Office of the Provost

Issues at the Intersection

Subcommittee on Interdisciplinarity

Report and Recommendations

The Committee on Interdisciplinarity was created to follow up on the issues and suggestions raised by the discussion group on "Support for Interdisciplinary Team Efforts" at the retreat on the Future of the Professoriat (October 26-27, 1998). The charge from the Provost was to identify key issues, prioritize them, recommend actions, and suggest how initiatives that foster interdisciplinarity might continue to be developed and implemented. The Committee's members represent a wide range of units:

James Albers (Neurology)
Frederick Amrine (Germanic Languages) [co-chair]
George Garcia (Pharmacy)
John Godfrey (Academic Affairs)
Ada Sue Hinshaw (Dean, Nursing) [co-chair]
Jean Loup (University Library)
Gary Olson (Dean, Information and Library Studies)
Allen Samuels (Dean, Art & Design)
Amy Stillman (Music)

All have significant experience with interdisciplinary teaching and research. The Committee's deliberations were guided by the shared premise that interdisciplinarity is and should be highly valued by the University. The Committee recognizes that academic work that might be considered to fall under the broad rubric of "interdisciplinarity" has many different modes. These different modes, however, share broad common features of moving across, bringing together, adapting, and transforming different combinations of discipline, field, method, and theory.


The issues surrounding interdisciplinary research and teaching identified by the Committee on Interdisciplinarity built on those raised in the October retreat. How can we nurture and encourage interdisciplinary efforts? Are there currently disincentives that need to be addressed? How do we assess existing programs, and, if necessary, decide to terminate those that are not successful? How do we determine which programs should be terminated because they have accomplished all their original goals? What kind of mentoring is appropriate for junior faculty wishing to pursue interdisciplinary work? How do we teach our students, both graduate and undergraduate, to do interdisciplinary work, given that training is typically defined in disciplinary terms?

In addition, the Committee felt that the University should focus on the following issues as possible keys to the enhancement of interdisciplinary activity:

  • The importance of diversity in enhancing and enriching interdisciplinary efforts.
  • The importance of establishing a database with unit and institutional indicators and benchmarks for identifying successful interdisciplinary endeavors.
  • The need to identify multiple models for interdisciplinary activity on campus.
  • The need to understand external forces that drive interdisciplinary endeavors.
  • The role of technology in fostering interdisciplinarity.
  • Similarities and differences between interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary teaching.

The Committee decided that it could best focus this wide array of issues and arrive at specific recommendations by:

  1. identifying barriers to interdisciplinarity;
  2. imagining incentives that might enhance such endeavors;
  3. conducting a University-wide survey to create a database of existing interdisciplinary projects, faculty with interdisciplinary interests and training; determine prevailing attitudes towards interdisciplinarity; and
  4. identifying or creating models, benchmarks, and indicators of successful interdisciplinary efforts.


The Committee identified a number of structural and attitudinal barriers that restrict or discourage interdisciplinary activity. The following, listed in rough order of priority, were felt to be the most significant:

Policies on Indirect Cost Recovery

Indirect cost recovery becomes a disincentive to interdisciplinary efforts in research and training when cost sharing and indirect cost recovery do not correspond. The University lacks appropriate policies that would allow units to pursue interdisciplinary research without jeopardizing their base budgets.

OVPR should make the finalization of such policies a high priority.

Difficulties Surrounding Joint Appointments

Clearly, the authorization of joint appointments is one of the best ways the University can support and encourage interdisciplinary activity. In some units, joint appointments have become quite common, and one can easily foresee a time when they might become the norm.

However, these appointments are much more difficult to make, and present junior faculty in particular with a host of challenges. In LS&A, for example, only departments may initiate searches; programs, which are more often sites of interdisciplinary work, may only respond to hiring overtures made by departments. Needless to say, this policy represents a significant practical barrier to the promotion of interdisciplinarity, and many programs feel it undermines the status of their interdisciplinary efforts by conveying a negative value judgment. Even departments wishing to take the initiative on a joint appointment often find themselves hard-pressed when the potential partnering unit(s) have no resources to fund their fraction of the position, different priorities, or no interest in accepting someone not squarely within their own discipline. (More on this last point below.)

