Faculty Share Ideas on Departments, Institutes and the Changing University Structure

Real-world needs are leading universities to rethink how they organize faculty and learning

Warren Grill, Thomas Nechyba and Shengtan Tang lead a discussion on the changing structure of the university Thursday.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
Warren Grill, Thomas Nechyba and Shengtan Tang lead a discussion on the changing structure of the university Thursday. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about the growth of centers, programs and institutes at Duke.

But when faculty members talked Thursday about the structure of the university, they focused on a different topic: What to do about departments?

An hour later, it was clear that departments -- the foundation of disciplinary scholarship and university structure for centuries -- aren't going away. They still serve a useful purpose, but their role is changing. During the public discussion at the Academic Council meeting, Duke faculty didn't have a consensus answer on what's coming next.

"There is progress to be done in disciplines," said economist Thomas Nechyba, director of the Social Science Research Institute. "We're not at the end of departments. But we can't all be renaissance scholars, so what do we do? I think we do what we do well at Duke: Work in teams and take advantage of specialists working together. Interdisciplinarity should be the depth of disciplines coming together to solve complex problems that makes it a positive sum game."

Nechyba, biomedical engineer Warren Grill and physician Dr. Shenglan Tang led the discussion on university structure that was the first of three planned for the semester. Each discussion will explore big questions on the future of the faculty and the university.  The conversations are part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Academic Council. 

Departments remain at the center of the university's educational and research missions, as well as its administrative structure.  They serve as the primary home for tenure-track faculty.  Duke's seven signature institutes, on the other hand, as well as numerous programs and centers, are places for faculty across disciplines to come together to bring different disciplinary perspectives upon a common research issue, such as global health.

At one point, Nechyba noted that if Duke got rid of all of the departments and made its institutes the new departments, "we would then have to create the Institute of Economics and the Institute of Physics to provide the depth of research we need in those fields."

But the university has changed to better address large complex research and real-world questions that extend beyond any single discipline.

"Since the 1960s, we've seen a liberation of information," Grill said.  "As a professor early in my career, it was harder for me to access information (outside my specialty).  Faculty naturally gravitated to silos.  Now, it's easier to access information and easier to leave the silo."

Grill also noted that outside academe, corporations and other large structures don't worry about disciplinary divisions and build nimble structures that successfully address complex problems.

However, Grill and other faculty members noted that nimbleness isn't a function of any particular structure. He used Case Western as an example, which revitalized its engineering program by dissolving all departments and reconstituting them.

In fact, institutes can ossify as easily as departments, said John Payne of the Fuqua School.

Grill agreed.  "We are good at starting things; we're not so good at ending things," he said.

As SSRI director, Nechyba is overseeing a new initiative in Gross Hall that he hopes will showcase how an institute can avoid sclerosis.

"We're trying to create intimate environment -- a Google-like environment -- that can be an incubator for innovation," Nechyba said. "When a project solves a problem, the project will go away.  And in the process of solving problem, ideas for new projects will come, without the need for new initiative or new center. We want to get out of mindset that everything worthwhile has to have a center or institute associated with it."

The changing structure also has implications for the classroom and faculty governance that haven't been completely resolved.  Tang said the same need to address real-world issues that promoted interdisciplinary institutes also led to a growth of professors of the practice and other non-tenure track regular faculty.

However, he said, these scholars need new university policies to help develop their teaching and research careers.

The conversation returned regularly to the sciences and quantitative sciences, and several faculty asked where humanities fit into the issue.  Jan Ewald of history noted that her department has changed significantly since she arrived at Duke without breaking up into centers or institutes.  Unlike in the sciences, she said there was no sense that knowledge in history has "exploded" in new fields. 

Yet, Nechyba said there is an essential role for the humanities in a university built on team-teaching and multi-disciplinary learning.

"If we are to address a real-world problem, it would be shocking if we didn't look to history as being part of it," he said.  "This creates a need for us to figure out how to work together. It also means if one of your students is going to be on a team where some of the work is highly quantitative, we have to find out a way for them to be able to have quantitative conversations. It's an educational challenge."

The second Council Conversation is set for the Feb. 21 council meeting and will focus on teaching and learning. The third event will explore the future of the professoriate at the May 9 council meeting. 

Below: Academic Council Chair Susan Lozier asks a question about the future of academic departments.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography.

Susan Lozier asks a question on the future of departments