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November 20, 2001, and January 10, 2002

In two Envision sessions, Arts & Sciences faculty, students, and alumni articulated the challenge of building exceptional research and graduate programs while preserving and enhancing the extraordinary undergraduate experience afforded by the University. The discussion underscored the qualities that make the University such an appealing place to teach and to study, but it also revealed the barriers to achieving national distinction in key areas. These obstacles include insufficient physical and financial resources, as well as the lack of a critical mass of faculty and students in certain departments, especially in the sciences. A thread running throughout the two sessions was a desire to launch collaborative ventures, in part to explore new intellectual territory but also to combine forces to acquire the sheer heft necessary to compete with the nation’s research powerhouses.

The Promise of Collaboration
Since national rankings virtually always favor larger programs, one of the issues examined in both Envision sessions is the relatively small size of many departments in the College, particularly in the sciences. One way to address this issue is to encourage departments to join forces across disciplinary lines to assemble the critical mass necessary to move toward the nation’s top programs.

Some participants questioned the value of interdisciplinary collaboration, especially if it comes at the expense of core programs, but others view working across departmental boundaries as a promising way for the University to position itself. It was also pointed out that the largest grants from NSF, NIH, and other federal agencies are often awarded to projects involving interdisciplinary teams of investigators. Students have shown increasing interest in interdisciplinary courses. Although some faculty see the growing number of double majors as a reflection of the pressure to build resumes, others say it indicates students’ desire to gain a fundamental grasp of more than one discipline.

All agree that interdisciplinary teaching and research efforts should not be forced but should emerge naturally. For now they remain ad hoc and face institutional and cultural hurdles. Departments must be willing to make the leap of appointing faculty at the interfaces of established territories, such as cognitive psychology and neuroscience, the humanities and human geography, literature and visual arts, chemistry and medicine. Such innovations would enable programs to make advances not possible within current departmental constraints.

As one participant observed, the University reinforces intellectual boundaries with bureaucratic ones. This is especially true when it comes to teaching across disciplines. Faculty and their department chairs must iron out such matters as counting FTEs, which creates a disincentive for team teaching with colleagues in other areas of the University. Faculty need to be compensated for the time they put into developing interdisciplinary courses, and they should not be penalized in their evaluations for working outside their departments.

Academic culture adds to these impediments. Research published in a discipline’s principal journals carries more weight in the tenure and promotion process than work that appears in journals perceived as more peripheral. Such "academic provincialism," as it was called, makes it risky to hire and promote faculty who are working at the edges of the discipline and who do not fit the traditional profile. Another barrier is lack of communication; faculty simply don’t know what their colleagues are doing in other schools and departments.

Participants also observed that academic disciplines, especially those in the humanities, demand that faculty master an established canon. Scholars whose work draws on just portions of several canons may be dismissed as neither fish nor fowl. The foreign language programs in particular have naturally self-imposed boundaries, and reaching across disciplines would require working in English, which could be seen as damaging to teaching and scholarship in their disciplines.

One suggested way to encourage interdisciplinary teaching and research would be through centers and institutes. These could be created when groups of faculty wish to explore ideas outside their fields of study, and they could be dismantled when interest wanes or priorities change. Students could take courses through these centers and still obtain a firm grounding in a core discipline.

Distance and other barriers prevent the College from launching more collaborative ventures with the Darden School and the Law School. Even within the College, similar obstacles discourage collaboration between departments such as music and drama. The planned Arts Grounds will help to remove these barriers, but there is a danger that the project may further isolate the arts.

The proposed South Lawn project will help to build on collaborative efforts already under way between the basic sciences and departments in medicine and engineering. At many institutions, participants noted, medical and engineering schools are far removed from the core academic areas. The College should do more to exploit the contiguity of these schools at the University.

Some worry that interdisciplinary programs such as media studies and the digital humanities will be vulnerable in tough times. While it is important to protect core departments in the face of budget reductions, the University should also nurture programs that will define future directions in learning.

