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Duke bets big on interdisciplinarity

Monday’s editorial examined the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration to the Duke Forward capital campaign. Today we assess the campaign’s tactic: What does it mean to put interdisciplinarity at the heart of our strategic vision?

Lacking the centuries-old tradition of its peers, Duke has sought out other ways to set itself apart. Embodying bold ambition, Duke has had to think outside the box to attract and produce the best talent. Continuous innovation has made Duke a world-class university in a short timespan.

But rather than accept the status quo, Duke is trying to innovate again. In emphasizing interdisciplinarity, Duke is betting that, in the future, the best universities will supply society with nimble problem solvers who can move across disciplines with confidence and creativity. Duke is positioning itself to outcompete the very best American universities in, say, 20 years, instead of perpetually playing catch-up.

Is Duke’s forecast correct? Is interdisciplinarity the new frontier of academia? Will bridging traditionally separate fields reinvigorate the liberal arts university? President Richard Brodhead suggests that the answer is yes, albeit with a few potential pitfalls.

Technological advancements and globalization have irrevocably altered society and, thus, those best equipped to lead it. Today’s graduates are increasingly tasked not only with uncovering new knowledge, but also with bringing vast amounts of information from disparate sources to bear on complex social problems. In the future, society will increasingly consider an educated person to be someone who synthesizes different data, perspectives and methodologies.

For Duke to produce such a person, the University will have to restructure. Long-term resource allocation for interdisciplinarity is crucial. We imagine the University will make more funding available to projects dealing with integrative approaches. Duke will organize more around emerging social problems rather than traditional modes of learning: Duke’s focus on global health serves as an instructive example.

However, there are risks. Promoting interdisciplinarity might endanger the pure and theoretical core of each discipline, which might not easily lend itself to quick connections with other disciplines. Incentivizing interdisciplinarity, especially financially, might lead some disciplines to contort themselves in forced or unnatural ways to do the new hot interdisciplinary thing.

Furthermore, extensive interdisciplinary work might also fundamentally change the core of each discipline. Depending on how Duke structures its interdisciplinary push, whether interdisciplinarity occurs at the fringe of disciplines or grows from the center, the basic composition of the disciplines may change themselves. What will be considered meaningful and valid academic work and how that work gets done will change. The types of questions faculty think to ask within their departments will change. For better or worse, professors at Duke might not be thinking about their fields in the same ways as their counterparts at Harvard or Yale.

Wednesday, we will take up the question of what interdisciplinarity might mean for undergraduates. As for the big picture, Duke should be commended for boldly engaging, forecasting and planning for the future. It should continue doing so intelligently, without falling prey to the shallow, reductive discourse with which interdisciplinarity is often associated.


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