Center-Free Collaboration

The University of Virginia hopes a new program brings more interdepartmental collaboration -- and fewer specialized centers -- to campus.

March 16, 2012

At the University of Virginia, like many other institutions, interdisciplinary collaboration often leads to the formation of a permanent Center for the Study of Something.

Sometimes that’s great, and the center goes on to do important research for years after its founding.

But sometimes collaboration between an architect, philosopher and chemist should be a short-term venture, not a freestanding entity with a well-compensated director and associate director that operates in perpetuity.

Hoping to encourage more interdepartment work without creating a flurry of new centers, Virginia is launching OpenGrounds. The network provides resources for both short- and long-term academic partnerships while giving Virginia the versatility to focus on the best research. A quick search of Virginia's directory reveals about 90 centers that appear to have some research orientation. Those numbers certainly aren't unique to Virginia, but the hope is that OpenGrounds will foster other kinds of collaborations.

“It remains nimble rather than what often happens where things develop an infrastructure and are there forever whether they’re needed or not,” said William Sherman, the director of OpenGrounds and Virginia’s associate vice president for research.

After 18 months of planning, OpenGrounds will begin in earnest next week when it opens on-campus space for collaborators to meet. Researchers will maintain their office and labs in their home departments, but can use the OpenGrounds office for discussion or planning.

Dennis Proffitt, for one, is intrigued. The psychology professor taught a class last spring that paired students with the families of people with dementia. Each group of three students worked with a family to create a sort of digital memento and were then able to study the effect their products had on the patients and their relatives.

One couple who loved classical music received an iPad programmed with pictures of concert halls they had visited and Pandora to play their favorite songs.

A Lebanese man with dementia received a digital scrapbook with pictures and information about his ties to the Middle East that his family could refer to after he died.

But for all its success, there were limitations -- namely that all the students were psychology or cognitive science majors. Ideally, Proffitt said, there would be one psychologist, one artist and one computer scientist in each group.

He’d like to teach the class again with students and faculty from those departments included, perhaps using the OpenGrounds infrastructure to make that happen. The project is powerful, he said, because it allows students and faculty to work together toward an important goal while capitalizing on their own expertise.

“I think it has no limits,” Proffitt said. “The idea is for students to go into the community and discover things that are useful to other people.”

OpenGrounds projects can also include researchers from outside the university, something Sherman said students have been especially responsive to. “The students I’ve been talking to have been very aware that there are huge societal challenges ahead of us," he said, "and they see, perhaps even more than faculty who are very embedded in their own disciplines, the need to look at these challenges in ways that are more fluid than traditional academic disciplines.”

Interdisciplinary work in the spirit of OpenGrounds already exists at Virginia, Sherman said. He cited Virginia’s Bay Game, in which students and others within and outside the university play virtual roles as farmers or politicians or business owners and see how their actions affect the delicate Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to partnerships with private enterprise, the Bay Game project has the input of faculty from the the university’s commerce, architecture, urban development and education departments.

As OpenGrounds begins linking researchers and hosting forums, Sherman said he hopes more collaborations like the Bay Game pop up.

“It doesn’t fall neatly into those centers or institutes,” he said. “But it’s led to publication.”

In developing OpenGrounds, Sherman examined standalone innovation campuses at other universities. Virginia moved in a different direction -- sharing the focus on interdisciplinary and public-private work but doing so without as much of an investment in space and formal structures.

“(We decided) not to build a separate center or hub that would run the risk of simply becoming another silo within the university,” he said. “It’s a way of thinking and working in the university that doesn’t necessarily have hard boundaries.”


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