The great potential of interdisciplinary collaboration was made clear in the sessions. Scholars in medicine, engineering, and Arts & Sciences can look critically at the social implications of advances in science and technology, just as they are breaking ground in such areas as morphogenesis/organogenesis and biomedical ethics. Experts in medicine and African-American studies are examining issues in medical anthropology. Faculty in a wide range of fields are involved in the global health initiative. According to the Envision participants, the University has an uncommon capacity to blend expertise in the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and ethics, and to apply these strengths to solving intractable problems such as poverty, violence, unequal access to health care, and environmental degradation. What’s needed is a welcoming structure to make it happen.

Growing the Sciences
In addition to creating cross-disciplinary centers of excellence, another suggested strategy for achieving distinction in the sciences would be to enroll more undergraduates who intend to become science majors–to create what was described as an Honors College in the Sciences. Increased enrollment would pressure the state to provide more faculty lines and facilities, and since there is a straight-line correlation between size and stature in the sciences, this would likely give the science departments a boost in the rankings. Such a measure would help to capture exceptional students who now see other institutions as more attractive places to study the sciences, and it would serve as a magnet for stellar international students.

Envision participants raised a number of concerns about this proposal. Any lag time between increasing enrollment and enlarging the faculty would be devastating. Also, hiring faculty in the sciences is getting more expensive; in chemistry, for example, it now costs $500,000 to start up an assistant professor. Bringing in more undergraduates in the sciences would also put pressure on other departments, not just the sciences. Survey classes in the humanities and social sciences, which are already too large, would become even larger. Getting into small seminars would become even harder than it is now. We would begin to "teach below our rhetoric," as one faculty member observed. Such rapid growth could have a corrosive effect and could tarnish the University’s image as a major research institution with the atmosphere of a small liberal arts college. Participants also warned against tinkering too much with the admissions process and the quality of students it now brings into the College.

Another suggested option for enlarging the science faculty is to fund new positions entirely with research grants. This practice of creating positions with "soft money" has been discouraged in the past.

Integrating Teaching and Research
Noting the exceptional quality of the University’s undergraduates, Envision participants called for greater integration of teaching and research and more opportunities for involving undergraduates in the research process. The Harrison research awards program for undergraduates drew high praise and was suggested as a target for major funding. Participants stressed that undergraduate research has enormous potential for building collaborative links across schools and could become one of the signature strengths of the University. Implementing a fifth-year program for undergraduates would enable them to devote more time to research, and launching an interdisciplinary journal would provide a vehicle for disseminating their work to the entire University community and beyond.

Rewarding Achievement
An impediment to progress, participants noted, is the lack of a reward structure that allows departments to reap tangible benefits — such as additional faculty lines — from their success. When it was proposed that the College establish a set of faculty positions in the sciences that would be awarded on a competitive basis, the idea drew an approving response.

New Spaces and the Reintegration of Arts & Sciences
As it builds new facilities, such as the South Lawn Project, the Arts Grounds, and the Biodifferentiation Institute, the College must fight against isolating departments and must strive to reintegrate its programs. Participants explored several options for bringing the sciences into the South Lawn area and at the same time keep faculty offices, labs, and classrooms in reasonable proximity. Synergistic space, it was noted, is critically important in the sciences. One option would be to create an interdisciplinary institute on the South Lawn where science faculty would be given temporary appointments to teach and conduct research.

Although the College’s most severe space pressures are in the sciences, the poorest teaching spaces are in New Cabell Hall, which will be replaced as part of the South Lawn initiative. Science faculty acknowledged that they are glad they do not have to teach in the substandard classrooms in New Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke, and it was generally agreed that putting students’ needs first is a reasonable strategy.

Also needed are spaces that graduate students can call their own. As one graduate student observed, just having a desk and a place to keep a few books would be of tremendous help. The hope was expressed that the new South Lawn project would include areas where graduate students can work and interact informally with their peers and with faculty. A coffee bar or wine bar for graduate students and faculty would help to build a sense of community and collegiality and would also be a useful forum for exchanging ideas.

