Op-Ed: Embracing disciplinary intersections

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson quotes Jobs emphasizing the value of people who “stand at the intersection of the humanities and sciences.” The importance of the intersections Jobs found so fruitful is why we decided that interdisciplinary work should be one of the themes for our strategic plan.

While GW is organized around traditional disciplines like most universities, it is clear that the success of our students and the University will depend upon encouraging and embracing a multidisciplinary approach. This does not mean that the University is or should be on the verge of abandoning core disciplines or departments. Such units are vital to maintaining and promoting the prestige of the University, securing academic jobs for our doctoral students and efficiently sharing research results.

But, it is also clear that the most important advances occurring require students and faculty to cross disciplinary boundaries. For example, some of the most important contributions to our understanding of politics have stemmed from discoveries that relied upon the theories and findings of psychologists, sociologists, economists and, more recently, biologists.

As part of the strategic planning process, we are asking bold questions that challenge the status quo. For example, should our undergraduate students be students of a particular school or should they all enter as students in a single college?

Likewise, we will be asking the strategic plan task force to take up the National Academy of Science’s suggestion that universities contemplate the development of joint programs where intellectual synergies across fields can best be identified. And, we will be asking the task force to think about ways to encourage hiring and promotion procedures that enhance and reward interdisciplinary work.

Of course, recognizing the importance of interdisciplinary work is not something new at GW. Some of the most successful institutes here, such as the George Washington Institute of Public Policy and the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, include faculty from more than one discipline. Interdisciplinary hiring has even started to occur within our academic units. Indeed, the GW School of Business is led by Dean Doug Guthrie, who is a sociologist.

Answers to the questions we are asking are not straightforward, and it is important to not embrace change simply for the sake of change. But, it is important we ask questions that might lead to unconventional answers and help this university thrive for another 200 years.

Cheryl Beil is the Associate Provost for Academic Planning and Assessment, Doug Guthrie is the GW School of Business Dean, Steve Lerman the University Provost, Forrest Maltzman is the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning, Terri Harris Reed is the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Scheherazade Rehman is a professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs, Brian Richmond is the Department of Anthropology Chair and Sara Rosenbaum is the Department of Health Policy Chair.

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