Building Spires in Vermont

No enterprise can be all things to all people, but that doesn’t stop plenty of college presidents from introducing new departments, centers and initiatives aimed at making their institutions the best at everything.

Daniel M. Fogel, who’s been president of the University of Vermont since 2002, isn’t one of them. “There are so many disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas where we have strength and could build up more,” he says. “But you can’t prioritize everything: that’s not what prioritization is. We need to pick and choose areas of focus and emphasis.”

May 20, 2010

No enterprise can be all things to all people, but that doesn’t stop plenty of college presidents from introducing new departments, centers and initiatives aimed at making their institutions the best at everything.

Daniel M. Fogel, who’s been president of the University of Vermont since 2002, isn’t one of them. “There are so many disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas where we have strength and could build up more,” he says. “But you can’t prioritize everything: that’s not what prioritization is. We need to pick and choose areas of focus and emphasis.”

This year, he’s led the creation of Vermont’s Transdisciplinary Research Initiative, an effort to pick and choose a few priorities that reach across disciplines and have the potential to attract faculty, students and federal research money. Pending approval by the university’s Board of Trustees this weekend, the initiative would create three “spires of excellence” in areas where, Fogel says, “the university has the potential to be the best in the nation.”

The spires -- selected following six months of deliberation and review, including a star-studded panel of leaders from other institutions -- are neuroscience, behavior and health; complex systems; and food systems. All three, Fogel says, “cut across and rose above the typical academic divisions … not only for research but also for teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, fulfilling the public service mission of the university, for the state and the country.”

Vermont is doing it all on a shoestring budget. Even before the latest economic downturn, “colleges and universities, even the big ones, have begun saying that they can’t be good at absolutely everything and need to make choices to distinguish themselves,” says Jane E. Knodell, Vermont's interim provost and senior vice president. “You have to be kind of average at lots of things or find some areas to be very, very good in.”

Photo: Courtesy of the University of Vermont

The proposal is not uncontroversial. Since the fall, some faculty have voiced concerns about the initiative’s financing, and its potential effect on research and teaching, particularly in fields not touched by any of the spires. “Everyone understands that there aren’t going to be any new resources here for a while,” says James Burgmeier, a mathematics professor and president of the Faculty Senate. “So there’s concern that this initiative will in some way be taking away from what the university does.”

Fogel insists that the university will not cut funding to undergraduate education or already existing research strengths. “We have areas of excellence that are not addressed in this particular initiative that we value highly and will continue to support,” he says. “These are some focused investments and yet we’ve designed this in a way that -- even in an era of fiscal care and constraint -- is not going to operate as a zero-sum game.”

Bolstering the university’s reputation is part of Fogel’s 2009-2013 strategic plan, but doing so in the current fiscal environment meant looking for ways to do it without any infusions of cash.

The initiative, Knodell says, would be funded by strategic reallocations of institutional research funds that have become “freed up” by faculty attrition and funding commitments that have ended. “We’re not pulling resources away from anything, just shifting some that have become available” by making strategic hires of faculty with research interests that align with the spires.

In fiscal year 2009, $73 million of the university’s general fund spending went to faculty, facilities and administrative costs related to research. In her planning, Knodell says, that number stays about the same for 2010, but retirements, resignations, and the completion of start-up and cost-share commitments will leave room to hire as many as 30 faculty members. (The number will be finalized after the trustees’ meeting.)

As current general fund research commitments end and free up some money for the next academic year, Knodell wrote in a March 12 letter to faculty, that “creates the opportunity -- the obligation -- to make choices about where to invest in terms of the research and scholarship time associated with the hiring of tenure-track faculty, cost shares on research grants, sponsored research staff time, and spending on research equipment and laboratories.”

Building Spires

The spires of excellence strategy is based on a model formulated half a century ago by Frederick Terman, who was provost of Stanford University in the 1960s and is considered one of the key figures in the creation of Silicon Valley. Terman methodically built Stanford’s international research reputation by building spires of excellence rather than “plateaus” of mediocrity. As those spires matured, the university was able to develop more spires.

Small, private institutions have adopted Terman’s model to find niches, and top research universities like the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley – the two examples that Fogel and Knodell like to cite -- have adopted it to develop new research strengths. With 10,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students, Vermont is far smaller than Michigan and Berkeley, and lacks the same national and international research reputation.

With an endless number of directions in which Vermont’s research programs could go, administrators saw the need to focus across in interdisciplinary fields where the university already had some strength. “Many of the important questions our society is going to be facing in the next century are ones that reach across disciplines,” says Domenico Grasso, vice president for research. “If we want to be able to get funding from the federal agencies, we need to build up areas where we can have a critical mass of researchers.”

In August and September, Grasso, Knodell, three associate provosts and the deans of the university’s 12 colleges and schools came together to identify areas of research potential. They generated eight fields they saw as “transdisciplinary” -- neuroscience; food systems; complex systems; biological and bioengineering sciences; culture and society; environment; policy studies; and public health -- that had the potential to become spires of excellence.

On Oct. 1, the administrators announced the plan and called on faculty to volunteer to join working groups to create plans for each of the potential spires. By the end of that month, 68 of the 142 professors who applied were chosen to serve on the panels, and began work on their proposals. In late January, the suggestions were published and then discussed at town hall meetings for faculty. Throughout, the plans were also discussed in the Faculty Senate.

