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Evaluating Interdisciplinary Faculty

Best Practices Evaluating Interdisciplinary Faculty within the Promotion and Tenure Process

[This document was produced by the Faculty Advisory Committee to the WVU Center for STEM Education (Harry Boone, Jeffrey Carver, Robin Hensel, Kasi Jackson, Katie Stores) and the Office of the Associate Vice President for Creative and Scholarly Work (Melanie Page).]

Interdisciplinary research and education is an increasingly important feature of the academic landscape. A 2004 report commissioned by the National Academies notes that:

“In recent decades, the growth of scientific and technical knowledge has prompted scientists, engineers, social scientists, and humanists to join in addressing complex problems that must be attacked simultaneously with deep knowledge from different perspectives. Students show increasing enthusiasm about problems of global importance that have practical consequences, such as disease prevention, economic development, social inequality, and global climate change—all of which can best be addressed through [interdisciplinary research]. A glance across the research landscape reveals how many of today’s ‘hot topics’ are interdisciplinary: nanotechnology, genomics and proteomics, bioinformatics, neuroscience, conflict, and terrorism. All those invite and even demand interdisciplinary participation. Similarly, many of the great research triumphs are products of interdisciplinary inquiry and collaboration: discovery of the structure of DNA, magnetic resonance imaging, the Manhattan Project, laser eye surgery, radar, human genome sequencing, the ‘green revolution,’ and manned space flight.” [1, p. 17].

In order to establish a culture in which interdisciplinary work can flourish, we suggest starting with a commitment to this work officially from the highest levels of leadership that must permeate down through all remaining levels. Deans and provosts can promote interdisciplinarity by providing a clear sign of its importance, promoting tenure and promotion policies that are consistent with the recommendations below, and actively involving themselves in handling interdisciplinary careers. Senior faculty can shape the culture of the department by taking a broad view of relevant quality metrics, avoiding parochialism, and stepping up to the plate to provide the additional mentoring that young interdisciplinary faculty may require (Pollack & Snir, 2008).

Work that crosses disciplines and institutional boundaries (e.g. departments and colleges) is recognized as more labor intensive and slow than disciplinary work, yet the anticipated rewards are high, due to thefact that most significant questions and problems facing society require trans-disciplinary approaches of collaborations among multiple parties for solutions. In spite of this, new faculty are often advised to avoid these types of projects until after they attain tenure, or even full professor rank. If these faculty members are expected to produce trans-disciplinary, collaborative work before tenure, it is important that their workload assignments are adjusted to recognize the above factors and set them up for success. Specifically, they must have workloads that allow time for collaborations, including working through both disciplinary and institutional boundaries. It must also be recognized that it may take longer for their research programs to reach maturity.

We recognize there are various degrees to which research crosses disciplinary boundaries and multiple terms to describe such activities (trans-, inter-, multi-, etc.). It is acknowledged that how these points are operationalized may vary across fields, but all P&T documents should include attention to the following:

While it is expected that departments and colleges will provide support to interdisciplinary faculty by implementing the above best practices, we recognize it is expected that the faculty will provide evidence in their annual review file, including a narrative explanation of how they meet the criteria for promotion and tenure. This is especially critical given that their department’s faculty evaluation committee may or may not include members familiar with scholarship in the interdisciplinary field. The narrative statement provides the faculty member with an opportunity to give the committee needed information for evaluation. It also recognizes that it is incumbent on the faculty member to make the case for promotion and tenure. To this end, it is also important that the faculty hired into these positions receive mentoring about how to provide evidence of the significance of their work and how it meets their appointment conditions in their annual files, and to make a case for this in their accompanying narrative statements.

[Pollack & Snir, (2008). Computing Research Association, Best Practices Memo Promotion and Tenure of Interdisciplinary Faculty]