Walking connections between the various arms of Arts & Sciences and between the College and other areas of the University are no trivial matter, participants pointed out. As the Arts Grounds and the South Lawn projects come on line, steps must be taken to maintain the physical cohesion of the Arts & Sciences community. It’s also important to make these new spaces welcoming and comfortable places to learn.

Defining Strengths in the College
The Envision participants were asked to identify the core strengths of the College and the University that must always be preserved. They cited the following:

  Bullet Collegiality and Creative Chaos–The loose, decentralized nature of the College — a microcosm of the University’s decentralized structure — promotes drive and creativity. The downside is that it is hard to manage 26 departments with distinct needs and identities, and it is challenging to forge consensus in such a diverse community of faculty and students.
  Bullet The Liberal Arts Tradition–The University is one of the few institutions of its kind that maintains a strong emphasis on the core liberal arts, a tradition that encourages students to take a wide diversity of courses. The College has managed to stave off the pressure to add departments in professional disciplines, such as hotel management and advertising. This purity of vision is regarded as one of the University’s unique strengths. Though it is a place where knowledge can be pursued for its own sake, the College produces graduates who have the self-confidence and analytical tools to succeed in a wide range of career fields, especially those associated with the New Economy. They come away from the University with the understanding that a broad and liberal education will reward them for a lifetime.
  Bullet It’s Arts AND Sciences–During the Virginia 2020 planning process, there was some discussion of creating separate schools for the arts and for the sciences. Envision participants called for keeping Arts & Sciences departments together to uphold the University’s liberal arts tradition.
  Bullet The Undergraduate Experience–Among major research institution, the University stands out for its commitment to undergraduates. Students here have a clear sense that the faculty care about their personal and intellectual well-being, and students have the opportunity to make their mark on University life. This is rare in institutions of our size and stature. As an undergraduate-friendly research institution, we are more like the private institutions in our peer group than our public counterparts.
  Bullet Superb Students–The University of Virginia attracts "killer undergraduates," according to faculty at the sessions. It is obvious they value the opportunity to work with superb students who come with diverse interests and backgrounds.
  Bullet Student-Faculty InteractionGraduate students say they are the envy of students at other institutions because of the quality of student-faculty interaction at the University. In dealing with undergraduates, faculty wish they had smaller survey classes and fewer advisees so that they could further enhance student-faculty interchange. Participants called for reversing the upward trend in our student-faculty ratio. There is also concern about the "usual suspect" syndrome, which causes students to flock to courses taught by the most popular teachers. These same individuals are often called upon to talk to alumni groups and to serve as spokespersons for the faculty or for the University generally. Over time, the demands of this role can be overwhelming, and it was suggested that we work to bring more young and mid-career faculty into "dialogue of the University."
  Bullet The Jeffersonian Heritage–The College, as much as any area of the University, benefits from the extraordinary sense of place afforded by Jefferson’s Academical Village. The Lawn and other historic buildings are used by students and faculty every day and remain an integral part of residential and intellectual life. The University uses its Jeffersonian heritage to re-anchor the institution in ways that may be unique in higher education. Though some may associate the Jeffersonian tradition with the days when U.Va. was largely a white-male enclave, Jefferson’s words continue to serve as a kind of civic creed in the University community. Through Jefferson, the founding of the University is associated with the founding of the nation. This is a source of pride for students and alumni, and it underscores the national character of the institution.
  Bullet

The University’s Public-ness–Jeffersonian ideals exert an egalitarian and anti-elitist force at the University, which is open to all with talent and ability. Although the University does not fit the mold of the typical "state U," it stands as a symbol of public education in America. The public nature (if not the level of public funding) of the University should be embraced as one of its distinguishing strengths.

