A further response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: several weeks ago, Professor Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, UK, contributed an entry where he posed: ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)’. Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, offered the first response to Nigel’s challenge in a series we will be posting through to the end of 2010.

This  ‘response’ is from Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol. As Director of the IAS, Gregor has been busy promoting  a series of debates around the changing nature of the university in contemporary societies. His contribution to this series is therefore particularly welcome. Gregor’s work lies in the area of sociological theories and social philosophies, and has written widely on Marxism and pluralism in particular. His book, Sociological Cultural Studies: Reflexivity and Positivity in the Human Sciences, tackled some key questions of the day around (inter) disciplinarity, explanation, critical realism, complexity theory and Eurocentrism.

Susan Robertson & Kris Olds


I want to raise a couple of issues about Nigel Thrift’s questions, to do with the way he constructs universities as a collective agency, a coherent ‘we’ that bears a ‘global’ identity. Nigel urges this ‘we’ fully to bring its actions into alignment with its ‘beliefs’, and to improve upon the shoddy performance of ‘other actors’ in tackling the ‘grand challenges’ of the day. And in that regard, the collectivity should see itself henceforth as positioned on a ‘war footing’, deploying its ‘engines of reason’ to force the principles of ‘scientific cooperation’ into service of the ‘survival of the species’.

There are several things that might be contested in this scenario of ‘agentification’, by which I mean the portrayal of universities as though they constituted a singular moral centre or personality, strategically intervening as such.

One is to do with its assumed site, the ‘global’ apparently designating something definite, and something quite obviously good. As Nigel knows, substantial objections can be raised against such easy affirmation of the nature and ‘imperativity’ of the global per se.  Yet universities everywhere now are falling over in the rush to assure themselves that meeting the ‘challenge of the global’ is something wholly other than the imperativity of the market, something that instead touches upon our deepest ethical and intellectual mission. It behoves us, I think, to be a tad sceptical about such ‘globalloney’ (in Bruno Latour’s phrase), and perhaps even to risk the accusation of parochialism by emphasising the continuing importance of the national contexts that not only universities, but many millions with an interest in the future of universities, still mainly orientate themselves around. National contexts – arguably at least – retain a certain logistical, cultural and psychological coherence that globality might forever lack; and the prospect of a world of relatively small-scale, highly educated democracies looks better geared to effective species-survival than the sort of flaccid but pushy cosmopolitanism that is currently doing the rounds.

Second, it is not self-evident that the kind of cooperation that characterizes scientific practice and development has any direct application to, or analogue within, the political processes through which any humanity-wide survival strategy will necessarily have to be coordinated. Nigel asks universities as a whole to interact in the way that individual investigators do, but this expectation is surely inappropriate. Academics are driven to work together because of their motivation to produce facts, measures, truths, and theories, whereas universities, as such, have no such intrinsic motivation, and nor do governments.

So asking universities to tackle the survival of the species is rather like asking families, or football clubs to do this. It’s not that people within these civic associations shouldn’t be mightily concerned about such imperatives, and contribute their expertise in a politically active way. It’s just that this is not these institutions’ defining concern. Indeed, in some ways the specific concern of universities – to develop plural communities of knowledge and understanding through discovery, controversial systematization, and rigorous reflection – is likely to generate some resistance to any politicized summary of the ‘threats and opportunities’ that ‘we’ all face. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a defence of the apolitical: as individuals and members of a range of collectives, we should get active around the priorities that Nigel Thrift designates. But it might be OK that universities are not best suited to organize in that targeted way. As Peter Stearns emphasises, universities’ hallmark medium is education, which is necessarily open-ended, changing and reflective. Of course, just as we need universities to free us from the blockages of our societal formations, interests and mind-sets, so in turn we need politics to reign in our deliberations and give positive shape to our values. But though they complement each other in this way, the functions of education and politics remain very different.

The third problematic aspect of Nigel’s line of thought comes out most clearly in Indira V. Samarasekera’s paper in Nature, in which it is suggested that universities have two prevailing thought-styles and labour processes: ‘solution-driven’ and ‘blue skies’. Both modes, she accepts, have to be part of core business. But whilst the latter, ‘until recently’, has been considered the ‘mainstay’, and must ‘remain so’, a much closer alignment between the two modes is held to be necessary if ‘we’ are to be more effective in ‘solving the world’s problems’. Accordingly, it is quite a good thing that the ‘fairly traditionalist’ structure of ‘curiosity-driven projects’ is giving way to a ‘fast and effective’ modality, enabling us to ‘keep pace’ with the big challenges, for which we need to ‘copy the organizations that work best’. To that end, Samarasekera maintains, we need to develop ‘collaboratories’ involving universities, government and industry, to bridge the gap between ‘universities and the private sector’, and to construct funding regimes that stimulate ‘interdisciplinary, inter-professional, and inter-sectoral approaches’.

