Bass Connections is working to better recruit graduate students and increase the program’s on-campus presence in its third year at Duke.

Started two years ago, Bass Connections allows students and faculty to address complicated issues impacting society today through an interdisciplinary lens, explained Hallie Knuffman, director for administration and program development for Bass Connections. During the program’s initial rollout, administrators hoped the program would impact the structure and function of the University in significant ways. Although Knuffman said that Bass has been able to provide enriching experiences for students and faculty, administrators are focusing on several areas— including engagement and outreach—where the program still faces challenges. Moving forward, Bass administrators are looking at ways of assessing and improving the program.

“Duke has a mission of fostering excellent research, excellent teaching and really substantive engagement outreach to society,” said Edward Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. “Bass Connections is about integrating those three things and doing so in a way that pulls together insight and expertise and enthusiasm and commitment from the four corners of the University.”

When the first Bass Connection projects were being started, administrators expressed high hopes for the program. In a 2013 interview with The Chronicle, Susan Roth, who was then vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, said that she hoped Bass Connections would influence how the University operates on a day-to-day basis.

“What we hope for is that it’s not just going to be a program that sits apart in some way, like DukeEngage, that it really is going to influence how things routinely get done around the University,” Roth said.

The Bass Connections program has seen moderate growth since its inception, but is still limited to a fairly small slice of the University. According to the program’s website, there are currently 333 participants in Bass Connections projects, including faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduate students, up from 281 participants in 2014.

Moving forward, the administration wants to see more graduate student involvement. Junior Tara Bansal, Duke Student Government vice president for academic affairs and student representative on the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council, noted that graduate students can be a great resource and provide excellent guidance for undergraduate researchers.

“[Graduates] provide crucial leadership within the teams,” Balleisen said. “They can play really crucial roles as project managers and mentors for aspects of the projects, which is great training for them and can really enrich the experience of the undergraduates, while also providing faculty with crucial assistance in making the teams work effectively.”

Another issue facing Bass Connections is sustaining faculty engagement. Because faculty are not compensated for their work and the program does not currently count towards tenure, faculty sometimes lack the incentive to get involved, said David Toole, chair of the Bass faculty advisory committee.

“It’s also going to be a really important challenge for us to keep understanding the range of faculty who are participating,” Balleisen said. “We certainly would like to see a balance from year to year of teams which are continuing with ongoing collaborations amongst faculty and new ideas, new expertise, and new people who are offering a different experience for students.”

Along with faculty engagement, Bass administrators are also concerned with student engagement and awareness. Students are not as aware of Bass as they are of programs like DukeEngage and FOCUS that also emphasize interdisciplinary studies, Bansal said.

“We could be clearer in our outreach to students,” said Deborah Jenson, co-director of the Brain and Society theme at Bass and director of the Franklin Humanities Institute. “Over time, it could be helpful if there were a little more uniformity across the themes so that students would have a more concrete sense of what to expect in a Bass Connections team, course, or other experience.”

Beyond alleviating these problems, Bass Connections is also trying to increase its involvement with all of the various academic communities at Duke, including undergraduates and professional schools, Jenson explained. Knuffman added that Bass is also looking to solidify its involvement with existing programs on campus, such as DukeEngage and the FOCUS program.

The program is also looking to increase the number of themes which it offers in the distant future, and in so doing open up more opportunities for research. Bansal, for example, said she would like to see a focus on economic development and microfinance.

“One area that I would like to see developed more is humanities. The humanities are already very involved on the level of team topics within the existing themes, and the Franklin Humanities Institute contributes to humanities-related teams,” Jenson said. “Nevertheless, it would be great to have an actual humanities-based theme eventually.”

Ultimately, what Bass administrators hope to do is help the program continue a long-standing Duke tradition of sponsoring interdisciplinary research, Toole said.

“Among universities around the country, Duke really does stand out in the possibilities it creates for interdisciplinary work and that’s because of a long commitment on the part of the administration—the current one, but also previous administrations too—to institutionalize interdisciplinarity,” Toole said. “If [Bass] is truly successful, it becomes yet another way that Duke can organize itself around work across disciplines.”

Correction: This story was updated to note that Bass Connections would be looking to increase the number of themes in the distant future and have a focus in microfinance rather than finance. The Chronicle regrets the error.