HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: What’s next for the university – and what’s needed

Director’s Almanac: What’s next for the university – and what’s needed

Earlier this year, as an outcome of the 2017 IonE Annual Meeting, we launched some focus groups to ask a quietly provocative question: Would members of the IonE community be interested in working together to achieve particular sustainability goals, and, if so, which ones?

About 60 conversations later, involving faculty, staff, and students, the answer seems to be “yes.” Now we are working to refine a set of initial goals into specific outcomes that are both needed in the world and that can come alive in our region. We are striving to roll out these objectives, and metrics to track them, at our next annual meeting in September. Over the next three years, we will organize around the goals, forming teams of university scholars and non-university partners to make progress on them.

Why do I say this is all “quietly provocative”?

Whether you agree or disagree with this characterization probably depends on where you’re reading from. Out in the broader world, the idea of organizing efforts and aligning resources to achieve tangible outcomes is not particularly radical. But it is not how research universities traditionally work. We’re in the knowledge business, and we tend to divide our business among disciplines and departments. We do have profound capacity to explore, discover, and create, but, historically, we’ve carried out those activities for their inherent value in a rather uncoordinated way.

Universities have made immense strides in how they conduct research and discovery, no doubt. Today there is widespread recognition that the modern university, comprised of departments and deep specializations, inadvertently created siloed perspectives that limited the ability of scholars to work on complex and interconnected issues in the wider world. In response, several U.S. universities have built formal programs to convene and support teams of researchers that span multiple disciplines, to promote so-called “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” or “transdisciplinary” work. Most of these programs call out societal ills or other “grand challenges” as a motivation for interdisciplinary work. Here at the U of M, we have our own initiative on Grand Challenges, of which IonE is an immensely proud partner.

It is against this backdrop that our quietly provocative question is, in fact, a revolutionary claim: Working toward sustainability outcomes, rather than just working on a sustainability topic or working on an interdisciplinary team, is the wave of the future in academia.

It is the next way to stimulate interdisciplinary scholarship, the kind of scholarship that builds durable outcomes for people and planet. I believe that nimble, mission-driven institutes like IonE have a duty to push interdisciplinarity beyond grand challenge topics to grand challenge impacts. If we, as researchers and educators, are not working toward an outcome, our interdisciplinary view may not – and probably will not – translate into action.

(Now, to be clear: I do not think that all parts of the university must be interdisciplinary or take on the mantle of outcomes and solutions, because disciplines are powerful ways of knowing – and knowledge for its own sake is also critically important. But we also have a responsibility to create an impact in the world.)

How can we do this? With partners on the front lines of sustainability challenges, academics can set goals that serve as a flags in the sand. Engineers and clinical medical scholars are used to striving toward a functioning prototype, a new drug, or eradication of a disease, and the rest of us can learn from them. We also can update standards for university seed funding. Through grand challenge initiatives or others, many universities incentivize interdisciplinary research with internal grants, inviting applicants to submit ideas built around a team with diverse expertise. We do this at IonE too, but, going forward, we will ask those proposals to describe not just the importance of their work but also how they will solve a grand challenge.

We stretch the idea of interdisciplinarity further when teams work toward a shared, societal goal – and are willing to be measured against it. And when we achieve a shared, societal goal, we not only harness the specialized, significant resources of the university to create meaningful impact, we also create a university that can no longer be accused of operating in a bubble, isolated from the concerns of the wider world.

So, what do you think? If you’re an academic, could you see yourself working with others toward a shared objective? What if that goal is related to – but not strongly aligned with – your core area or expertise? And if you’re in the private, nonprofit, or government sector, would you join academics in working toward specific, tangible outcomes? Leave me a comment here or send me a tweet!

In planetary prosperity,


One thought on “Director’s Almanac: What’s next for the university – and what’s needed

  1. Really like the perspective shift Jessica. All the “preliminary stuff” should lead to something changing: behavior, landscape, or markets. Looking forward to the social sciences using their sweet skills to advance adoption of what the physical sciences suggest are the best ways forward.

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