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Ray Newman at the microphone at the NII assembly.

Professor Ray Newman spoke during the Q&A at the first assembly of the U's Network of Interdisciplinary Initiatives, held in April.

At the front lines of interdisciplinary inquiry

By Gayla Marty

Brief, Nov. 14, 2007

When Ray Newman studies a new aquatic species entering a Minnesota river or lake, he's in deep water in more ways than one. Though he's a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Newman works with colleagues in many other departments--civil engineering, ecology, entomology, plant biology, and the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, to name a few.

Newman is the principal investigator for a five-year, $2.99 million grant from the National Science Foundation to two U colleges to fund a training program and a new freestanding graduate minor in risk analysis for introduced species and genotypes, approved by the Board of Regents in October. Up to 40 faculty members from 16 departments across the U will collaborate on research and courses in the program.

"Increasing globalization has made the need for studying introductions of new species and genotypes more urgent," says Newman. "Expertise from molecular biology to aerospace science will be used to better predict and manage the risks associated with these species."

That urgency translates to the need to collaborate with colleagues in different fields--not only biology and aerospace science but evolution, ecology, economics, forestry, policy, social science, and statistics--which isn't always easy. Newman has worked around and overcome significant challenges to accomplish his interdisciplinary work.

"Some challenges you could describe as bureaucratic," he says. "But there are also differences of vocabulary, worldview, and approaches to problems."

Through his work with the cross-campus interdisciplinary graduate program in water resources science and the new training program, Newman also has learned a lot that could help others across the University--and at other universities, as well--to overcome similar challenges.

That's why Newman is one of nearly 200 University faculty, staff, and postdoctoral fellows across the U who have joined the Network of Interdisciplinary Initiatives (NII), established last spring by the Graduate School with support from the Provost's Interdisciplinary Team.

"It's useful to get a variety of perspectives," says Newman. "Challenges in applied sciences, for example, are different from those in other areas--it's eye-opening."

The second NII assembly will be held Monday, Nov. 19, from 3 to 5 p.m., in the Mississippi Room, Coffman Memorial Union, on the Twin Cities campus, and in 173 Kirby Plaza on the Duluth campus, connected by ITV.

"The network is all about collaboration," says Vicki Field, director of the Graduate School's Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives, which staffs the NII. "If you're a faculty member involved in an interdisciplinary area for whom something is working really well or who is being held back, the network is an opportunity to be involved in affecting policy and sharing best practices."

In April, when the NII assembled for the first time in Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus, connected by ITV to 173 Kirby Plaza on the Duluth campus, nearly a hundred individuals engaged with interdisciplinary work attended.

More than a dozen people rose to speak about issues they want the network to address and to voice concerns--from logistics (How will the network communicate?) to finances (How can we draw talent with hiring and budget cycles out of sync?) to philosophy (What about interdisciplinary work with people outside of this university--and outside the academy?).

"We don't have any big plan," vice provost and Graduate School dean Gail Dubrow told the assembly in April. "You tell us."

Dubrow played a leading role in organizing the NII based on her experience creating a similar network at the University of Washington.

"Members of the NII work at the front lines of interdisciplinary teaching, learning, and research," says Dubrow. "They are poised to identify the specific policies and practices that impede the pursuit of knowledge across disciplines."

Dubrow believes the NII will move the University of Minnesota forward by translating persistent complaints about institutional barriers into an "agenda for transformation" as a networking and advocacy organization.

A key to success

"Interdisciplinary" emerged as a key word from strategic planning task forces of 2004 through 2006. The University's ability to respond quickly to high priority problems and issues from disease to climate change will depend on excelling in interdisciplinary scholarship...and so will the University's ability to become one of the top three public research universities in the world.

In early 2006, senior vice president and provost Tom Sullivan formed the Provost's Interdisciplinary Team to facilitate work across the institution; it has included Dubrow, vice president for research Tim Mulcahy, vice provost and dean for undergraduate education Craig Swan, and assistant vice provost Jeanie Taylor. The University has also responded by updating regents policy related to interdisciplinary activity.

Within the Office of the Vice President for Research, Collaborative Research Services provides support to faculty to facilitate interdisciplinary activities. Services include support for large grant proposals, start-up assistance for large grant awards, and opportunities for faculty to connect and network.

In the Graduate School, the Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives (OII) was created to lead in developing institutional policies and programs that foster graduate faculty and students' interdisciplinary inquiry. The fledgling office is staffed by a director--Field--and assistant director--Char Voight--to support interdisciplinary work across the U. Its broad goals are to promote best practices for working effectively across disciplines; to significantly improve the University's ability to conduct interdisciplinary research, scholarship, and creative work; and to provide leading interdisciplinary graduate education and training.

Cooperating the way to the top

The University of Minnesota is hardly alone in recognizing and responding to the needs of interdisciplinary research, teaching, and engagement--in fact, it's ahead of peer institutions in key areas.

Consortium on Fostering Interdisciplinary Inquiry member institutions

Brown University
Duke University
U of California/Berkeley
U of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign
U of Michigan
U of Minnesota
U of North Carolina/Chapel Hill
U of Pennsylvania
U of Washington
U of Wisconsin

In May, senior vice president and provost Tom Sullivan announced the University of Minnesota's leadership of the new Consortium on Fostering Interdisciplinary Inquiry. The national consortium, led by Dubrow with the Provost's Interdisciplinary Team, brings together top public and private research universities (see box) to identify issues and questions related to interdisciplinary inquiry that will form the basis for institutional self-studies conducted by all 10 members of the consortium. The University of Minnesota is taking the lead in developing the self-study instrument and analyzing and reporting the findings.

In fall 2008, the University will host a conference of consortium members to share findings from the self-studies and to identify innovative practices in eight areas that include development, educational programs, faculty affairs, design of academic buildings, and other themes.

In Dubrow's vision of the University of Minnesota's rise to the top, there are "no losers, only winners" who benefit from a shared knowledge of the best practices in higher education.

"It's what I've been calling cooperating our way to the top," says Dubrow. "The length of our drive to join the ranks of the top research universities may be shortened considerably by entering into cooperative rather than competitive relationships with institutions we most admire. We all stand to benefit from the innovative approaches to fostering interdisciplinary activity that this study generates."