University News

As Paxson forges on, U. seeks research initiatives

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2012

The University is soliciting proposals for new Signature Academic Initiatives as it looks to determine its next major research initiatives, part of the broader strategic planning process under new President Christina Paxson.

The project, launched by Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 and spearheaded by Professor of Classics Sue Alcock and Vice President for Research Clyde Briant, encourages faculty to form cross-disciplinary collaborations focused on broad ideas that could become major initiatives at Brown over the next decade, according to the Strategic Planning website. The initiatives are intended to build upon the University’s existing strengths and boost Brown’s stature and reputation in those fields.

More than a dozen teams have already submitted preliminary two-page proposals, which are available to view on the Strategic Planning website, ahead of a Dec. 3 deadline. Toward the end of this semester, Schlissel, Paxson and the University’s Academic Priorities Committee will review the submissions and select six ideas – either individual proposals or combinations of several – for further development next semester, said Alcock, who is a lead facilitator along with Briant.

Two or three broad initiatives will be selected sometime next spring or fall, Alcock said.

The significance of Brown’s current position – with a new president, a fairly new provost and an upcoming 250th anniversary – makes this the perfect time for the University to jumpstart unique ideas, Alcock said.

“Brown always wants to be different,” she said. “At this stage in Brown’s life span, what should we be doing? How can we continue to be different?”

The array of proposals already submitted provides some indication of the answer: The proposed topics of scholarship range from fetal medicine to ethics to Brazil, and many span all four of the University’s broad academic disciplines.

The idea for the proposal process initially came from the provost’s office, Alcock said. Though no set amount of funding has been designated or planned for the initiatives, which could range in financial scope, Alcock told The Herald the money would likely come from the University’s upcoming capital campaign, external grants and other fundraising avenues.

The University has made efforts this semester to facilitate faculty connections, both informally and at a meeting last Friday in which professors presented five-minute long summaries of their ideas in what Alcock described as “a kind of speed dating.”

Several faculty members who are lead facilitators on submitted proposals said one of the greatest benefits of the process so far has been forging new connections with professors across the University. “It’s surprisingly rare for faculty to really talk across departments and across fields in a way that is, ‘Here’s what I’m interested in working on. What are you working on?’ And this is really opening up that possibility,” said Steven Lubar, professor of history and American studies, whose proposal is entitled “Cultural Artifacts: Bridging the Material and the Virtual.”

“My guess is as this process goes on … it will be fascinating to see how they merge and how I’ll discover I’m interested in things I didn’t know about,” Lubar added.

The opportunity to create new cross-disciplinary initiatives is particularly useful for Brown today following the expansion of the faculty under former President Ruth Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment, Alcock said. “I think maybe 10 years ago we sort of knew who everyone was,” she said, “and as we grow we have to work harder to communicate, to really learn about each other.”

Along with the size of the faculty, the scope of the University’s academic initiatives has grown as well, said Andrew Foster, professor of economics and director of the Population Studies and Training Center, who is the lead facilitator of the proposal “International Initiative on Government Capacity, Public Services and Human Well-Being.” Simmons’ transition also saw the start of several new initiatives, he said, but “there was an idea of being sort of smaller things, perhaps with more of a methodological focus.” His proposal lists more than two dozen faculty members as potential collaborators, ranging from anthropology to engineering.

But there is precedent for the new initiatives: Simmons’ tenure saw the commencement of several multimillion-dollar initiatives, including the Humanities Initiative and one to expand the Brown Institute for Brain Science.

Though administrators and faculty members said other universities engage in similar academic scholarship planning efforts, some said Brown’s Signature Academic Initiatives process stands out for its openness and encouragement of cross-disciplinary ties.

“It’s sort of in the character of Brown – they’re really trying to develop this from the ground up,” said Community Health Professor David Savitz, whose proposal is “Origins of Inequality in Health and Human Development.”

“The intent is to make it start off at least as a real free-for-all of ideas, not knowing where it’s going to go, and I think that part is unusual,” he said.

Professors described a variety of different ways for deriving proposals. Many built upon connections they had already begun to make or collaborations they had already begun to turn into grant proposals. James Green, professor of history and Portuguese and Brazilian studies, said he and other faculty members brought a proposal last year to Schlissel, who told them to continue gathering other faculty members. The result now is their proposal, “The Brazil Initiative,” which seeks to make Brown the focal point for foreign scholarship on Brazil.

Capitalizing on the University’s strengths, including an “excellent” Portuguese and Brazilian studies department, was a key element of the proposal, Green said. “There’s no one that is trying to do what we’re trying to do, so we have a comparative advantage vis-a-vis other countries in the world, and we have a comparative advantage vis-a-vis our peers,” Green said. “In Brazil now, we’re the top. That’s what’s exciting about it.”

Matthew Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies who is new to the University this year, said his proposal, “Race and the Global World,” takes advantage of Brown’s “outsized national and international reputation in this area already.”

And Lubar, whose proposal includes professors from both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, envisioned a focus on digital humanities and digital culture that could “leapfrog those people who have done it in the old-fashioned way. … We can bring our strengths and do something nobody else has done,” he said.

Ultimately, faculty members said, the proposal process is an opportunity to chart part of the University’s intellectual course in years to come. “I think the most important thing is that Brown develop some ideas that really help it be a better place in 10 years than it is today,” Foster said.