It strikes me that the founding contrast here between ‘blue skies’ thinking (with just a hint of the smear of ‘uselessness’) and various other research practices (themselves over-schematized as ‘solution-driven’) is considerably exaggerated. But another, perhaps more insidious, bifurcation comes into play, according to which the agentic ‘we’ of the university turns out to have two bodies, as in, ‘We, the academic leaders and universities, should embrace this new relationship…’ In this depiction, the purely academic side of the collective, and the blue skies folks in particular, are ushered into the background and cast as worryingly slow off the mark, not quite up to the demands of fast and smart global Higher-ed with its solution-seeking culture. Responsibility for meeting the latter therefore falls perforce to the academic leaders, now stepping decisively into the foreground as the distinctive group that represents the essence and future of the university. So, given that the merits and deficits of, let’s say, inter-disciplinarity are never going to be definitively resolved if left to the bottom-up logic of seminar-room agonism, university leaders will have to push it through from the top, along with all the other excellent and necessary ‘inters’ of the new knowledge-society regime – inter-sectoralism, inter-professionalism, dynamic and agile Engagement with dynamic private and civic Collaborators, and so on. Now, whilst Nigel’s notion of the ‘forcing’ of knowledge seems potentially more subtle and interesting than this increasingly hectoring management ideology, a somewhat ‘traditionalist’ note still needs to be struck by way of caution, because to see universities as agentic interventionists at all is to risk missing the central point and purpose, even today, of their existence.

Gregor McLennan

Promoting collisions between disciplines to foster new approaches to biomedical problems

Throughout the 2009-2010 academic year a large number of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are engaging in some conversations via a Promoting Collisions dinner series.  The dinner series is primarily sponsored by the people behind the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery complex; a large new public-private structure that is emerging from the (now) frozen ground in Madison, WI.  As noted on the Wisconsin Institutes‘ website:

The institutes will build on the long tradition of interdisciplinary research at UW–Madison. Today’s problems relating to human health and welfare are more complex than one individual, one department or one institution can solve. The twin research institutes will encourage the kind of cross-pollination needed to attack these problems and the building’s Town Center will serve as a vibrant crossroads for researchers to meet, hold joint conferences and participate in collaborative events that will extend the research of the efforts at the institutes beyond the facility itself. One of the project’s key objectives is to foster new approaches to biomedical problems at the convergence of various disciplines, including the arts, business, education, humanities, law, social sciences  and more.

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is also involved in sponsoring a variety of other initiatives (e.g., the symposium advertised in the poster above) on our campus prior to the opening of the building in fall of 2010.

Today’s entry is a photo-oriented one; images taken during a stroll around the building a few days ago in the -19 C weather (when my hands nearly froze).  I wonder if interdisciplinary conversations and disciplinary ‘collisions’ are enabled or constrained by cold weather?  If they are constrained, what hope does the University of Alberta have seeing that it is -45 C in Edmonton today!

More seriously, the Promoting Collisions conversations are fascinating. It is also very interesting to see the shape, in terms of design and programming, that this new ‘knowledge space’ is being formed into to facilitate hoped for breakthroughs at the intersection of disciplines like computer science or mathematics and biology.

Debates about the value and effects of ‘interdisciplinarity’ are sure to continue, as exemplified by Jerry A. Jacob’s recent piece (‘Interdisciplinary hype‘) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet such debates are likely to be grounded in new forms of empirical reality when complexes like the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery are completed, and strategically designed on-site ‘collisions’ begin to occur, leaving a mark of one form or another.

Kris Olds

Multidisciplinary research – an essential driver for innovation

TrewhellaEditor’s note: today’s entry was written by Professor Jill Trewhella (pictured to the right), Deputy Vice Chancellor – Research, University of Sydney, Australia. It was originally delivered at the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Conference, 9 March 2009. Our thanks to Nicholas Haskins, Program Manager (International Networks), Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International), for bringing this interesting text to our attention, and to Professor Trewhella for allowing us to post it here. Professor Trewhella is Professor of Molecular and Microbial Bioscience and a former Director of Bioscience at America’s top nuclear research facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I’ve included some relevant images below, that were taken today, of two of UW-Madison’s new multidisciplinary research complexes — the nearly finished Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (the top 2 images) and the under-construction Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (the bottom 2 images). Kris Olds


The Challenges and Opportunities for Multidisciplinary Research in a World of Complex, Interdependent Systems

For 2000 years, the advancement of knowledge in western civilization has taken a path of increasing specialization.  We have approached understanding our world by deconstructing it into smaller and smaller fragments creating the disciplines and subdisciplines in order to be able to predict, or at least to explain, behaviour in nature, individuals, and society.

