Faculty discussed the various benefits and disadvantages associated with the University’s increasing emphasis on interdisciplinarity at Thursday’s Academic Council meeting.

The discussion, titled “Structure of the University,” was the first piece of a three-part “Council Conversation” series, designed to celebrate the faculty governing body’s 50th anniversary by examining the changes that Duke has undergone during the council’s existence. Council Chair Susan Lozier, professor of physical oceanography, served as moderator for the three-person panel, comprised of Warren Grill, Addy professor of biomedical engineering, Thomas Nechyba, professor of economics and public policy and Dr. Shenglan Tang, professor of medicine and global health.

“Duke has a reputation for being at the forefront [of higher education], and once you think about it, interdisciplinarity is a natural next step,” Nechyba said. “The departments are important, but, by themselves, they can’t tackle the big problems.”

A focus of the discussion was the fact that academic fields have been growing increasingly specific, meaning that collaboration between departments is often required for a broader perspective.

“Disciplines are growing more specialized, and we’re realizing that maybe we can’t all become Renaissance men, but we can at least recognize all the gains made when we’re brought together [from across disciplines] to solve different problems,” Nechyba said.

The panel nevertheless noted the significance of departments as individual entities.

“It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the importance of depth—we should be cautious that with all our institutes and centers, we don’t forget the department,” Grill said.

The conversation also highlighted several difficulties associated with the way that interdisciplinary centers and institutes—such as the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences—currently fit into Duke’s formerly department-focused structure.

One concern raised was that of an eventual surplus of interdisciplinary centers within the University.

“Will we know when to let centers and such go away, or will we be stuck in the idea that it’s easier to add than to take away and just add more, more, more?” John Payne, Joseph Ruvane, Jr. professor at the Fuqua School of Business, asked the panel.

In response, Grill noted the need for increased efficiency in knowing when to terminate programs, and Nechyba suggested that faculty realize that they can collaborate on projects without requiring that a new institute or center be formed. The panel noted that interdisciplinarity should be used to enrich students’ intellectual experiences.

“It’s a big educational challenge—what should schools be doing to better transition kids into adulthood?” Nechyba said.

He added that the new Duke IDEAS program is a positive example of using interdisciplinarity. The program, launching Fall 2013, will bring together personnel from all of Duke’s schools into project teams to tackle themes such as Energy and Global Health.

“We’re trying to take the team-based approach used in research to the students and engage students in [the] same processes they’ll have to do in the real world,” he said.

Board of Trustees member Martha Monserrate, Engineering ’81, both praised the discussion and noted room for improvement.

“It was very thought-provoking—I would have liked some more definitive ideas about how we should proceed, but I was still impressed… at [the faculty’s] willingness to explore new ideas,” she said.