Encouraging Interdisciplinarity

Consortium of research universities considers steps to support cross-departmental research by making changes at faculty and administrative levels.
November 6, 2008

In summer 2007, when organizing a consortium of 10 research universities to consider ways to better "institutionalize" interdisciplinary research, Gail Dubrow, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, told Inside Higher Ed, “We don’t yet have the solutions. But we know what the problems are.”

Now, she says: “In this area of work, the issue is no longer identifying either the barriers or the recommended changes, but acting on them and figuring out what is getting in the way of these critical actions.”

Later this month at an invitational conference in Minnesota, consortium members will be sharing their findings from a series of institutional self-studies spanning eight so-called “functional areas” – academic administration and faculty governance, collaborative technology, development and fund-raising, education and training, equity and diversity, finance and budget, research, and space and capital planning. Among some of the general trends observed across participating universities:

A major barrier to encouraging interdisciplinary work is the widespread perception that it is not rewarded in the departmental-based promotion and tenure process. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, several committees have said that interdisciplinary faculty members have a tougher time earning tenure, but institutional data suggest that professors involved in interdisciplinary activities get tenure at or slightly above the rate for the rest of the faculty, says Peyton Smith, assistant vice chancellor for extended programs. “It may well be that people engaged in interdisciplinary activities have a tougher time documenting the scholarship of their work to go through divisional committees, but the end result is we’re not granting tenure at lesser rates.”

"In many cases it comes down to who's your advocate in preparing your tenure dossier," Smith says.

Still, "Widespread anecdotal reports as well as perceptions of disadvantage toward faculty who do interdisciplinary work persist,” says Dubrow. “So the bottom line is that we need more systematic studies of faculty, tenure and promotion, I think, as well as in-depth interviews with faculty who pursue interdisciplinary research agendas – to understand whether the perception of this disadvantage matches the realities of the tenure and promotion system. And where there are gaps, there may be the need for changes in policy and practice.”

The consortium didn’t limit its inquiry to faculty-specific concerns, but considered interdisciplinary issues in administrative contexts as well.

For instance, in development, and particularly at public research universities, which are under pressure to keep central administration lean, the fund-raising apparatus is often highly decentralized by college. “And that means that inter-college initiatives, including what universities would consider to be potentially transformational gifts, that deal with some of the world’s most complex issues – and which necessarily span multiple colleges – lack advocates or may conflict with collegiate priorities for development,” says Dubrow.

“So they either need to develop systems of cooperation in going after these major gifts across colleges, [implement] incentives that reward successful cooperation – so shared credit for major gifts – or they need development officers in place literally in the central foundation offices who are well-prepared to deal with cross-college or interdisciplinary issues. And what we’re hearing is everyone needs this, but we’re just beginning to figure out how to do it,” says Dubrow.

As one approach, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently began assigning development officers to interdisciplinary institutes, says Feniosky Peña-Mora, the associate provost.

Another main issue discussed at UIUC was space -- virtual and actual. Virtually speaking, "We have a tool for managing coursework. We can publish our presentations, our materials, our notes, the students can go there, see the notes, submit their homework and we can put grades there; there is that space there for course management," says Peña-Mora. "We do not have the same types of investment -- that is as coordinated and institutionalized -- for supporting interdisciplinary research," he says. He points out that much proposal and publication-writing happens online and not in newly designed interdisciplinary spaces on campus.

On that note, consortium members also examined building practices, including the creation of common or “hearth-like” social spaces. While many university officials recognize their value, in tight budget years, these common areas are also the most tempting for administrators to cut, says Dubrow.

“They are essentially the overhead a building carries.”


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