UWmed1In today’s knowledge landscape there are powerful drivers for multidisciplinary research.  Through simple collaboration, researchers from different disciplines can accomplish more by teaming.  Interdisciplinary research moves beyond simple collaboration and teaming to integrate data, methodologies, perspectives, and concepts from multiple disciplines in order to advance fundamental understanding or to solve real world problems.  Interdisciplinary research requires either that an individual researcher gains a depth of understanding two or more than one discipline and be fluent in their languages and methodologies, or more frequently that multidisciplinary teams assemble and create a common language and framework for discovery and innovation.

The drivers for interdisciplinary research are varied.

  • In the first instance, nature and society are complex, and our innate curiosity to understand the elements and forces within them requires examination from the perspective of multiple disciplines.
  • Importantly, we have a critical need to solve societal problems in a world that is subject to many forces:
    • The example most urgently felt at this time is the consequence of failing to fully understand all of the forces unleashed by the free movement of capital and globalization.
    • Only a short time ago, our urgent focus was on climate change, where we must consider, among other things, how oceans and rivers are influenced by land use and the products of industrialization, atmospheric constituents and solar radiation.  These subsystems are linked in time and space and have embedded in them multiple feedback mechanisms.
  • The complexity presented in each of these real world examples requires interdisciplinary research that spans the natural and social sciences if we are to attain the kind of predictive capability that could inform policy makers.
  • Finally, we know that the tools that we have available to examine our world are most often transformational when drawn from outside the discipline that developed them; such as the discovery of X-rays by physicists and their impact on medicine, or the creation of the internet by the military and its impact on communication in society at large.

Academic institutions are largely organized in ways that promote the advancement of individual disciplines, or sub-disciplines.  Policies that govern hiring, promotion, and the allocation of resources often work against interdisciplinary research.  If interdisciplinary research is to flourish in academia, then the reward systems in academia have to recognize the different pace with which interdisciplinary research may proceed and the fact that it is often a team rather than individual accomplishment.  There also is a need for flexible organizational structures that can operate across discipline-focused departments.  Directed institutes and centres with seed funding can encourage interdisciplinary research.  But more fundamental advances may emerge from creating a body of scholarly work that establishes common languages and frameworks in specific areas and examines what makes successful interdisciplinary research.  This approach is one we are pursuing at the University of Sydney with our newly established Social Sciences Institute and our Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

UWmed2Funding agencies also encounter difficulties in facilitating interdisciplinary research, and must find creative mechanisms for overcome barriers, such as:

  • Peer review systems that depend heavily on experts from single disciplines, and the reality that interdisciplinary peer review panels are not easy to assemble and operate.
  • The extra time needed for interdisciplinary teams to learn develop a common language and framework for study is an impediment in a competitive system that is research output driven.
  • How do we set performance goals for evaluating an interdisciplinary research program.
  • Interdisciplinary research is likely to be expensive; multiple chief investigators have to come together with disparate capabilities.
  • Supporting interdisciplinary research requires an increased tolerance of risk.
  • It is often the case that when an agency puts out a call for an interdisciplinary program, pressure is felt from all sides to over-promise and under-budget, leading to the inevitable problem of under-performance.

Benchmarking the mechanisms by which successful interdisciplinary programs have been supported is essential to ensuring the most return for investment in this challenging area.  Looking at home and abroad at the results of using problem focused calls, seed funding, sustained funding over a longer term, targeted fellowships, etc, is essential for future planning.

Training researchers to work at the interfaces of the disciplines

Training researchers who can transcend the barriers that exist between the disciplines requires innovation in teaching and learning.   In the University setting, our training programs largely focus on in depth training in a discipline or a set of closely related sub-disciplines.  To develop the pool of researchers who are best prepared for interdisciplinary research, we need undergraduate programs that provide depth in the major discipline(s) while also enabling students to participate in interdisciplinary courses and be exposed to research experiences that transcend the discipline of their major.

The earlier in our training that we are exposed to different languages and methodologies, the better we are able to understand the potential contributions that may come from outside our discipline.  The better we are able to formulate complex questions and then integrate data, ideas, and perspectives as we seek answers.

WID1PhD programs need to consider the benefits of broader exposure.  Lowering the barriers to students moving between institutions and even disciplines could have great benefits for our ability to train the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers and researchers who are facile at participating in interdisciplinary teaming.  We need to recognize the benefits for students who gain training in one discipline to be able to acquire training in another – and enable it to happen.

