For many full-time faculty members who have not earned tenure, the prospect of conducting interdisciplinary research or collaborating across departments can be, professionally speaking, a risky gambit.
While many colleges and universities say they want their faculty members to do work in these areas -- and they may even make joint appointments across departments or award grants to carry out such research -- institutional support often falters when it comes time to decide tenure and promotion. Faculty members can be daunted at the prospect of negotiating factions not just in their department, but in another one as well. Turf battles and a misunderstanding of what qualifies as interdisciplinary scholarship also can make it difficult for those sitting on committees to accurately render judgment.
The University of Southern California offers an exception to that general trend. In recently amending its tenure and promotion guidelines, USC became one of the first institutions in the country to provide departments and committees with clear and explicit instructions on how to weigh interdisciplinary research and collaborative scholarship when rewarding faculty.
"I actually haven’t seen anything like this before," said Anita Levy, senior program officer of the American Association of University Professors. "I think this is really a model that, with some tweaking, could be emulated by many institutions quite successfully."
In January, USC's University Committee on Appointments, Promotions and Tenure, a group of full professors that advises the president, produced a new manual  that spells out how tenure and promotion should be determined. Frequent references to the merits of independent scholarship -- the kind of language that leaves many researchers worried not just about interdisciplinary research but about co-authored books or articles -- were made less conspicuous, and a general approach to discipline-spanning scholarship was made more explicit. The university, says the manual, "welcomes interdisciplinary work equally with that within disciplinary cores, including work that crosses from social sciences into the humanities or transcends the home department."
In order to adequately evaluate interdisciplinary and collaborative work, the manual advises a candidate's tenure or promotion committee, which is based in the home department, to include one or more members from relevant outside departments. These colleagues should be consulted on the selection of referees from the other disciplines; those who share the candidate’s interdisciplinary focus should be chosen as well. Candidates are also reviewed by committees at the school and university levels.
The manual also assigns a candidate's committee with the responsibility of appropriately judging publications that are outside the core discipline, of recognizing interdisciplinary graduate teaching and of crediting faculty who advise graduate students outside the home department. "The committees should make special effort to understand other disciplines’ customs on co-authorship, sequence of authors, and use of conferences, journals or monographs as premiere outlets," the manual reads.
Departments and schools should take note when a candidate’s scholarship spans disciplinary or school boundaries, the manual continues, or when it makes a link between fundamental and applied research, or focuses strongly on problems of social importance. "It is essential to strive to evaluate such work properly when it differs from the usual expectations of the home department or discipline," the manual states.
The manual also furnishes guidance to departmental committees that judge collaborative work. A few of a tenure or promotion candidate's co-authors on collaborative work should be invited to be referees (in addition to five or six referees who are not co-authors) to testify to the contribution of the candidate. The manual also instructs departmental committees to bear in mind tenure criteria  outlined by the National Institutes of Health which are designed to encourage and reward team science. These criteria include identifying the distinct intellectual contribution a scholar has made to the work of a multidisciplinary team, such as independent publication or the presentation of findings at conferences.
While Levy of the AAUP largely hailed the new guidelines at USC, it came with some minor caveats. She said the association would like to see more clarity regarding how long the probationary period should last for pre-tenure professors doing interdisciplinary work, and a more explicit placement of tenure for these faculty in the university itself, not their departments or schools.
USC wants to better support interdisciplinary scholarship largely because it serves a competitive advantage, said Randolph Hall, vice president of research. Research institutions and laboratories tend to be more adept at embracing interdisciplinary approaches, he said, and at bringing people from diverse fields together. "We're not always innovative in how we do research," said Hall, referring to universities in general.
Changing the systems and structures that are in place, such as the tenure and promotion guidelines that drive many faculty members' behavior, was one step. Another was to shift the larger university culture. It is a slow-moving process, Hall acknowledged, but one he hopes will start to take root within about five years. To start that process, the university has held six workshops  on collaboration and creativity at the Norman Lear Center of the Annenberg School for nearly 60 faculty members from 13 schools and 30 disciplines, along with experts on collaborative research.
USC also created a fund to support interdisciplinary and collaborative projects. The projects, which are selected by a faculty committee, must demonstrate significant interest from scholars in diverse fields, and its principal investigators must reapply for renewal each year -- $30,000 each year for three years. The idea of the grants, said Hall, is to provide seed money and a bit of buzz on campus. “We want to show that collaboration matters,” he said.
Most of the awards USC has granted in 2010 and 2011 have been to scholars in the physical, biological sciences and engineering, who, generally speaking, tend to be more accustomed to adopting a collaborative approach. For example, faculty in USC's engineering and pharmacy programs and its medical school are undertaking a project that combines technology and pediatrics; faculty in the schools of medicine, gerontology and dentistry are starting an initiative to repair neurodegenerative disorders. A computer scientist has joined forces with a psychologist to marry game theory and the study of human behavior. Similar melding of disciplines by the same computer scientist, Milind Tambe of the engineering, computer science and industrial and systems engineering departments, has resulted in funding  from the U.S. Department of Defense's Multidisciplinary Research Initiative program.
With government agencies rewarding scholars for interdisciplinary work, it is perhaps not surprising that many universities do so, too. The University of Pennsylvania views such scholarship as more than simply legitimate, said President Amy Gutmann, but as "one of the university's very highest priorities." Since 2005, Penn has installed in joint appointments 12 faculty members whose research and teaching are interdisciplinary in nature. Even though Penn's tenure and promotion guidelines don't deal as explicitly with collaboration and interdisciplinary research as those of USC, Penn's investment in new faculty lines has had what Gutmann called a strong multiplier effect: it created a clearer path to joint appointments between schools and departments, as reflected in a new Integrated Studies Program and in medical research centers that have been organized into disease-based teams. Since 2006, Penn's provost’s office also has been awarding $6,000 grants  to about a half-dozen interdisciplinary projects each year.
Still, Hall argued that the scale and systematic nature of USC's new approach to interdisciplinary and collaborative work were of a different order. “I can’t think of a university that has embraced it as much as we have,” he said.