A Dean Takes on Departments

Northwestern graduate school urges professors in different disciplines to propose new academic programs.
May 17, 2006

When Andrew Wachtel became dean of the graduate school at Northwestern University in fall 2004, he had a clear objective -- to make interdisciplinary doctoral programs the norm in the humanities and social sciences.

Wachtel says departments have too much authority to organize academic programs, when the departments aren't always groupings of like-minded students. “The boundaries are not clear anymore,” he says. “Students of Asian literature have come to realize that they have more to do with those in the Asian studies department than [with their peers in the English department] studying Shakespeare.”

Professors naturally form connections with colleagues outside of their departments, and doctoral students need more than just specialized training within their disciplines, he argues. So why not allow interdisciplinary programs, not departments, to "own" students and set some of the agenda?

That’s the idea behind Wachtel’s academic reform proposal, which calls for the formation of multidisciplinary faculty clusters at Northwestern that are charged with determining core curriculum of interdisciplinary study for students. The premise: Professors with similar areas of expertise can best decide what constitutes a well-balanced education.

Wachtel formally introduced the idea to humanities and social science faculty in the fall to a mixed reaction. He says he has received a fair amount of dissent, with some department chairs saying this would mean an end to their autonomy.

But the dean insists that taking an interdisciplinary approach is the best way to utilize the strengths of Northwestern's faculty. For instance, since the university has a number of professors who are experts in gender studies, he says, it seems prudent to create a program that focuses on that topic, and then go after students with that interest.

Existing interdisciplinary programs at Northwestern include Comparative Literary Studies, Religion, Theatre and Drama, and African-American Studies. Wachtel says he isn't looking to overhaul the departmental structure, but rather would like the new interdisciplinary programs to augment disciplinary training already provided. Students must remain marketable, so having the groups of professors create new Ph.D programs that aren't recognized by the outside world doesn't make sense, he says. 

Faculty groups whose proposals are selected for possible funding have been asked to submit a detailed proposal -- including process for admission of students and faculty governance -- by the end of summer. Wachtel said he hopes to have a complete picture of the programs by fall.

Simon Greenwold, associate dean of the graduate school, says he and other administrators are also re-thinking how the university should recruit students and how to schedule classes to ensure that current students can take classes in different disciplines.

Paul Tate, a senior scholar in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools, says he applauds Wachtel’s effort. “It’s timely, because research questions are breaking the boundaries of disciplines,” Tate says. “It’s great that a dean would encourage faculty to be nimble and entrepreneurial in the way they provide opportunities to students.”

The interdisciplinary approach isn’t new, though. “Many other grad schools for decades have supported multidisciplinary programs so that students will enter the work force with a broad-based training that employers want,” Tate says.

In recent years, universities have made an increasing push for interdisciplinary programs . Claremont Graduate University has made it mandatory for all Ph.D students to take a “transdisciplinary” course, which is team-taught around a theme. Vanderbilt University has created a new program in the Center for the Americas to broaden the experience of Ph.D students.

Interdisciplinary programs are also the rage in many science disciplines. Wachtel says that the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have put such programs at the top of their list for funding.

Martin Mueller, a professor of English and classics at Northwestern, says he agrees with many of the premises behind the program, but not the implementation. “What they see is correct -- faculty in the humanities are extremely resistant to change,” he says. “But if you go around telling people we’re going to change and this is what we’re going to do, you will run into problems. A university is not a corporation. Whatever is done has to come from the faculty.”

Mueller adds that "tearing down the fences" is a positive step, but that just because a program is of an interdisciplinary nature, it doesn't mean it will necessarily be better than the alternative.

Wachtel says he is trying to create a broad incentive for faculty to form partnerships. He is also proposing that department chairs give professors more flexibility to team-teach and to teach multiple classes in a semester or quarter if needed. 


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