There are examples of successful programs aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary training.  I once hosted in my Biophysics laboratory (which was in a Chemistry Department!) a young graduate student from the Mathematical Biology Department who was participating in the Integrated Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) program sponsored by the US National Science Foundation.  The idea was, in this case, for the student to learn the difficulties involved in acquiring accurate biophysical data.  The student had no aspirations to become an experimentalist, but he left my laboratory understanding how the data were generated and what its limitations and strengths were; and importantly what he would be asking of his collaborators to produce more data!  He could use this knowledge to formulate the questions he needed to ask of other kinds of experimental data that would be the ultimate test of his theoretical frameworks.  This example may seem a very modest one, as the distance between mathematical biology and experimental biophysics seems not so great, but as such it is a good demonstration of how difficult it can be to become truly interdisciplinary.  The languages, cultures and goals of what might be thought of as subdisciplines here, often make what is learned in one of no value to the other; the theorist’s spherical cow being the anecdotal example epitomizing the gulf of understanding between theory and experiment in the study of biological systems.

WID3The potential for interdisciplinary research ultimately hinges on the extent to which individuals want to engage in it, and equally importantly if they have the opportunity to do so.  Academia, national laboratories, and industry can create the opportunities and incentives to attract our best and brightest to this frontier.  The individual interdisciplinary researcher is likely to be a relatively rare bird, and it will be the teams of researchers that are more the norm for advancing interdisciplinary research.  Research teams are in themselves modestly complex social entities and in their 2004 study entitled Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences found that they were limited by the lack of a body of peer reviewed research in the social sciences that “elucidated the complex social and intellectual processes that make for successful interdisciplinary research.”  While we have made some strides in thinking about the role of flexible structures and funding incentives to facilitate multidisciplinary teams coming together for a problem focussed effort or an area study, there is a need for social scientists to grapple with the more fundamental aspects of what facilitates successful interdisciplinary research; that is what enables high performance teams breaking down the barriers of language and culture and create knowledge that drives innovation.


National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute Medicine. (2004) Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Washington DC, National Academies Press.

David Easton (1991) The Division, Integration, and Transfer of Knowledge, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol 44, No 4, pp 8-27, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Jill Trewhella

The NSF’s ‘cool’ project: a charrette assesses interdisciplinary graduate education, with surprising results

kimcoulter.jpgEditor’s note: today’s entry has been written by Kimberly Coulter, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s new Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) administrative coordinator. Kim will be developing entries for GlobalHigherEd from time to time, which we are very happy about given her knowledge base. Today’s entry links most closely to be previous entries by Gisèle Yasmeen (‘Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities’), Barbara Czarniawska (‘The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden’), and Susan Robertson (‘A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation’).


‘Interdisciplinarity’ in higher education is not only ‘in’—it’s institutionalized. In the last ten years, collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries has been valorized in university strategic plans and research foundation calls for proposals. The buzzword promises to spark scientific breakthroughs and ignite innovations. But how?

Based on the assumption that interdisciplinary collaboration can be trained, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has made a formidable investment in its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program since 1997. Now at 125 sites, IGERT programs offer students interdisciplinary training along with $30,000/year stipends, tuition, and fees for five years of a doctoral program in the sciences. The IGERT program aims:

to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

rhoten4small1.jpgBut what, exactly, does such a fertile environment look like? At a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference on The Future of Interdisciplinarity, a provocative keynote address from Diana Rhoten challenged assumptions. Rhoten is Director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Sciences Research Council, and is currently on loan to the NSF as program director in the areas of Virtual Organizations and Learning & Workforce Development for the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. In a previous study of interdisciplinary research centers and programs across higher education (the article can be downloaded here), Rhoten had found that many “interdisciplinary” initiatives failed to reconceptualize disciplinary traditional modes into an integrative model. She observed that real collaboration—defined as working together from start to finish—was rare.

At the Madison conference, Rhoten reported results of a new NSF-sponsored micro-study testing for effects of IGERT training on student performance. The study used an innovative—even ‘cool’—methodology: 48 IGERT and non-IGERT students at early and late stages of their graduate programs were invited to participate in an environmental research design ‘charrette’ weekend at the Snowbird ski resort in the mountains (see below) of Utah. Only after students’ arrival did researchers inform them that the true object of study would be their collaborative processes. Students were grouped into interdisciplinary groups of six: two groups each of junior IGERT students, senior IGERT students, junior non-IGERT students, and senior non-IGERT students. Each group was tasked with working together to produce and present a seven page research proposal on ecosystem services. Students were allowed to do Internet research but could not make outside contacts.

snowbird.jpgAs the students worked, observers made narrative field notes on how they evaluated each other’s ideas and used each others’ talents and skills (both participants and observers were aware of the group’s IGERT identity). At the end of the weekend, ten blind experts from different sectors assessed the groups’ proposals and presentations on intellectual merit and broader impact per NSF standards, as well as disciplinary and interdisciplinary quality. So although this study yielded rich observational data, these data relied on an undeniably small sample of students working with peers at the training stage of their careers.