Student diversity and the success of students from wide-ranging backgrounds also should be viewed as a defining element of the University. Unfortunately, the gender and racial diversity of the student body is yet to be reflected in the makeup of the faculty, and a problem that must be addressed. One of the impediments to achieving racial and gender diversity on the faculty is finding employment for faculty spouses.

  Bullet The Charms of Charlottesville–The quality of life in the Charlottesville area represents one of the University’s great attractions, particularly for faculty. Although there are inevitable tensions, the Charlottesville and University communities share a relationship that is mutually enriching.

Threats and Impediments to Further Progress
Envision participants identified the following challenges and impediments that keep the College and its departments from reaching their full potential:

  Bullet The State of the Sciences–As mentioned earlier, the lack of critical mass in the science faculties is seen as a major shortcoming. This brings up the conundrum of scale — how do we scale up and strengthen programs without threatening the University’s special character as a small, undergraduate-friendly research institution?
  Bullet The Tuition Differential for Out-of-State Graduate Students–The high cost of tuition for out-of-state graduate students is detrimental to the graduate experience in both the humanities and the sciences. In the sciences it is seen as a tax on research activity that punishes success. When coupled with insufficient fellowship support and graduate-compensation levels that are near the bottom for our peer group, out-of-state tuition levels represent a tremendous impediment to recruiting top-flight graduate students. It is often cheaper for a graduate student to attend a major private institution that offers superior support packages.
  Bullet Insufficient Library Support–Shrinking state revenues and the rising cost of scholarly books and journals have slowed new library acquisitions. Nevertheless, the library has established itself as a leader in the innovative delivery of texts and services. One option for addressing the funding issue is to include a collections endowment in the financing for endowed chairs. It was noted that the construction of the new special collections library will eventually free new space in the library that will foster collaborative work by students and scholars from across the Grounds.
  Bullet Inadequate Support for Study Abroad–One reason the College has not introduced study-abroad requirements is that many students are unable to afford foreign travel on their own. A scholarship fund is needed to address this issue.
  Bullet Assaults on Pure Academic Work–Faculty see the threat of increasing corporatization in the research area, and they feel pressure from parents and students who see the goal of a University education as upward mobility rather than intellectual development. Undergraduates in the College must recognize that the pursuit of knowledge goes beyond preparing for a career and that this may be their last chance to learn for learning’s sake.
  Bullet Lack of Broad-based Public Support–More should be done to cultivate public consciousness about the value of the University. The people of the Commonwealth and their legislators must recognize the great benefits the University provides to them and their children. One suggested approach would be to provide in-state scholarships to ensure that a proportionate number of students from every county attend the University. Legislators and policy makers also need a better understanding of how research discoveries can help the state and its citizens.

Targets for Investment
Some of the suggested targets for transformational funding in Arts & Sciences include the following:

  Bullet A new computational research facility with an emphasis on computer modeling
  Bullet The University’s emerging program in computational biology
  Bullet Asian-American studies and other ethnic studies programs
  Bullet Fellowships for involving graduate students in interdisciplinary collaboration
  Bullet An endowment for international initiatives that would award competitive grants
  Bullet An unrestricted endowment for general excellence
  Bullet An Institute for the Future that would bring together faculty whose work involves long-range projections, such as modeling changes in global climate

Tensions That Arise From Special Strengths
The issues raised in the Envision sessions reflect a web of tensions arising from a school that does not conform to standard models. The College, like the University, is a small institution that competes in the big league, a public institution that competes in the private league. It is a national institution that relies on support from the people of Virginia. It is a historic institution that has outgrown its aging buildings. It is a research institution that offers an exceptionally rich undergraduate experience, although it still has some way to go before it can offer a comparable graduate experience.

Addressing the problems arising from these tensions will require major commitments of new resources as well as hard choices. The challenge will be to institute change in ways that move the College and Graduate School forward without destroying the special character of a place that is, in many ways, unique in the academic world.

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Last Modified: Thursday, 16-Feb-2006 08:37:30 EST
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

 

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