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New Initiative Prepares Students for Society’s Challenges

$50 million gift will create 'Bass Connections' to promote innovative thinkers

The Bass Connections program will promote interdisciplinary learning focused on real-world issues.  Photo: Duke University Photography
The Bass Connections program will promote interdisciplinary learning focused on real-world issues. Photo: Duke University Photography

A $50 million gift from Anne T. and Robert M. Bass of Fort Worth, Texas, will launch an initiative to encourage Duke students and faculty to collaborate across traditional academic boundaries to develop the broad expertise and perspective needed to tackle complex societal problems, the university announced Tuesday.

"Bass Connections" will provide a range of new educational pathways for Duke's undergraduate, graduate and professional students and bring them together on project teams with faculty and others to address issues that require the expertise of educators and researchers with diverse backgrounds. The initiative will focus initially on five broad areas: brain and society; education and human development; energy; global health; and, information, society and culture.

Duke has long promoted interdisciplinary scholarship in its departments and schools and, more recently, through seven university institutes that cut across academic boundaries. Bass Connections will build on this distinctive character of the university by providing extensive new curricular options and team-based activities for students.

The university will use half of the gift in a matching program to encourage gifts from others.

"We believe that this gift will enable broad collaboration among scholars across multiple disciplines to develop truly innovative approaches to some of the most pressing societal problems," said Anne and Robert Bass.

"We are grateful to the Bass family for embracing Duke's vision of education as something that extends beyond what happens in a traditional classroom," said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. "Because Bass Connections will involve students and faculty at all 10 Duke schools, it will have a transformative impact on our entire campus. Students will pursue new educational pathways and join with faculty on interdisciplinary teams to apply their knowledge and skills to urgent social challenges. Simultaneously, Bass Connections will highlight the importance of disciplinary approaches for enabling meaningful collaboration."

The initiative will provide undergraduates with new classes and learning modules, internships and civic engagement experiences outside the classroom. They will also be part of project teams with graduate students, faculty and outside experts. Graduate and professional students will bring their specialized expertise to bear on complex problems and have new opportunities to mentor younger students. Students at all levels will combine specialized knowledge with collaborative skills, enhancing their appeal to companies, government agencies, non-profit organizations and other potential employers.

"Bass Connections will enrich the education of students in traditional programs and create new problem-focused educational pathways for interdisciplinary scholars," said Provost Peter Lange, the university's chief academic officer. "We expect to create new joint master's degree programs, concentrations within existing professional degree programs and special doctoral tracks. Project teams integrated across disciplines and educational stages will enable students to work with students, faculty, post-docs and practitioners beyond their 'home' major or school."

Bass Connections will help students gain experience with real-world problems and develop expertise in their major or profession from the moment they arrive on campus. An undergraduate interested in energy policy, for example, might take a new first-year course on the economics of energy use, followed by a summer internship analyzing data in a research lab. During her sophomore year, the student might take new economics and statistics courses with an energy focus. Then she might live at Duke's Smart Home, help develop an energy-conserving product and create a business plan for the product through Duke's entrepreneurship program. During senior year, she might participate in a team tackling the economic, political and environmental issues surrounding "fracking." In these and other ways, she would combine a traditional economics major with collaborative experiences that address real-world energy problems.

Similarly, a medical student interested in global health might spend a year on a project team in Tanzania studying the health of migrant workers. After returning to Durham, he might develop a student training program for Duke undergraduates who want to conduct research at one of Tanzania's health clinics. Here, too, the student would emerge with both specialized knowledge and hands-on collaborative work experience to address societal problems.

Bass Connections has already begun to foster novel collaborations across disciplines among Duke faculty. Guillermo Sapiro (an engineer) and Helen Egger (a child psychiatrist and epidemiologist) have begun discussing how inexpensive video cameras with special software might serve as diagnostic tools to track anxiety triggers in young children. They hope to recruit students interested in education and human development, or in information, society and culture. Similarly, students might join new faculty teams combining expertise from the school of the environment, the business school and Duke's brain institute that seek to identify better ways of crafting environmental messages for consumers.

Other faculty project teams hope to address questions such as: How can pediatricians best encourage expectant mothers to follow prenatal nutritional advice? Which behavioral patterns in young children are the best predictors of teenagers dropping out of high school? How should officials promote wood-conserving cooking stoves in developing countries?

Susan Roth, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, will provide leadership for the initiative, working with a team of faculty directing the five areas as well as cross-cutting issues. They will continue to consult with faculty, staff and students across the university in guiding the development of Bass Connections over the coming months and years.

Additional information about Bass Connections can be found at

Anne and Robert Bass have generously supported Duke over the past two decades, most notably through the Bass Program for Undergraduate Excellence to improve undergraduate teaching and through the FOCUS program, which offers entering students integrated courses developed around interdisciplinary themes. Anne Bass has been a Duke trustee since 2003 and is one of three co-chairs of Duke Forward, the university's $3.25 billion fundraising campaign.

The Basses are the parents of four children, including Christopher, a 1997 graduate of Duke's Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.