Still, the results are surprising. Overall, the experts were astonished by the high quality research design proposals. Yet junior IGERT students outperformed the others in every way, followed by the non-IGERT students. Rhoten suggested that as students’ GRE scores had been considered, this disparity could not have been an artifact of previous ability. She summarized the observations thus: the best junior IGERT team had an optimistic leader with gentle critics, and had framed the task as research. By contrast, the senior IGERT students (whose proposal and presentation received the lowest scores) framed the task as collaboration. The senior IGERT students assumed they would perform well, and appeared to enjoy being studied. They discussed how to cope with conflict, yet couldn’t get traction, and their results were vague and incomplete.

She does not conclude that IGERTs are a misinvestment, but rather that these results beg questions: Did overconfidence and familiarity poison the senior IGERT students? Had IGERT training replaced students’ assertiveness and results-orientation with a focus on inclusivity and the cooperative process? These questions, she suggested, may guide us to an improved IGERT program structure. The study’s most striking result was the powerful impression the charrette activity made on both students and researchers. Rhoten beamed about the charrette as a both a methodology and as a learning tool; students, she said, raved about the learning experience. Rhoten ventured that perhaps IGERTs should not take the form of five-year programs, but rather be intensive, collaborative periodic experiences with space and time in between them—like the charrette.

This insight about the charrette is powerful because it reminds us of interdisciplinarity’s goal. The charrette mimics the deadline-driven, temporary, problem-oriented projects for which scientists are being trained. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is, in its essence, the modus operandi of the flexible, post-Fordist ‘project’ unit of economic action. In their 1976 research on theater production, Goodman and Goodman (reference below) explain a “project” as involving a:

set of diversely skilled people working together on a complex task over a limited period of time…. [especially] in cases where the task is complex and cannot be decomposed in detail autonomously ex ante ‘members must keep interrelating with one another in trying to arrive at viable solutions’.

To trade ideas productively, each participant must bring knowledge from a “home base” and stimulating ideas to the project network. The challenge for institutions is to find a balance between the stability of an institutional context and the rigidity of institutionalized “lock-in.” As economic geographer Gernot Grabher argues in Regional Studies (reference below), “transient collaborative arrangements and more enduring organizational and institutional arrangements” are interdependent—“‘Cool’ projects, indeed, rely on ‘boring’ institutions”.

Clearly, the NSF has the capacity to impact not only the scientific training, but also the attitudes and professional orientations of new generations of scientists. Effective interdisciplinary collaboration needs individuals with rigorous disciplinary grounding, creativity, and communication skills; these require a mix of stability, resources, and conventional training. Yet the current IGERT model, which values the institutionalization of five-year programs emphasizing collaboration, may not be the most effective way to cultivate flexibility and resourcefulness. As the Snowbird charrette demonstrates, perhaps more ‘cool’ projects—transient, face-to-face project-events in inspiring locations—can set the scene for successful learning and quality scientific production.


R. A. Goodman and L. P. Goodman, “Some management issues in temporary systems: a study of professional development and manpower—the theatre case,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (1976): 494-501, esp. 494 and 495, as cited in G. Grabher, “Cool projects, boring institutions: temporary collaboration in social context,” Regional Studies 36.3 (2002): 205–14, esp. 207-8.

Kimberly Coulter

Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities

gyasmeenpic.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry was kindly produced by Gisèle Yasmeen, Vice-President, Partnerships, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). SSHRC is an arm’s-length federal agency that promotes and supports university-based research and training in the social sciences and humanities. In this position, Gisèle is a key member of the senior management team, responsible for leading and directing partnership development and knowledge mobilization — an important pillar of SSHRC’s strategic direction. She also oversees the management of the suite of SSHRC targeted programs, including joint initiatives, Community-University Research Alliances, the International Opportunities Fund, strategic knowledge clusters, and strategic programming. People with particular interest in the theme of this entry should note that the Sixth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities will be held in Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey 15-18 July 2008.


Discussions over the last several decades in both North America and Europe have questioned the ‘place’ of the humanities particularly with respect to science and technology and questions have been posed regarding the value and ‘usefulness’ of liberal arts education and scholarship. Similar discussions have taken place in GlobalHigherEd on the relationship between the Fine Arts, Business Schools and the ‘innovation’ agenda. A recent piece in Times Higher Education entitled ‘Soul Searching’ nicely lays out the crux of the matter, namely, clearly articulating an effective value proposition for the humanities without falling into the trap of facile utilitarianism. Matthew Reisz explains:

There is no shortage of people wanting to study the humanities, so the only real test of the ‘crisis’ is whether academics can offer compelling arguments for the value of what they are teaching, in both senses of that phrase – the importance of the subject matter and the positive effect it can have on students’ lives.