These positions pose significant difficulties for the appointing units as well. Not only is it more difficult to obtain funding for such positions: they are also more complex structurally, and thus much harder to administer. Merit evaluations, performance reviews, and especially decisions regarding promotion and tenure all require negotiations between chairs and directors of different units within schools—and sometimes between deans across schools. Even the otherwise straightforward process of allocating annual merit increases can prove frustrating if one unit is unable to match the increase proposed by another, in which case the "wealthier" unit is faced with an unpalatable choice between underpaying its joint appointees relative to "disciplinary" colleagues or making a disproportionately large contribution to the overall allocation, thereby giving away base budget. Discrepancies between appointment fractions and claims on overhead across units also arise in the case of joint appointments, which understandably leads to tensions between units.

And finally, there is a great danger that joint appointments will be subject to a "new math" in which .5 + .5 = 2, and faculty come to feel that they have too many masters generally. Taken together, these various factors—real or imagined—constitute a substantial discouragement. Indeed, the Committee finds it remarkable that so many units and faculty members desire joint appointments despite such disincentives.

  • Recommendations:

    The Office of the Provost should set aside incremental funding for upgrades or partial funding of "at large" joint searches within or across schools, on the model of the program begun by Provost Whittaker and administered by the International Institute.
  • Programs should be allowed to initiate searches (or more programs should made into departments).
  • A small fund should be set aside by the Provost and/or each school to help balance disparate merit allocations.
  • All schools should actively monitor the work loads of joint faculty as part of annual merit reviews.
  • All units should be encouraged to make adjustments in the allocation of overhead or operational funding when joint appointments cause imbalances.
Evaluation Processes

Decisions regarding promotion and tenure have the potential to raise thorny issues in the case of joint appointments when criteria for evaluation are different across units, or when the candidate is perceived to have done more of her research in one unit than the other(s). In practice, it is nearly impossible to balance such obligations perfectly, which means that faculty with joint appointments are exposed to serious risk if no allowances for such discrepancies have been negotiated in advance. Moreover, each appointing unit will typically want to run its own tenure review, which means soliciting a second set of external evaluations. This practice effectively doubles the stakes and multiplies the standards for joint appointees, exposing faculty to "double jeopardy" in their evaluations. Moreover, each individual discipline participating in an evaluation has a strong say in the outcome that is authorized by the structure of the protocols, but there is no authorized institutional "voice" that speaks for interdisciplinarity.

The University sends faculty mixed messages with regard to interdisciplinary work: on the one hand, it preaches interdisciplinarity, and rightly claims a strong commitment to interdisciplinarity as one of the University's great attractions, yet departments remain all-powerful when it comes time to evaluate scholarship. Rackham's rule against applying to multiple programs simultaneously makes the single department the gatekeeper for interdisciplinarity here as well. Mathematics is praised for insisting that students taking calculus solve problems as teams, but those who teach them are evaluated as solitary scholars by their disciplinary peers alone. Especially in the humanities and "hermeneutic" social sciences, the scholarly monograph remains the hard currency of tenure and promotion. Publications outside the mainstream, refereed journals of single disciplines are discounted.

Similar issues arise with regard to interdisciplinary endeavors such as federal or professional grant applications. Are such applications being held to higher standards? Must they meet the criteria of multiple disciplines simultaneously, and equally well? Who can judge or review such applications? Do review panels always have the requisite expertise?

And finally, the protocol for evaluating departments and programs militates strongly against interdisciplinarity. Teams of external reviewers are chosen to represent the values and interests of the home discipline—precisely the limitation that interdisciplinarity is meant to overcome. If Michigan is indeed a national leader in promoting interdisciplinarity, it is likely that external reviewers will have less understanding or sympathy for our endeavors than their colleagues here. Highly publicized national rankings are based on factors such as citations in mainstream journals, which is not where the most innovative work is usually published. Units working at the cutting edge of interdisciplinarity are often penalized thereby.

