Cross-program studies gain support

by Andrew Tellijohn

Multiple University departments contribute to the Department of Conservation Biology. About 60 graduate students in the program study social, political, economic and biological aspects of conservation. Although each topic could be handled by a separate department, they have joined together, forming what is known as an interdisciplinary program.
“We have a very strong program,” said Donald Siniff, director of graduate studies in the department. “It has grown to the point where it is a very strong program within the University.”
Interdisciplinary programs exist University-wide and predate the U2000 plan. But University President Nils Hasselmo, U2000’s visionary, is a proponent of the programs, and the plan mentions the great potential of these programs, especially in graduate study and research. However, some involved in these programs say they are underfunded, and that U2000 has made no visible impact on them.
Interdisciplinary programs add efficiency to the learning process, and are a positive step for research at the University. For this reason, they became a facet of University 2000.
According to a 1996 institutional report, interdisciplinary programs are a subcategory of the Scholarship, Research and Artistic Accomplishments measures of U2000. Their purpose is to make breakthroughs in both basic and applied research and put the University’s experience and expertise into applied practice.
The programs are not without their problems. Disagreements between faculty and administrators from different departments can be frustrating, Siniff said.
But Hasselmo said he’s happy with the cooperation between the departments and believes these programs are vital to the success in the ever-changing University world.
“The important thing is to maintain a continuous mechanism for ideas that come out of the University,” Hasselmo said. “So many of the frontiers really are in the intersection between disciplines.”
Hasselmo said he’s heartened by the cooperation he has seen thus far.
“You have to evaluate and change as the research and teaching agenda expand,” he said.
However, while many officials believe the U2000 initiative has helped their programs succeed and flourish, three-and-a-half years after the program was unveiled, others have mixed feelings.
Patrick Brezonik, director of graduate studies in the water resources science program, said he feels the graduate school could offer more financial support to his two-year-old program.
“We actually got a cut in our budget this year,” Brezonik said. “To be honest, (U2000) hasn’t had any positive input on funding for this program.”
Brezonik said he realizes the graduate school itself has gotten a budget cut for the current school year, but added that without funding and support, it is difficult to run a program.
In spite of the funding crunch, he said his program is doing very well, increasing its enrollment to more than 30 students.
“The graduate school states its support for interdisciplinary programs, but I don’t see the reality of that from a funding perspective,” he said.
Graduate School Dean Mark Brenner said part of the reason Brezonik’s program isn’t receiving satisfactory funding could be its young age.
Young programs are put in a position where they must prove they will be successful and can gain access to funds outside the school before they will be assisted in full, Brenner said.
Once these interdisciplinary programs have proven themselves, they receive a larger portion of the pie.
But under U2000, said Jeffrey Tate, associate director of the Biological Processes Technology Institute, funding and promotion have made it easier for these programs to attract a higher-quality student.
Tate said the U2000 initiative has made a tremendous impact on specific areas of need in his department. The department strives to “educate and train advanced students to conduct innovative research at the interface of biology and engineering,” he added.
Funding from the graduate school has allowed the program to hire a director with an industry background who can focus specifically on the administration of the department, rather than have the position filled by a faculty member who must teach as well.
Though enrollment numbers are similar to figures before U2000, additional funding has allowed for better advertising and promotion of the program, which has improved the quality of students in the program, Tate said. The funds have been a direct result of the U2000 initiatives.
“I can trace directly cash investments from the central administration and cash investments from the graduate school to our program,” he said.
Tate said that Hasselmo and his initiative don’t get the credit they deserve.
“We’ve been very supportive of the effort. I think it gets made fun of way too often,” Tate said. “Things really are different here at the University.
“You can see very specific quantitative changes and improvements in every area (Hasselmo) intended to focus on.”
Brenner said the graduate school deems these programs a priority, but emphasized that the concept of interdisciplinary study existed long before U2000 did.
“On the research side there are more (choices available now than before U2000 existed),” he said. “At the graduate side, I would say it’s been mostly stable.”
Currently 25 degree-granting cross-college interdisciplinary programs exist. An additional 17 programs provide a minor-only option.
And with Incentives for Managed Growth, a challenge to us is to come up with mechanisms that will ensure that the interdisciplinary programs are stable into the future, Brenner said. “Incentives” is an initiative beginning July 1 in which tuition money will be given to colleges depending on enrollment in their classes.
“We are committed to do that,” he said. “Have we really found a way to do that? The answer is no.”
Brenner said he hopes additional funding will be available and realizes money outside tuition revenues will be required to accomplish that goal.
Outside the scope of U2000, interdisciplinary programs are becoming more popular on an undergraduate level, as well, said Andrew Seligsohn, an adviser for the CLA Individualized Degree Program.
“It’s an opportunity to emphasize different areas rather than concentrate on one,” he said.
Students entering the degree program will earn a Bachelor of Independent Studies degree by focusing on three areas, one of which can be outside the College of Liberal Arts. Those who choose this option can study a variety of topics, yet still graduate in four years.
Another option is the individually designed interdepartmental major, which allows students to design their own course of study.
These programs are aimed at students who are more focused on a specific interest, Seligsohn said.
“In general, students (interested in Interdisciplinary study) are very focused and directed,” he said. “They might not find something in the traditional offerings that offer that.”
Hasselmo said there are an increasing number of interdisciplinary programs springing up in CLA and undergraduate studies even though they aren’t mentioned in the U2000 plan. Graduate school and research institutes are a focal point because of the need for constant exploration of research ideas.
“I want to have an arrangement where ideas can be tested,” Hasselmo said. “I think it’s very important that we do give the groups of faculty a mechanism to test these ideas.”
Hasselmo said he hopes and believes that as he departs the presidential post and Mark Yudof takes on the position, the emphasis on focused cross-disciplinary study continues.
“This is a constantly changing agenda,” he said. “(Yudof) is going to change structures to see that this will continue. There is every expectation that he will continue these thrusts.”
While the changing of the guard leaves questions about the future of interdisciplinary programs and the entire U2000 initiative, these cross-sections of study at the University have at least one die-hard supporter. Brenner, who has studied and taught in such situations, said that he knows about all of their benefits.
“Much of my personal success has been a consequence of being involved in an interdisciplinary program,” he said. “I know it works.”