As scholars such as Chad Gaffield and David Bentley have articulated in several papers over the years, it is essential that the foundations of the value proposition for the humanities be balanced between articulating the intrinsic as well as the extrinsic worth of the liberal arts project. This balance, and the link between both types of value, is needed to ensure that the intellectual contribution of humanities scholarship is not lost to potential audiences.

Humanities scholars are well aware of the intrinsic value of what they do. Indeed, a major focus of humanities scholarship is the study of values in and of themselves. The challenge is for the uninitiated understanding of what is often taken for granted, namely, the fundamental importance of languages, literatures and other narratives/texts, as well as philosophical and historical considerations as central to the framing of human consciousness and intellectual activity. Words and narratives have power, enable us to give meaning and are rooted in culture, beliefs and value-systems.

For example, women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery did not emerge overnight but were the result of the articulation of values juxtaposed with various texts including fiction, essays, legal treatises and other uses of rhetoric which eventually resulted in entire societies being persuaded of the need to change their belief systems, mental models, governance and modes of production.

Humanities scholarship, rather than being a disciplinary exercise, is about approaching knowledge in a certain way; one that privileges a close interpretive examination of languages, meanings, values, culture and aesthetics. Hence, the so-called ancient ‘battle’ between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ is, in many ways, a spurious one. We ought to, instead, see these approaches as complementary types of human intellectual activity.

As in renaissance times, a well rounded, educated human being ought to be knowledgeable about a variety of areas and, of course, be skilled as thinker, communicator and leader. This brings us to the question of the extrinsic value of humanities education and scholarship. To be sure, the value-proposition does tend to be defined in these terms (or not) by the media, governments (including granting agencies) and, sometimes, universities. The ‘development of talent’ is a crucial argument to be made for a humanities education, which is an essential building block for success across academic, public, private and not for profit sectors.

Interesting trends to note in the Humanities

There are three profound trends to note in the humanities that warrant being mentioned as they provide concrete examples of the value-addition of the humanities in far-reaching and innovative ways:

  1. Expansion of the traditional ‘western’ humanities canon: As scholars such as Leslie Monkman and Sachidananda Mohanty have been writing for many years, the development of a corpus of work which ought to be known by the “educated” is a moving target wrought with political and historical implications. We are fortunate now that the boundaries around what ought to or can be studied and known in the humanities have expanded considerably over the past thirty or forty years resulting in a cornucopia of literature, theatre, poetry and other texts that have been (re)’discovered’, (re)interpreted and made more available to a wider audience. This expansion is thanks, in part, to the growth in information and communication technologies, which brings us to our next example.
  2. Digital humanities: the rapid advancement in computer technology, in particular the internet and the World Wide Web, has led to ‘mass collaboration’ of a scale and complexity never before seen in the humanities. The use of new technologies in the humanities increases the capacity for scholars to do their work more quickly while still allowing for the subtle ‘layering’ of analysis, interpretation and argumentation. It has thus also resulted in humanities scholarly work being made accessible to a much wider audience – including those outside the ‘typical’ humanities disciplines and, indeed, those operating in sectors of society other than academe. This brings us to our final example of exciting developments in the humanities.
  3. Campus-Community linkages: When Earl Shorris piloted the first Clemente course in the humanities for low-income participants at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center on East 13th Street in Manhattan, in 1995, an international trend was born. An article on his work in Harper’s magazine inspired students around the world. Examples include the University of British Columbia’s Humanities 101 initiative, the University of Ottawa’s (St. Paul’s Campus) Discovery University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Humanities Exposed (HEX) Program [logo below]. Similar, in some ways, to the Philosophers’ cafés which emerged around the same time, the Clemente course and its offshoots provide renewed vigour for a humanities contribution to the campus-community dialogue.

hexlogo.jpgIt is a thoroughly exciting time to take an interest in the humanities. To be certain, there are challenges associated with maintaining and increasing public and private resources for the humanities to thrive. However, the cornerstone to establishing a successful strategy, as Mary Crossan argues, is the development of a solid value proposition. This includes effective rhetorical strategies for those committed to the ‘interpretive and linguistic turn’ – as part of a framework for strategic analysis and action – explaining why their scholarship and teaching are so very important to various constituencies across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors with whom partnerships and alliances are essential.