  • Recommendations:

    Appointment letters in the case of joint appointments should specify that all appointing units will negotiate a single, shared list of reviewers for decisions regarding tenure and promotion, and perhaps a shared review process. The various schools should provide oversight to ensure that such provisions are carried out.
  • All schools should insist that one section of each unit's annual report be devoted to joint appointments.
  • Help level the playing field for interdisciplinary appointments by appointing one or more ad hoc members todepartmental and divisional promotion committees.
  • The University should devise more flexible protocols for the evaluation of departments and programs, and should be willing both to support units that can demonstrate forms of interdisciplinary excellence that do not appear in the conventional departmental rankings, and to recognize that such excellence may not be reflected in such rankings for many years, if ever.
  • In developing new structures of evaluation and reward, the University should look to industry, where individuals are often evaluated in terms of the success of their unit or team, in addition to their individual accomplishments. Perhaps the differential salary increases that currently obtain in the case of individual merit allocations could be applied across departments also (or instead).
Disciplinary Identity

Complacency, and Arrogance Scholarly identity is largely a disciplinary identity. We are defined as scholars by the fields in which we hold degrees, the journals in which we publish (or fail to publish), and the professional associations in which we participate. For the most part, this is a very necessary and beneficial thing. Disciplinary identity provides us with certain kinds of institutional stability that we need in order to organize curricula and set standards for excellence in research.

Yet one must also recognize that the disciplines themselves are fluid, and that the cross-pollination of interdisciplinary work has been one of the main historical determinants of their evolution and current profile. Failure to understand this inherent fluidity can lead to disciplinary complacency, or even arrogance. Disciplinary conservatism can breed contempt for colleagues who are committed to interdisciplinary work, viewing them as "marginal" rather than "cutting edge."

Michigan strives to be a great University, and many units rightly enjoy international renown. A great danger lurks here, however: highly-ranked units are often less willing to take the kinds of risks attendant on interdisciplinary research and teaching, for fear of losing the high disciplinary regard they have struggled to attain. Worse, some units police their disciplinary boundaries aggressively in a misguided attempt to preserve their reputation. The Committee fears that in the long run, such measures will prove self-defeating.

The Administration/schools should praise and reward departments that open themselves to interdisciplinary cooperation, and put pressure on those that do not. Vulnerability of Underrepresented

Groups By the same token, members of groups such as women and minorities, who might be, or at least perceive themselves to be, more vulnerable in the evaluation processes of the University may feel an understandable reluctance to engage in interdisciplinary activity. It would be a tragedy if two of the University's highest values, diversity and interdisciplinarity, proved (or were felt to be) mutually incompatible in this way.

The Committee feels that the administration should offer members of such groups pursuing interdisciplinary endeavors every kind of explicit encouragement and protection. "Doing it All"

This concern was raised at the retreat in October, and another committee was charged with addressing this issue broadly. Nevertheless, we feel the need to underscore the impact of this problem on interdisciplinary efforts at all levels. The extra burdens that joint appointments impose on individual faculty members have been discussed above.

Interdisciplinary work imposes additional burdens on units, which are in many cases already stretched to the limit trying to meet their "disciplinary" obligations. The creation of new interdisciplinary programs inevitably requires planning and teaching new courses, advising students, serving on their various doctoral committees, and new administrative structures. Clearly, an increase in the amount of interdisciplinary work requires a concomitant increase in the size of the faculty. Many feel that Michigan's faculty is in any case rather small relative to the number of students enrolled: units that are already strained will be hard-pressed to begin working in new dimensions.

The Administration should explore ways of expanding the faculty as a way of fostering interdisciplinarity.


