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How Interdisciplinary Studies and UICs Are Evolving at Duke

Balleisen updates Academic Council on university trends among the key interdisciplinary units

Jonathan Phillips, director of the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project, leads a Policy Perspectives session with students outside Gross Hall in November 2021.
Jonathan Phillips, director of the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project, leads a Policy Perspectives session hosted by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Energy Initiative in November 2021. Photo by Karen Thornton

A new internal review of Duke’s university-wide institutes, initiatives and centers (UICs) underscores their role in fostering intellectual communities that cross school and departmental boundaries and providing innovative collaborations that strengthen the university’s teaching and research.

“Interdisciplinarity infuses the campus,” said Ed Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. He pointed out that a great deal of the cross-disciplinary teaching and research is actually happening within the schools. “No department at Duke says that it is strictly disciplinary.”

The review, chaired by Lisa Gennetian of the Sanford School of Public Policy, was part of the university effort to review the 11 UICs and Duke’s overall governance for interdisciplinary studies. (A short history of interdisciplinary studies at Duke is available online.)

A tradition of strong interdisciplinary studies has long been a comparative advantage for the university. At the same time, faculty and academic leadership have worked to achieve a balance between interdisciplinary work and the more traditional disciplinary work centered in schools and departments. In recent years, the development of the UICs has provided a valuable structure to advance interdisciplinary work, but Balleisen said the effort to have UICs and schools complement each other was continuous.

The committee found that the UICs continue to add value for the university, doing work that won’t be likely to emerge from individual schools, Balleisen said. One reason for their effectiveness is the UICs are in large part working in sync with schools on hiring and educational and research programs.

“The UICs have always been engaged with the schools, but what I’ve seen in recent years is a redoubled effort,” Balleisen said. “The UICs are moving forward with investment of their resources in sync with the priorities of the schools and departments.”

Balleisen added that interdisciplinary studies and the UICs have always gone through evolutionary change. “No group is set in stone. We sunset the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. We’re now merging the Energy Initiative with the Nicholas Institute in part to accelerate the university’s efforts in climate-related research, education and engagement,” he said. “Each interdisciplinary unit has also been reviewing its commitments, and they all have been making important decisions about how to align their activities with wider university priorities.

“Several important partnerships have emerged out of this process. For example, the new Digital Intelligence Certificate links a UIC (Science & Society) to the computer science department, and a new environmental justice program will connect two UICs (the newly merged institute and the Kenan Institute for Ethics) and the economics department.”

The 2020-21 Interdisciplinary Priorities Committee was charged with making recommendations regarding ongoing reviews of the UICs and potential budget efficiencies that would not affect the quality of their activities.

Their recommendations included identifying potential areas to centralize support staff, such as in human resources, communications and information technology; improving opportunities for research funding and providing greater clarity on the funding process; and ensuring that we continue to recruit excellent interdisciplinary faculty.

In other activity at Thursday’s council meeting, President Vincent Price delivered his annual address to the university faculty, outlining his hopes that the university will take the lessons from the pandemic and the historic moment of the upcoming centennial of Duke University and The Duke Indenture, to strengthen the university.

“This is a moment of transformation for Duke, when we can see more clearly than ever before how we might lead in the century to come. It’s also a moment of extraordinary continuity, as the seeds of our current and future excellence that were planted and cultivated throughout our university’s first hundred years come into bloom,” Price said.

His full address can be found on Duke Today.

In taking questions from faculty members, Price referenced the university’s collaborative efforts in how it responded to the pandemic across the university.

“A lot of what we had to do was on the fly, and it was here where our interdisciplinary strengths helped us,” Price said. “Our interdisciplinarity permeates far beyond the academic disciplines. In responding to COVID, student affairs worked well with the academic administration and all worked well with Duke Health.

“One great example comes from our paper on our surveillance testing program that was heralded by the Centers for Disease Control, a paper that speaks so well of Duke. And if you look at the byline on that paper, it’s a collection of people from across the enterprise. We have learned that during the crisis we can lean on the strengths of diverse teams and have them talk effectively with each other.”