Gisèle Yasmeen

Autonomous foundations and the reduction of barriers to innovation in higher education

Over the last decade some noteworthy initiatives have emerged within the US to remake science and engineering degree structures and offerings, often with a focus on speeding up the time to graduation, enhancing and broadening the skill make-up of graduates, and building deeper information channels between academia and industry. Yesterday’s Washington Post had an insightful article on just these themes – the emerging professional science master’s degree (PSM). As the Washington Post notes:

The PSM program is designed to provide more advanced training in science or mathematics — with a dose of business skills — and entice more students who receive bachelor of science degrees to stay in the field without having to pursue a doctorate. Most college graduates with four-year science degrees leave the field and don’t return.

The PSM degree, sometimes described as a science version of the MBA degree, is being hailed as one of the most promising innovations in graduate education in years.

The Washington Post article profiles PSM-related initiatives created to date at Washington DC-based universities including George Washington University, Towson University, American University, the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The article notes that “about 1,300 students are enrolled in PSM programs at more than 50 schools nationwide”, with the Washington area base region for “the most programs”.

sloanlogo.jpgFrom a non-US or international comparative perspective, one dimension of the development process that is worth noting is the critically important role of independent non-profit foundations to spurring on initiatives and innovation in higher education. As hinted at above, the PSM is largely an outgrowth of the effort of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enhance and broaden the skill make-up of science and engineering graduates (especially at the below PhD level), and build deeper information channels between academia and industry. As Michael S. Teitelbaum, Vice President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, stated in a 6 November 2007 testimony before the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, the US needs to do a better job of improving the:

“signals” about such careers that are publicly available to prospective students. In particular, doctoral programs in many U.S. universities provide far less information to prospective and entering students about the career experiences of their recent graduates than do the law schools and business schools on the very same campuses. This should certainly change; students need to be provided with far better if they are to have realistic expectations as they embark upon a course of graduate study and postdoc research that often can stretch out over most of their 20s.

Universities and disciplines are, despite their reputations in conservative political circles, notoriously risk averse and slow to innovate with respect to course and degree offerings. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which was established in 1893, created the PSM program in 1997 during a period of considerable debate about America’s perceived knowledge deficit (which eventually fueled the creation of the polemical study Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology). The ultimate impetus for the PSM, however, seems to be Sloan’s considerably more nuanced concern about the quality of science and engineering education versus the number of science and engineering doctoral graduates. See Teitelbaum’s informative testimony for further information on this issue.

Further information on the background to the PSM is available here, while a PSM locations map (with links to specific programs) is available here. A screen capture of the map below clearly highlights the geography of the PSM.


Ten years on since its establishment the PSM has taken off. Indeed primary responsibility for institutionalizing the PSM is now in the hands of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). It is worth noting, however, that the Washington Post article states that “[l]ast year, Congress provided funding for schools to establish or improve PSM programs through the America Competes Act”. This is in fact incorrect for the America Competes Act only authorized the creation of a Professional Science Master’s program at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and it did not provide any funding. Supporters of the PSM degree are hoping for action via the Fiscal Year (FY) ’09 appropriations, but the US omnibus bill approach (which provides for a number of miscellaneous enactments) makes establishing specific program appropriations particularly difficult.

In any case the uplift in PSM support and associated offerings, while not seamless, reflects the capacity of institutions like Sloan to push and facilitate the construction of new knowledge/spaces such that they eventually become institutionalized. As with the entry on stem cell research advances that we published on 21 November 2007 we see, yet again, how foundations can use their resources, linkages to universities, and autonomy, to strategically pursue goals that might get blocked within universities. As the Washington Post article notes:

That it took a foundation, and not a school, to get the ball rolling is not entirely surprising, educators said, despite a broad agreement that the country needs more trained scientists.

PSM supporters expected — and met — resistance from some educators, who thought the science course requirements were too limited or who did not want PSM students in their classrooms because they didn’t think the students had done the prerequisite courses.

In addition, universities are tradition-bound institutions. It can be difficult for schools, especially state-run systems, to get approval to start something new. Schools don’t like to force experts in one field to change their focus or unwillingly collaborate outside their discipline.

“In general, institutions of higher ed pay lip service to interdisciplinary studies,” said Ali Eskandarian, an associate dean at GWU who oversees its PSM program.

In the end universities, especially public universities, need to be pushed, embedded as they are in complex legal foundations and held back by large and complex bureaucracies. We’ll return to a related issue soon: the organizational barriers preventing the development of international double and joint degrees in public universities, though sadly no foundation in North America has stepped in (yet) to spur on developments on this front. And if you want an interesting contrast on this issue compare the North American situation to the European one; a context that has experienced substantial change via the European Commission’s Erasmus Mundus program. In short, the reduction to barriers to innovation in higher education, and the construction of new knowledge/spaces, is increasingly associated with an emerging constellation of socio-economic imaginaries, many of which are derived from non-university quarters. We thus need to focus more attention on the nature of these imaginaries, and the modes of engagement that lead them to become noteworthy forces of governance.

