University hiring must be centrally organized around interdisciplinarity

 Allowing a thousand flowers to bloom is no longer practical for universities aspiring to be better known for their research, says Robert Brown

Originally published January 30, 2024 in Times Higher Ed (THE) by BU President Emeritus, Robert A. Brown

Former BU President Dr. Brown wears a professional suit standing along commonwealth ave on an overcast day with even, natural lighting. His hair is white, and his expression is determined.Today there is no disagreement that the considerable challenges facing humanity can only be addressed by bringing together expertise from across the academic disciplines. From decarbonizing economies to harnessing AI for the good of society, solutions will require unprecedented levels of creativity and interconnection of traditionally distinct disciplines – which, following others (mostly in STEM fields), I refer to as “convergence”.

But are universities organized well to fulfill this mission? There is no doubt that our best global research universities attract the most talented faculty and students, but do they foster a sustainable environment for intense research collaboration? I think not.

The problem is that, for at least the last century, universities have been organized into distinct departments, based on disciplines. As described by Jerry Jacobs in his 2013 book In Defense of Disciplines, such departments serve two purposes: as gatekeepers for their discipline’s knowledge domain, admitting only those who contribute to the orthodoxy, and “as the tribe or ethnic group in advancing their group’s interest”.

Over time, disciplines have become more entrenched and the leadership of many universities has weakened and become increasingly decentralized, leading to organizational fragmentation that makes interdisciplinary research at scale more difficult. James Duderstadt, the long-time very successful president of the University of Michigan, lamented this evolution in his 2007 book Fixing the Fragmented University: “The increasingly narrow focus of scholarship created diverse faculty subcultures throughout the university…widening still further the gap among the disciplines and shifting faculty loyalties away from their institutions and toward small peer communities that became increasingly global in extent.”

The common remedy is to call for faculty and students, raised in their disciplinary cultures, to collaborate in interdisciplinary centers and institutes. But departments still hire and promote the faculty, so fostering convergent research remains an afterthought, and efforts to measure success do no better than count co-authored papers and the square footage of shared laboratory space.

Facilitating genuinely successful convergent research requires almost heroic institutional effort, as well as new resources tolure faculty out of their departments. Such efforts are also fragile, many times losing momentum when leaders change. Buts ustainable success is not impossible. 

First, because tenure-track faculty are the foundation of the university’s research culture, all parts of faculty developmentmust be rethought. Universities should put their research strategies at the centre and organize the faculty to best attract the talent needed to fuel selected convergent research areas, with the aim of being among the best in the world in these.

This does not require blowing up departments, but it does mean making their academic boundaries more porous, formally acknowledging that faculty with convergent research interests many times have their feet in several disciplines and, appropriately, giving them more flexibility in their academic appointments.

However, creating this more integrated faculty, built equally on departments and research themes, cannot be left to informal or ad hoc agreements between departments. It requires strong academic leadership from the centre. Deans, provost andpresident must play more intentional roles in all parts of faculty development, including searches, appointments, promotionsand even allocation of resources such as research space.

There are many reasons that strategy-centred management is needed in today’s research university, with the direction of theresearch enterprise being an important one. However, more essential is creating an environment in which the university canbe more agile and change.

At Boston University , our College of Engineering has moved in this direction, using faculty searches focused on convergent research themes, chaired by research leaders and splitting appointments between departments. In the past four years, about a quarter of faculty searches haveused the convergent process. The traditional engineering departments are flourishing, but they are more closely knit by their convergent faculty – whose multiple additional academic appointments across science and medicine render co-authorship auseless way of measuring collaboration.

Our Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences has taken convergence a step further, hiring faculty in machine learning and AI jointly with colleges across the university, including engineering, science, law, humanities and business. Today, it seems obvious that computing and data sciences should be organized this way as the field is quickly affecting every discipline in the university.

Many faculty will still bristle, of course, at the recommendation of a more intentional research strategy that is raised inprominence in faculty hiring along with departmental needs. Research universities in the last century were founded on thedoctrine of allowing “a thousand flowers to bloom” in the academic garden. But while this narrative keeps the peace withfaculty, I believe it is impractical today. Especially for universities aspiring to be better known in research, making choicesabout where they can be truly excellent is imperative.

An illuminating example is the relatively rapid assurgency – over only two decades – of the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, each built around research centres of excellence and well-formed research infrastructures, while sustaining vibrant teaching missions.

Imagine a college of engineering, or perhaps an entire university, with even a quarter of its faculty associated to intentionally determined convergent research themes. Imagine the distinctiveness of faculty who would want these interconnected departmental appointments. Imagine the educational opportunities they would create for doctoral and undergraduatestudents.

A university with this organization will be better positioned to help solve the pressing problems of the world and educate the next generation, who must lead us into what promises to be a convergent future.