The complex and seemingly intractable problems facing our society today are not going to be solved by a single individual or even a single approach. Rather, teams of individuals coming from a variety of disciplines and using multiple tools and skills will be required; for example, making water available to an arid, impoverished part of the planet takes more than an engineer’s plan to divert part of an existing source.
The complex and seemingly intractable problems facing our society today are not going to be solved by a single individual or even a single approach. Rather, teams of individuals coming from a variety of disciplines and using multiple tools and skills will be required; for example, making water available to an arid, impoverished part of the planet takes more than an engineer’s plan to divert part of an existing source. Such a venture might require the input of environmental, ecological, geological, and agricultural scientists, as well as individuals savvy in the political, economic, cultural, and educational areas, to be successful. The activities of these groups of experts must be closely coordinated and sequenced, which means effective communication and collaboration among all parties are required.
While the problems most of our faculties seek to solve are not quite as grandiose, many will result in significantly better outcomes with the collaboration of others from different disciplines. Along with interdisciplinary research collaboration, higher education is also obliged to create degree programs that are interdisciplinary to prepare graduates to work most effectively in groups. This, too, will require collaboration among academic units to ensure that such programs are forthcoming.
While some of our institutions have recognized collaborative work and its importance in successfully launching interdisciplinary projects, others have lagged behind, staunchly maintaining purely disciplinary degree programs and emphasizing independent research work. As a first step, chairs and deans will be critical individuals in bringing about the change necessary to fully recognize and value collaborative work. Chairs in particular will also be involved in the negotiations of many aspects in establishing interdisciplinary research arrangements and academic programs.
The concept of research collaboration has traditionally drawn the suspicion of faculty review committees and others in the academy. This is based on the notion that, at the PhD level, faculty members are independent scholars and the fact that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the individual contributions to collaborative work. In fact, “independent” language persists in promotion and tenure guidelines even among some institutions that embrace the concept of scholarly collaboration. In more recent times, the concept of collaboration has gained some traction. It has moved from suspicious to acceptable if the faculty member could explain his or her role and provided that both (all) parties have significant intellectual input. At this point, chairs who encouraged collaboration also advised faculty candidates for promotion and tenure to have a piece of work that was independent in order to “cover all bases.” The position in higher education has evolved further, and many institutions now recognize or even expect collaborative work products from their faculties.
The term “interdisciplinary” seems to automatically include the concept of collaboration, although not all collaborations are interdisciplinary. There are several favorable outcomes of having visible interdisciplinary research structures (centers and institutes) and academic programs. First, they bring visibility that in turn brings external interest. On the research side they tell funding agencies that the institution is serious enough about the area to create special structures to house and support it. Academic programs are focal points for direct student recruitment and can even be indirectly effective in bringing to campus students who recognize the creativity in such programs and want to be “where the action is,” even if they are not part of the program itself. Interdisciplinary programs also have a high potential for bringing different cultures together. The disciplines in higher education have different ways of thinking about and attacking problems. When approaching a common problem, they employ unique tools and skills to solve them. Being part of an interdisciplinary team affords all participants the opportunity to experience this firsthand. Finally, racial, gender, and cultural diversity is spread unevenly among the disciplines, thus making interdisciplinary programs a way to promote the exposure to and the appreciation for diversity.
While the details (cost sharing, authorship position on publications, status on grant proposals) of how a research collaboration between or among individual faculty will be governed are best left to the individuals themselves, the creation and operation of larger, interdisciplinary research structures (centers and institutes) and academic programs will require the expertise of chairs and deans. For centers and institutes, the participating units (departments and schools) would have to negotiate issues such as the contributions of space, equipment, and other resources, including faculty effort, staff support, and operating dollars. Chairs would be expected to know the expertise of their faculties as well as their interest level in working collaboratively. An important conversation would have to take place regarding what becomes of the grant overhead produced by the new enterprise. Finally, it is reasonable to assume that such ambitious structures would require internal funding to get them started and external funding to sustain them. Proposals of these types would likely emerge, in good part, from collaborating department leadership and their faculties.
