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Interdisciplinary areas are focus of new academic plan

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - February 26, 2007

A new academic plan identifies the environment, health and human behavior, and education and workforce development as the University’s strategic areas of emphasis.

A draft of the plan is available on the Academic Plan website.

Calling the University “Connecticut’s knowledge resource,” the plan sets directions for academic programs institution-wide, except for the Health Center, which has identified its own strategic priorities known as Signature Programs.

“The plan offers guidelines to make difficult academic decisions,” says Provost Peter J. Nicholls, executive vice president for academic affairs.

“For example, we have another billion dollars in 21st Century UConn. What we build and in what sequence must be driven by the academic plan.” And if a proposal to hire 175 new faculty is funded by the state legislature, he says, the plan will determine those hiring decisions.

Gregory Anderson, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the Graduate School, says, “When we have to make hard choices about which programs to invest more heavily in, we will rely on the academic plan as a key tool to help us make those decisions.”

Nicholls says the plan had its genesis in discussions at the Council of Deans.

“We asked ‘What do we do best, what does the state need us to be doing, and what is our mission, given that we’re the only publicly funded Research I institution in the state, and given our land-grant and sea-grant missions?’ There are also diversity considerations that run cross-ways through all of this, and a desire to see the University more active internationally and globally.”

Adds Robert McCarthy, dean of the School of Pharmacy, “It’s about what we’re known for and what we want to be known for.”

By design, the plan does not refer to particular schools, colleges, or departments, but focuses on broad interdisciplinary areas.

Cleaner technology and urban issues, for example, are included in the scope of “the environment;” food safety and disease control are two of the areas within “health and human behavior;” and undergraduate and graduate education and cultural and artistic education for life are among the areas of focus grouped under “education and workforce development.” 

“These are all areas in which many people can contribute,” Nicholls says. “Everything we’re talking about in the document is something that’s done very well here, a hallmark of the institution.”

Yet, for example, although the plan calls for research promoting school reform, it does not specifically mention the Neag School of Education.

Richard Schwab, dean of education, sees this as a plus.

“The academic plan will help us reinforce something the University has identified as a priority,” he says.

“Education reform is so important, we can’t do it alone. It needs to be a University-wide effort.

“The academic plan really encourages colleges to work together,” adds Schwab.

“The more we have interdisciplinary groups focused on forward-looking ideas, the stronger we will be as individual units and the stronger we will be as a university.”

Carol Polifroni, interim dean of the School of Nursing, says, “Some might say the plan is not directive enough, but the future of academic research is interdisciplinary. That’s true at the federal and the state level, and the more we can as a University create a plan that maximizes opportunities for interdisciplinary work, the better.”

The plan also requires measures to evaluate progress, known as ‘metrics.” The call for metrics is not new, but the plan states that “resource allocations will be tied to improvements in these areas.”

Several of the deans credit the Provost with involving the deans’ council in developing the plan.

“Peter Nicholls used a creative method for arriving at the academic plan,” says Anderson.

“He asked each of the academic deans to identify three things outside their schools they thought the University is particularly strong in, and three things within their schools. The product was very different from previous plans, because the initial question asked the deans to focus not only on what their own schools had to offer, but also on what they perceived to be the University’s strengths.”

Says McCarthy, “The Provost has done a fine job of involving the deans. In addition to being responsible for particular units, deans are the senior academic leaders of the University. Now, when the Provost meets with the President’s cabinet or the Board of Trustees, he can truly represent the views of ‘the academic leadership.’”

Some deans say the test of the plan will be in its implementation.

“If some of these themes take off and have a momentum that is apparent,” says Ross MacKinnon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, “we could have interdisciplinary areas emerge that would organize hiring and resource allocation for the next decade.”

Some of these areas, such as human rights, HIV intervention and prevention, and genetics and regenerative biology, have already emerged, says MacKinnon, whose college – the largest in the University – has its own 30-page draft strategic plan.

Kurt Strasser, interim dean of the School of Law, says some faculty members may be skeptical about the plan.

“Others will look at it and consider how to tailor their particular scholarship and teaching emphasis to fit within the plan as a way of moving forward,” he says. “The plan will probably have a substantial impact on these people over time.”

Since the fall, the Provost has discussed the plan with faculty in each of the schools and colleges, as well as with the University Senate and the Graduate Faculty Council.

He acknowledges that there is more work to be done, including definition of the role of regional campuses and additional detail about the University’s resources.

He encourages members of the University community to review the plan and forward any feedback by the end of March to: academicplan@uconn.edu.

Nicholls hopes to present the plan to the Board of Trustees later this spring.

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