Duderstadt shares ideas to stimulate intellectual change

By Mary Jo Frank

Achieving an appropriate balance between rigid academic disciplines and riskier interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship is one of the major challenges facing the modern university, according to President James J. Duderstadt.

Speaking to Senate Assembly Nov. 16 on “Redrawing the Boundaries: Developing a Structure for the New Intellectual Realities”, Duderstadt said that although the U-M is known as a national leader in interdisciplinary activities, “there is also a very strong sense among our faculty that we are simply not doing enough.”

Most faculty believe their work is increasingly interdisciplinary in nature but that the difficulties in crossing disciplinary boundaries are preventing them from keeping pace with intellectual change, he said.

Duderstadt shared a faculty-generated “list of enemies of creative scholarship” that includes: curriculum specialization, disciplinary boundaries, provincialism, and “an impacted wisdom group” of faculty, firmly entrenched in narrow disciplinary areas, unwilling or unable to recognize broader scholarly efforts.

Concern about highly focused scholarship in narrow disciplines extends beyond the boundaries of the academy, noted the president, who also chairs the National Science Board.

Major funding agencies are moving away from traditional disciplinary perspectives, both in their own internal organizational structures and in the manner in which they fund research at universities.

“More federal support is going to small teams of investigators spanning several fields rather than to single investigators within a given discipline,” Duderstadt noted.

From discussions over the past couple of months with a number of faculty members who lead interdisciplinary efforts, Duderstadt said he has gained a greater appreciation for the challenges inherent in working across disciplinary boundaries.

Among the issues raised by directors of the Institute for the Humanities, the Molecular Medicine Institute, the Global Change Program and other disciplinary programs are:

—A faculty performance evaluation and reward system that encourages specialization.

—The difficulty that administrators and faculty groups, such as curriculum committees, have in understanding and appreciating the quality of interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship.

—The strong disciplinary control of resources, including dollars and space.

—The psychological need we have to belong to a discipline, a clan instinct.

Today’s “curriculum bears little connection to contemporary reality, and even when it does, it is in such a fragmented form that little useful understanding is possible,” according to Duderstadt.

“Chief among the flaws is the inadequacy of current disciplines to deal with the inherent ‘messiness’ or complexities of real world issues: hunger, conflict and pollution.”

Students, who are aware that this is the case, tend to treat general education requirements as meaningless hurdles to be gotten over by any means possible, Duderstadt acknowledged.

He outlined a number of ideas for stimulating intellectual change, including:

—Make it easier to create alternative intellectual structures that are “non-disciplinary” in nature within the University. It should also be easy to discard these structures when they have outlived their usefulness.

—Create a group of Universitywide professorial chairs that would allow faculty with broad interests to roam widely across the University, teaching and conducting research wherever they choose.

—Encourage faculty to take on-campus sabbatical leaves consisting of teaching and conducting research in different schools, intellectually far removed for their home units. This kind of sabbatical, as proposed by Mary L. Brake, associate professor of nuclear engineering, would provide an exciting, different experience for the visiting faculty member and “might stir up things a bit in their sabbatical home,” Duderstadt said.

—Develop “creativity contracts,” arrangements by which faculty members define their professional goals for a multiple-year period, possibly shifting from one scholarly focus to another, as suggested by Ernest L. Boyer, head of the Carnegie Foundation. “We should stress to senior faculty members both our belief that these broader, occasionally high-risk, activities are of great importance and encourage them to become engaged,” the president added.

—Reorganize teaching and scholarship, particularly at the graduate level, to move away from specialization. A number of universities, including Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have merged their biological sciences into broad divisions, admitting graduate students to the general division and encouraging them to affiliate with various interdisciplinary institutes, centers and laboratories.

—Design a far broader undergraduate education that would prepare a graduate to move in almost any direction—any type of further professional study or training or to graduate study in any disciplinary area, from the humanities to the sciences.

—Create within the University a laboratory or “new university” that would serve as a prototype or testbed for possible features of a 21st century university. The “New U” would be an academic unit, consisting of students, faculty and programs designed to provide the intellectual and programmatic framework for continual experimentation—a place to develop new models for lifelong education, concepts of service, faculty tenure, leadership development and community building.

“Our challenge, as an institution, and as a faculty,” Duderstadt said, “is to work together to provide an environment in which such change is regarded not as threatening but rather as an exhilarating opportunity to conduct teaching and scholarship of even higher quality and impact on our society.”


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