'Institutionalizing' Interdisciplinary Research

July 25, 2007

As interest in interdisciplinary research continues to increase, colleges still don’t have answers to critical questions about the best ways to support and encourage collaboration across the disciplines. How can a department fairly evaluate interdisciplinary research in promotion and tenure decisions, for example? How can an institution raise money for interdisciplinary endeavors within a system designed to fund raise for individual schools and colleges? “We don’t yet have the solutions,” said Gail Dubrow, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “But we know what the problems are.”

Minnesota is heading up a new consortium of research universities that will be asking and, if all goes well, answering these and other integral questions about fostering interdisciplinary research. Ten research universities – the Universities of California at Berkeley, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin at Madison, along with Brown and Duke Universities – will participate. Together, they're designing a self-study instrument to address ways in which various university functions, everything from the development to the diversity offices, and faculty leaders to finance administrators, can support interdisciplinary endeavors. The universities will administer the self-study this winter, with Minnesota taking the lead in analyzing the results. A conference on “Fostering Interdisciplinary Inquiry” is planned for fall 2008 in Minneapolis.

"The conversation I think has moved up a notch from talking about the problems, the barriers, to the positive question: How can we institutionalize our commitments to interdisciplinary academic initiatives?” said Dubrow.

“Our institution, like many others, has undergone a strategic positioning or planning process over the past two years and, not surprisingly, the issue of removing barriers to interdisciplinary research came up repeatedly in that process.... We recognize, like many institutions do, that many of the ways we’ve organized historically provide a flow of resources to colleges and departments," Dubrow said. While universities have pieced together solutions to support interdisciplinary efforts, including research centers or institutes, “we haven’t necessarily changed our policies and practices to proactively foster interdisciplinarity," Dubrow said.

Nor are there established best practices to turn to for guidance yet, she added: “Best practices are just now being documented. We have individual institutional examples and certainly a wealth of anecdotes, but we haven’t systematically studied or shared [practices].”

Dubrow cited evaluating interdisciplinary work for promotion and tenure purposes and methods of fund raising for interdisciplinary research as areas that would likely get a lot of attention, but described a broad basis of inquiry beyond that. Streamlining the funding process so that faculty working across disciplines don’t routinely have to ask multiple university units a year for money – “we simply have institutionalized the practice of begging,” Dubrow said – seems to be another key area of concern, for instance. Also, “some institutions have invested quite heavily in new interdisciplinary arts and science buildings, but we haven’t shared what are the features of those spaces. What would go into the design of a collaborative space?”

Other areas of inquiry could include how to better involve students at all levels in the research and how to alleviate the stress on faculty time that comes with pursuing interdisciplinary work, said Susan Roth, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke. “I think faculty are very stimulated by interdisciplinary work and love to be a part of it, but it creates a strain in terms of both being pulled away from the department,” Roth said.

“We’re all glad that [the University of Minnesota] is taking the leadership role and providing the structure for us to have this cross-university conversation,” Roth said. “These questions are on everyone’s minds, so they’re not taking us anywhere we don’t already want to go.”

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