The high value we place on interdisciplinarity at the University needs to be made visible and concrete in the form of incentives to enhance the interdisciplinary efforts of both individual faculty and units. In rough order of priority, the Committee recommends that the University:

  • Focus resources on the hiring of interdisciplinary faculty, since this is most likely to change the culture of the University long-term. Cultivate "mavericks," individuals who work to blur disciplinary boundaries.
  • Provide visible acknowledgment, encouragement, and rewards for interdisciplinary endeavor by the University administration, especially the President and Provost.
  • Praise and reward units that honor the unwritten social contract by putting the long-term good of the whole ahead of short-term gains for their units.
  • Include incentives for interdisciplinary teaching and research in all evaluation protocols at every level. Tolerate failure as well as success. Celebrate bold initiatives.
  • Provide seed money, additional release time, and even internal sabbaticals, as appropriate, for collaborative projects across disciplines.
  • Encourage LS&A (and other units if necessary) to change the credit hour/FTE calculation so that credit for teaching follows the faculty member as opposed to the course number. Improve the tracking of credit within and across units generally. M-pathways might prove the more flexible kind of instrument that would make this possible.
  • Encourage Rackham to create more joint degree programs, and offer more certificates (such as those currently available from Women's Studies, Film and Video); develop models for interdisciplinary graduate programs; allow students to apply simultaneously to multiple departments; track the placement of Ph.D.s with interdisciplinary training.
  • Increase diversity among faculty as a step towards increasing the richness in interdisciplinary activity that comes from multiple perspectives.
  • Seize every occasion to acknowledge the inherent value of interdisciplinary work: the intrinsic personal rewards; the satisfaction that comes from contributing to multiple fields; the scholarly growth that comes from collaboration.
  • Consider ways of actively training faculty in cross-disciplinary collaborations and in the use of collaborative technologies.


The Committee felt that the working groups who will continue to address this issue during the Summer would benefit from having more information about existing interdisciplinary endeavors at the University. From such an information base, three important sets of data could be identified:

  • existing models for interdisciplinary teaching and research;
  • basic information on faculty involved in interdisciplinary efforts and their perceptions of such activities; and
  • identification of indicators that could be used to measure the performance of units with regard to fostering interdisciplinarity.

Such a survey might best be conducted by the University Accreditation Committee headed by John Godfrey.

The Committee on Interdisciplinarity recommends that the survey include the following specific questions:

  • How should interdisciplinary maturity be defined, conceptually and operationally, in the each of the various units?
  • Which faculty are involved in interdisciplinary endeavors?
  • What are their principal motivations?
  • Which interdisciplinary programs have succeeded, which have not, and why?
  • What have individual units done to promote interdisciplinary efforts?
  • What kinds of interdisciplinary training are available to graduate students and undergraduates?
  • What percentage of our students take advantage of these opportunities?
  • Are graduates better able to find jobs (or able to find better jobs) because of their interdisciplinary training?
  • What are the risks, real or perceived, attendant on interdisciplinary research and teaching?
  • At which conferences and in which journals do faculty present and publish interdisciplinary research? Are these venues felt to be more or less prestigious?

Models, Indicators, and Benchmarks

One important function of the aforementioned survey would be to ask Deans, chairs, and individual faculty members to identify both those interdisciplinary programs that might serve as models to be emulated, and those that have not been successful. In addition to this more subjective measure of the performance of interdisciplinary units, the Committee identified the following indicators that can be quantified, and thus might be viewed as more objective:

  • Number of multi-PI grants; Number of multi-author publications;
  • Number of interdisciplinary centers and institutes;
  • Cross-unit scholarly productivity, as measured e.g. by the number and types of publications and patents generated by interdisciplinary teams;
  • Placement of interdisciplinary doctoral students.

All of these indicators could be compared with those of counterparts at peer institutions to create benchmarks for excellence. The Committee felt that the ultimate measure of progress might lie, however, in the answer to the following simple question: five or ten years hence, is interdisciplinarity still felt to be an issue in need of discussion?

We recommend that the next group charged with studying interdisciplinarity devote particular attention to issues surrounding "Models, Indicators, and Benchmarks" with a view to developing more concrete proposals.

Another area our committee was unable to address sufficiently is interdisciplinary cooperation between the University and outside institutions such as industry, government, and other universities.