Creating interdisciplinary academic programs raises similar challenges for chairs and deans. Curriculum issues at every level are often contentious because of the strong ownership grip that faculties exercise on what courses students must take to earn degrees. Chairs may have to convince faculties that it is in the best interests of everyone to use existing courses from among the partners as much as possible to avoid the expense of several new hires. Chairs may also have to coax from faculties content changes in some courses as well as alterations from the traditional prerequisites for disciplinary degree courses for them to also fit the new blended degree program. Otherwise, one may wind up with a major that will take more than four years to complete and would be so “stuffed” that few would enroll. Finally, the chairs and deans involved might have to add new faculty lines for the program with the sources of funding (salary, workload, and start-up) and the homes for these individuals being part of the collaborative negotiations.
Some home institution (IUPUI) examples can shed light on how interdisciplinary ventures can be successfully formed. The undergraduate degree program in Neuroscience (NS) was created as a result of a collaboration between the Departments of Biology and Psychology, both of which are housed in the School of Science. Psychology had an existing strength in behavioral and other aspects of addiction science, and Biology had a core of faculties who studied neurodevelopment with emphases on the senses. A curriculum was built with two tracks, one behavioral (Psychology flavor) and one cell/molecular (Biology flavor) using primarily existing courses from the departments. One new course in Biology was created, and Psychology developed a special version of an existing course to complete the starting curriculum. The School’s budgeting system rewards departments based on several items, including credit hours and number of majors. Each department received credit hour support for the courses taught under its banner, and the NS majors were credited to each department on a 50/50 basis. The School was awarded base funding from campus for a new faculty line for Biology and a half line for a staff member, which was promptly used for advising. The School has since funded a new faculty line for Psychology and funded a full-time advising position that provides services to 183 NS majors.
A second, more complex example was the creation of an undergraduate program in Forensic and Investigative Sciences (FIS).The FIS program was conceived at a time when new resources for new undergraduate programs were made available. The group assembled to initiate program development came from three schools—Science, Public & Environmental Affairs (the home of the Criminal Justice degree program), and Law. This collaboration resulted in securing the funding to staff the program that was to be housed in Science. The FIS program was developed with tracks in Biology and Chemistry. Because its initial director was a forensic chemist, FIS was housed (space and source of staff support) in Chemistry. FIS differs from the NS program in that it has specialized FIS courses that are required (FIS is an accredited program). In addition, several questions arose: FIS faculties are not chemists or biologists, so who provides research space, where is their tenure decided, and how are they budgeted? The answers to these questions resulted from a collaborative arrangement made between the two departments and the School. Forensic biologists were provided research space in Biology and forensic chemists, in Chemistry; their tenure homes follow their locations. The School generated a budget model like that of the departments such that FIS could generate and manage its own resources.
SEIRI (STEM Education Innovation and Research Center), a new interdisciplinary collaboration among the Schools of Education, Engineering & Technology (E&T), and Science, is structured like a research center except that its focus is on supporting and obtaining external grant funding for the transformation undergraduate education in STEM disciplines. Its primary support comes from the campus research office, with the individual schools also contributing. SEIRI was formed in response to funding agency (e.g., NSF, HHMI) changes that expect to see systemic change (across schools) in the proposals they fund. SEIRI was launched in fall 2016 and has the hallmarks of interschool collaboration that cuts across the disciplines of the schools.
Promoting collaboration and developing interdisciplinary entities are exciting, worthwhile, and many would argue, essential activities in which chairs and deans might engage at this time. As the first step, the concept of counting carefully vetted collaborative work as equivalent to individual work may be necessary to entice the participation of all faculties. Chairs and deans will assume critical roles in negotiating the details of these interdisciplinary ventures.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.