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Multidisciplinary Scholarship Vital to Future

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The easy part is building the new programs and hiring the new faculty. The hard part is deciding what's going to go away to make room for those new programs.


The article below looks at one aspect of the future role of multidisciplinary scholarship in academia. It is taken from the April 23, 2002 issue of the Stanford Report. Vol XXXIV, No. 26, Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Multidisciplinary scholarship vital to future, Hennessy says



Stanford is poised to become a leader in multidisciplinary scholarship, but to do so the university cannot let organizational hurdles and fears get in the way, President John Hennessy said Thursday during the Annual Meeting of the Academic Council.

In addition to outlining the academic opportunities and challenges associated with interdisciplinary programs (IDPs), Hennessy gave a broader progress report of the university over the past 12 months.

Opportunities and challenges

Multidisciplinary research and teaching efforts are on the rise, Hennessy told a crowd of mostly faculty and staff assembled inside Kresge Auditorium. "How are we as a university positioned to take advantage of them?" he asked. "My reply is 'superbly well.'"

Stanford has several unique strengths that help foster a multidisciplinary approach, Hennessy pointed out. The university always has encouraged collaboration across departmental and school lines. In addition, all of Stanford's disciplines are clustered onto one campus, making collaboration even easier.

Some areas that are particularly ripe for an increased focus on multidisciplinary research and teaching include environmental studies, biosciences, comparative international studies and translational biomedical research.

"It does seem clear to me ... that the sheer scale and complexity of these problems require a multidisciplinary approach," Hennessy said. "It is the only truly effective way to make substantial progress toward their solutions."

He also defended interdisciplinary programs against any suggestion they are academically lightweight. "This conclusion seems to assume that faculty and students will be diverted out

of the core disciplines into new areas that have less intellectual depth and long-term impact," he said. "I do not subscribe to the necessity of this conclusion or the inevitability of this process. Instead, I believe our focus must be on those areas where an in-depth research program consisting of faculty and students from multiple disciplines can produce new knowledge and new solutions.

"Multidisciplinary projects can and should be springboards for fundamental disciplinary advances."

Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine -- who joined a panel discussion on the issue along with Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and James Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering -- agreed with Hennessy's assessment.

"In past decades there has been a maturation of sciences and computers, to a point where the important theories and questions that are now emerging are often in the interfaces between [disciplines]," Pizzo said, citing the Human Genome Project as evidence. "The interface between biology, mathematics and engineering was necessary to read the whole sequence of the human genome in record time -- a role in which Stanford played an extraordinarily important contribution."

Pizzo also mentioned as an example the Bio-X Program, which is bringing together scientists in the fields of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, engineering and medicine. "The prospect of educating engineers in medicine offers unique opportunities to create a new breed of leaders," he said.

However, increasing interdisciplinary education and research on campus doesn't come without potential setbacks.

"Although I am optimistic that we can overcome the organizational hurdles ... and find a way to build activities that enhance rather than diminish our core strengths, I freely admit that there are many challenges and dangers in pursuing such a direction," Hennessy said. "Although Stanford has not let such fears determine its course in the past, it is wise to recognize and assess these dangers carefully."

One challenge to consider, Long pointed out, is that every asset also has a cost. She suggested that departments consider adopting more multidisciplinary aspects to their disciplinary work before an entirely new IDP needs to be launched. Also, she said, joint efforts between two departments don't always have to evolve into a new, separate structure.

Another potential problem with IDPs, she said, is that sometimes the programs continue to operate and generate costs after their usefulness has passed.

"There can be a certain momentum or institutional inertia that says you have to keep the IDP going, even if the faculty gradually come to do something else or if they retire or depart," Long said.

Plummer said the School of Engineering already has adopted some of these steps.

We have found it very difficult to sustain such [interdisciplinary] programs after the initial enthusiasm," he said. "One alternative is to have the existing departments change with time ... to encompass new ideas.

"The easy part is building the new programs and hiring the new faculty. The hard part is deciding what's going to go away to make room for those new programs."

In a question-and-answer session after the panel discussion, one audience member suggested the solution is not in making it more difficult to start IDPs. Instead, administrators should encourage the new programs but be stringent about sunsetting them, forcing them eventually to devolve back into the departments.

"I think the idea of sunsetting an IDP should not be an expression of its failure," Long agreed, adding that currently there is no graceful way to go about it. "Instead, it's a celebration. You should have a party."