toward a more centralized academic technology infrastructure and, theoretically, a more collaborative academic environment.

Other strategies to promote intermingling among campus “silos” could be described as more analog. The university has begun holding forums where junior professors — the two-thirds of the faculty who are not tenured — come together to talk about obstacles they face in carrying out their research. But the administrators have an ulterior motive as well: “To get them to meet each other across departments, and begin to form scholarly communities around their common interests — whether they be global issues, or human rights, or environmental [issues].”

In an interview after the session, Delone added that at a recent conference of campus researchers, the staff arranged that the scholars receive, with their badges, the photographs and research agendas of another campus faculty member in a different school who studies a similar topic. If the professors were able to locate their scholarly “matches” and bring them to the registration table, the colleagues would receive a voucher for a free meal together. The university has also sent its professoriate on all-faculty retreats that have featured “speed-networking” sessions, where scholars sit down with ten of their colleagues for five-minute meet-and-greets in rapid succession.

Wander said the university has also been reviewing of its internal guidelines regarding promotion and tenure, and may tweak the language to lend favor to candidates who have demonstrated a willingness to publish research in concert with colleagues in different disciplines; “Recognizing that interdisciplinary work is very important and the outcome is going to be a paper with many names on it, and saying ‘Good, this is good, you don’t have to be the sole author.’ ”

If tenure is one of the prime motivators of faculty research, another is access to funding. Here, too, the university has tweaked its policies to encourage cross-disciplinary unions. One of the requirements for getting funding from the recently created Latin American Studies research center is that each proposal has to come from a minimum of two different schools. “That’s a silo-breacher right there,” said Delone. “That we wouldn’t even take an application that came from within one school.”


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