Kris Olds

The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden

bcportrait.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Barbara Czarniawska, Swedish Research Council and Malmsten Foundation Chair of Management Studies, Gothenburg Research Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Professor Czarniawska (pictured to the left) is one of the world’s leading management scholars, and via an approach to knowledge production that engages deeply with scholars in a myriad of other disciplines/fields including anthropology, cultural studies, geography, law, planning, and sociology. Barbara’s entry in GlobalHigherEd focuses on the transformation and institutionalization of “hybrid disciplines” and careers, an implicit and explicit objective frequently associated with the construction of new knowledge/spaces for the global knowledge economy. A fuller version of today’s entry is titled ‘On creole researchers, hybrid disciplines and pidgin writing’, and is available in INTER: A European Cultural Studies Conference in Sweden, Linköping University Electronic Press (2007).


It has ordinarily been assumed that the strength of a scientific discipline resides in its purity and integration, in its distinctness. Recently, however, contrasting opinions have emerged: that the strength of a discipline, at least in social sciences, is connected to its richness, plurality and the flexibility of its borders. Clifford Geertz in anthropology, Richard Rorty in philosophy, and Richard Harvey Brown in sociology were among the proponents of such an attitude. As my doctoral students would say, this is all very good for such big names. But how does university everyday practice look like? Is it possible to have a “creolized” professional career, are hybrid disciplines viable and what kind of language would they use to communicate the results?

bczarinterdisc.jpgA demand for “creolized scholars” emerged a long time ago, approximately when the mass university became a fact of life. Specialist modules can be easily standardized and therefore equally easily repeated in different places, but their product is a graduate who knows all the relevant modules, not an educated person. The new European universities created in the 1960s and 1970s (Lancaster, Karlrühe, Linköping, Bielefeld) were seriously considering the changing demands of the labor market. In Linköping, which is the university I know best among those, “hybrid departments” have been created, where scholars from diverse disciplines were to collaborate on studying “themes” judged important to society. Some still exist: Tema T (technology), Tema V (water) etc. Thus the eventual problems of creolized careers has been solved by the creation of hybrid disciplines, but this solution has opened the door to still new problems.

The first of those was easy to predict: the employers (that is, the very same people who tend to complain that the division of university education in disciplines has nothing to do with division of labor in practice) complained that they had never heard of people specialized in “technology” or “water”. Apparently, it was much better to employ graduates in sociology or business administration and then grumble about their lack of practical skills. The new solutions needed time, adjustment, experience and new vocabularies in order to demonstrate the advantages of “hybrid disciplines”. In the meantime, old universities, always wary of the new arrivals, exploited their advantages by offering graduates educated in the old manner. The solution was then promoted one stage up, to the doctoral level. The graduates in sociology, anthropology, and business administration took research courses within “Tema T“, in order to study science and technology.

The resistance came also from other elements of the dominant institutional order. Research in Sweden is mostly externally financed – by state, municipal, regional and many private foundations. Each foundation has its scientific committee, which is divided into subgroups – thematic or multidisciplinary – composed of representatives of different disciplines. The procedure is usually the same: at the first round, the most interesting research projects are individuated among applications. The transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects are to be preferred. The second step consists in counting money: it is usually in short supply. The third step is the decisive one: some projects needed to be sacrificed. How to make a choice between loyalty to Science, which would favor hybrid projects, or to your own Discipline, which gave you a mandate to be there in the first place?

The third problem was common to the members of the committee and the scholars within “Themes”. How to compare an anthropological research project with an economics one? How to communicate within a project that gathers representatives of different disciplines? Either to trust the competence of the colleague from another discipline without pretending to understand it, or to try to find a common language, and if necessary, create a new vocabulary adapted to the project at hand. There is no way for everybody to learn enough about other disciplines, no matter how interesting and relevant. A practical solution to these problems consists in the specialists trying to simplify their communications, and the non-specialists attempting to learn the key terms of the specialist jargon. The result is a pidgin, long known as “a trade language”. The purists are shocked: is this not the way to the impoverishment of scientific language, with its subtleties and enormous efforts aiming at finding “proper names” for everything? The rest of us are hopeful. Talk to each other we must, no matter how many translations need to be done. The future will show if this creolization and hybridization is a temporary state on the way to a new disciplinary order, or if we can live with its benevolent chaos and unavoidable problems quite well.

Barbara Czarniawska