Interdisciplinarity in Higher Education

As campus leaders across higher education look to advance their institutions, interdisciplinarity research is a commonly pursued strategy. Federal agencies have encouraged this approach by prioritizing interdisciplinary projects. Where do things stand with interdisciplinarity in higher education? In today’s post, I share a discussion of interdisciplinary research including the development, support, and culture of interdisciplinarity in higher education.

Photo credit: Bio Lab

Context for Exploring Interdisciplinary Collaboration

A 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences identified the most pressing
issues and interdisciplinary fields of study awaiting contemporary academics as nanotechnology, genomics and proteomics, bioinformatics, neuroscience, global climate change, conflict, and terrorism (p. 17).

Such demands not only presume a wealth of knowledge drawn from across the disciplines, but also collaborative networks of research teams.

Pursuit of innovation in these areas fosters collaboration among academics who previously resided within disciplinary boundaries, rarely venturing out to work with other researchers (Holley, 2009).

Furthermore, “no single individual will possess all the knowledge, skills, and techniques required” given the complexity of new areas of inquiry (Katz & Martin, 1997, p. 14).

The paradigm shift toward interdisciplinary knowledge results not only in a change for individuals, but also in institutional behavior (Holley, 2009).

In recent decades, observers of American higher education have noted an increase in organized interdisciplinary activity (Brint, 2005; Feller, 2004; Klein, 1990; Weingart & Stehr, 2000).

Such activity is frequently motivated by external demands from policymakers, funding agencies, and industry partners with the goal of producing knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

For example, a 2006 report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) affirmed the agency’s commitment to lowering the “artificial organizational barriers” of the disciplines.

According to the NIH, these traditional borders may in some cases “impede the pace of scientific discovery” (NIH, 2006).

Organizational strategies to foster interdisciplinary activity in higher education largely concentrate on structural barriers that traditionally divide the institution.

Interdisciplinary strategies include campus-wide initiatives, new buildings for interdisciplinary use, research centers and institutes, seed funds for collaborative research projects, and faculty hiring policies, such as cluster hires or joint hiring procedures (Sa, 2007).

Other approaches have a greater focus on the institutional culture—fostering a campus climate supportive of collaborative learning and research, providing faculty incentives such as tenure and promotion policies, and utilizing strategic plans to reinforce support of interdisciplinary activity (NAS, 2004).

External governmental funding priorities and the need to solve complex societal problems in part serve as the impetus for interdisciplinary activities.

These influences, as reflected in [interdisciplinary] strategies, display a shared social norm across the universities, suggestive of isomorphic tendencies that create common policies and procedures across multiple institutions.

The challenge for research universities rests in developing policies consistent with the organizational field, which value innovation and are considered “cutting edge.”

Institutions leverage these elements to align strategies with the broader organizational field and local cultural elements.

As such, collaboration efforts that are isolated within a single college, or led by a small group of faculty, can have little impact in terms of broad, institutional behavior.

The universities that placed the strongest emphasis on an interdisciplinary culture identified such work as a core, fundamental element of their operation.

This post is an excerpt from “Interdisciplinary Strategy and Collaboration:  A Case Study of American Research Universities” that was published in the Journal of Research Administration.


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