Over the course of 10 days in February, the plans went through internal review by seven panels, which ultimately selected biological and bioengineering sciences; complex systems; food systems; and neuroscience. In early March, those four proposals underwent external review by a panel that included Shirley M. Tilghman, president of Princeton University; David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University; and James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of Michigan, who led that university through its development of spires in the 1990s.

Stephanie Kaza, a professor of environmental science who is skeptical of the proposal’s promises, says the process moved far too quickly. Administrators created the framework of the initiative and decided on the eight potential spires in decisions “that were made entirely by the administration and the deans, with no consultation of the faculty.” Kaza chairs an ad hoc committee of the Faculty Senate that has generated a report criticizing the decision-making process and the final proposal being sent to the trustees this week.

The Faculty Senate president, Burgmeier, says the exclusion of faculty early in the process precluded many from considering the proposals with an open mind. “Faculty feel like this was pushed on them from the top. They like to be asked rather than told, and I understand that -- the way faculty work, they’re not just employees told to do this job and that job.”

The administrators acknowledge that they could have sought faculty input from the beginning, but decided that the university needed to move quickly. “We felt this was an opportunity for us that we would potentially lose if it took us three years to figure it out,” Knodell says. “The pace felt aggressive to many of my colleagues…. It was a fine balance between having enough time for the working groups to produce good products -- and they did -- but also keeping the momentum moving forward.”

Moving forward quickly and decisively was key to the plan’s potential for success, says Catherine Koshland, a Berkeley vice provost who coached the administrators last fall and chaired the external review panel. “It’s really typical of colleges and universities to let the process of development of programs happen the way it always happened -- grass roots, someone has an idea … and somehow it gets blessed. There’s not a particular strategy in that, and especially coming out of a recession, it’s smart to invest more strategically.”

Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University and a member of the external review panel, says the initiative is “a good effort by Dan Fogel and others there to try to speed up the evolution of the University of Vermont.” Universities including Vermont and his own, he adds, “need to focus on places where they think they can make the most significant contributions.”

Keeping Everything Else Intact

For all the enthusiasm coming from within the university and beyond, Grasso, the vice president for research, acknowledges that “change is hard” and that plenty of faculty are unhappy with the priorities that have been chosen. “If you’re changing things and you’re not sure about the outcome, of course there’s going to be concern,” he says.

Fogel says he understands the “anxiety” that some people have about the initiative; “it would only be not understandable if they didn’t have this anxiety.”

Some of the resistance comes from faculty members whose interests do not intersect with any of the spires and who worry that their programs and departments will wilt as the spires thrive.

The administrators, though, are quick to assure that the spires are not their only priority. Not every new hire will be a faculty member whose research interests align with one of the spires, Knodell says. For positions where the research component is not specified and overlap with a spire is possible, “we will try to selectively shape some of the research activity associated with tenure track faculty we are hiring.”

The university will still determine what jobs to fill in large part based on teaching needs, but where “in the past we might’ve said, ‘We need someone to teach macroeconomics, whatever their research is, that’s fine with us just as long as they’re a really good person,’ ” the approach has changed.

“Now we’ll say, ‘Does this person fit in with complex systems by researching the economics of financial markets?’ In a very intentional way we’re getting someone who is part of the economics department and can teach intro to macroeconomics who is also part of this university-wide research group,” Knodell says.

She adds that the university’s research agenda and well-established focus on undergraduate education “are not two competing demands on resources, because every tenure track position that we have is engaged in both teaching and research."

Though the faculty left out of the spires may feel like they're losers in the equation, Grasso says that they "can still do their outstanding scholarship in their own fields" and at the same time "benefit from all the great things" that the spires attract to the university and the state -- high-quality students, new facilities, local economic growth.

Still, there are skeptics. One is Mary Lou Kete, an undergraduate alumna of the university who is now an associate professor of English. “Despite assertions to the contrary, this initiative shifts resources from undergraduate mission to small and idiosyncratic graduate programs,” she said at a Faculty Senate meeting in late March.

“The numbers don’t add up as I have seen them ... and are in fact grounded on a ‘Field of Dreams’ investment strategy." The university seems to be looking at these fields, she said, as "graduate programs that may eventually attract a higher reputation from our peers and may increase our ranking in U.S. News and World Report and may attract more high paying students and may be able to put resources into undergraduate programs.”

Kaza, the chair of the committee that is still pushing back against the initiative, echoes Kete’s concerns. “How are we going to pay for this and maintain the high-quality teaching and undergraduate education that supports our budget? People are working pretty hard here, 60 to 80 hour work weeks are the norm … and in the effort to be more efficient, they’re looking to make sure everybody is teaching as many students as possible,” she says. “Understandably, the faculty who are working harder than ever don’t see this new initiative as providing much relief.”

In a report to be released today at a senate meeting, the committee voices opposition to the plan in part because it promises “innovative ways to raise the research profile of UVM … at the expense of our tradition of student-focused undergraduate education.”

Undergraduates, too, have spoken out. In early April, the university’s Student Government Association Senate passed a resolution in opposition to the initiative, voicing concern that the effort “will have a negative impact on the quality of undergraduate education at UVM.”


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