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Forum Participants Tackle Questions of Interdisciplinary Collaboration, How to Learn From What’s Working Elsewhere

Community members from all corners of the University of Virginia gathered Thursday to discuss ways to boost interdisciplinary collaboration and span scholarly and administrative divides.

About 60 participants gathered in the South Meeting Room at Newcomb Hall for a public meeting of the Synergy Working Group, one of seven groups assembled as part of the University-wide strategic planning process launched earlier this year by President Teresa A. Sullivan. The meeting was the second such forum held in two days; on Wednesday, the Public University Working Group held its public input session.

The Synergy group, chaired by Jeffrey Walker – who chairs the U.Va. Council of Foundations – is looking for ways to support cooperation across Grounds and to identify best practices, inside the University or elsewhere, that might be used more widely at U.Va.

At the beginning of Thursday’s forum, Walker defined synergy as the process of combining individual efforts into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Our goal as a group is to look around the University and try to find ways to work together collaboratively and help the University continue to be one of the top national universities,” he said.

The room divided into smaller groups, each moderated by a member of the Synergy Working Group, to discuss interdisciplinary success stories, barriers to collaboration, new ideas to break down silos and potential reforms designed to help the University community better communicate and collaborate.  

In one discussion, moderated by Meredith Jung-En Woo, the Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences, a number of faculty, administrators, staff and alumni shared their perspectives on collaboration at U.Va.

Petra Reinke, an associate professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, currently teaches classes that include students from multiple departments and schools, and said the University should make it easier for students to cross disciplinary boundaries.

“I think we should give students the opportunity to sit on the fence between disciplines,” Reinke said. These efforts could include course work or making it simpler for graduate students to become teaching assistants outside their own departments, she said.

Sitting nearby, Margo Smith, director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, noted that it’s sometimes hard to keep up-to-date with all of the assorted initiatives and scholarship going on around Grounds, even in areas that are topically similar.

“There’s a sense that we’re always trying to discover what else is out there in the University,” she said, citing missed opportunities to collaborate on projects related to Aboriginal art. 

Another member of the group, Devin Herod, a training and project specialist in the Office of Accounting Services – who graduated from U.Va. with a biology degree and has taught as a lecturer – suggested creating a central repository of research questions that scholars across Grounds could access or add to. This repository could be a resource for graduate students seeking research ideas, and could include input from private industry so students could fashion research projects around issues relevant to potential employers, he said.

Other participants shared interdisciplinary success stories, such as the Center for Global Health in the School of Medicine. Members of other groups discussed barriers students face when considering interdisciplinary study, such as scheduling or logistical difficulties, as well as faculty concerns, such as making sure interdisciplinary efforts are evaluated appropriately during the tenure review process.

Afterward, Walker said the group would consider the wide range of ideas as part of its deliberations, the results of which will be rolled into the larger strategic planning process.

The working groups are scheduled to develop their first set of ideas and strategies by late January, and present an update to the Board of Visitors at its February meeting. They will provide another update at the board’s May meeting, and a combined working draft is on schedule to be ready in late summer.

The public forums resume after the holidays with the Faculty Recruitment, Retention and Development Working Group on Jan. 14 at noon in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. The Streamlining Working Group meets Jan. 15. Additional information on those events is forthcoming in UVA Today.

The strategic planning website includes descriptions of the process, video segments featuring key participants, as well as a way to contribute ideas and feedback via email.

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