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Priorities for Excellence: The Penn State Strategic Plan 2009-10 through 2013-14

Goal 2: Advance Academic Excellence and Research Prominence
Strategy 2.2: Foster Research, Instruction, and Outreach in Emerging Interdisciplinary Fields of Great Societal Importance

Much of Penn State’s current success as a global knowledge powerhouse has derived from the investments it has made in multi-disciplinary fields such as the life sciences, materials, the environment, cyber science, and children, youth, and families. These investments have been supported financially, in part, by the recycling that has occurred for the past seventeen years. It is critical that the University continue to find ways to invest, even amidst periods of exceedingly scarce resources, in emerging knowledge domains if we are to retain a position of academic excellence and leadership. In addition to investment, it is necessary to identify and remove barriers to interdisciplinary research and instruction. For example, promotion and tenure committees may want to consider a wider range of publishing outlets beyond discipline-specific journals, and departments and programs should encourage new models of interdisciplinary instruction.

New and important fields are emerging in which Penn State must play a more aggressive leadership role. These fields have been identified by multiple colleges and campuses in their unit strategic plans. We give special attention to a few such fields here, although other strategic areas clearly are important as well.

The concept of “sustainability” has rapidly risen to the forefront of both academic and public interest. Sustainability is a complex concept that encompasses a wide range of fields from the physical environment to natural resources to economic processes and structures. There are even new academic colleges at other universities that are attempting to capture the growing interest in sustainability. Although we do not favor the creation of a new academic college to support such interests at Penn State, sustainability is a key area in which the University’s limited resources should be invested. Numerous academic colleges at Penn State have identified sustainability as a strategic focus area in their newly developed strategic plans, encompassing agriculture, business, earth sciences, engineering, and the natural sciences. We must find the resources to support existing strengths and integrate these grassroots efforts toward the applications of existing knowledge and the search for new information. Student, faculty, and staff interest in sustainability issues will only increase in the coming years, and Penn State must be proactive in harnessing this growing energy.

Similarly, several other emerging areas that cross traditional colleges and disciplines are articulated in the college plans. One of these is what is known as STEM education, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Numerous studies by highly respected organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, have documented the critical current and future labor force shortages (particularly of women and racial/ethnic minorities) in STEM fields, which will undoubtedly have an adverse impact on the inventive and scientific capacity of our nation. Penn State has made considerable progress in advancing the STEM fields through research collaborations. The University must build on that momentum, making key investments to strengthen our interdisciplinary focus, and to work collaboratively to foster STEM education with K-12 schools, where it is imperative for intervention to start.

Another important interdisciplinary area we note here is entrepreneurship. Many of the college/campus unit plans have identified entrepreneurship as an area that should be supported. A recent task force appointed by the Executive Vice President and Provost identified a significant number of programs that are available in various colleges of the University, particularly in engineering and business. However, the interest and involvement of the colleges is widespread, and knowing that entrepreneurs often emerge from many fields, including the arts and humanities, the task force is currently beginning work on a broadly based General Education course on entrepreneurship that will also be available online. It is essential that these efforts in the field of entrepreneurship that are expanding across the University be woven into a vibrant and well-coordinated interdisciplinary field of instruction, research, and outreach.

Finally, a very high priority must be placed on the health sciences, based on the recently completed Strategic Plan for the Health Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University ( Penn State has established itself as a national leader in many areas of the health sciences, with a growing cadre of faculty in the applied sciences and professions related to human health. Faculty at Penn State are aided in their research by the investments the University has made in such facilities as the new Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute and the future Millennium Science Complex, as well as the planned rebuilding of space for the College of Health and Human Development at University Park. The Health Sciences Council has developed a number of strategies to further collaborations across disciplines and colleges, and these efforts must be supported to the extent possible.

A closely related strategy is to build the infrastructure to support translational science and research. Penn State’s plans for a path-breaking Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI) will provide the integrative engine that builds relationships among a wide range of academic fields, starting with traditional biomedical activities, but including the social sciences, arts, communications, education, engineering, ethics, and health care policy. The long-range goal of the CTSI is to develop, implement, and make available new methods to predict, prevent, and treat human disease.

The USPC strongly endorses the goal of the University Health Sciences Council to conduct world-class biomedical sciences research by engendering greater collaboration across campuses, colleges, and research institutes, along with the increasing use of core facilities and co-location of faculty working on related research. Areas of particular interest among the wide range of prospective health sciences fields include the neurosciences, infectious disease, cancer, and improvements in health systems. Given projections of future demands for the U.S. and worldwide health care workforce, the interdisciplinary education of the next generation of health care professionals must be a strong complement to Penn State’s biomedical and related research endeavors.

The best universities of the future will increasingly be characterized not only by interdisciplinary research, but also by instructional programming that breaks down barriers to interdisciplinary inquiry. To date, Penn State has been slower than many of its peers in adopting new models of instructional collaboration between and among academic units, particularly at the undergraduate level; but the benefits of interdisciplinarity are applicable at both levels. Academic programs must expand the number of cross-listed courses between/among departments/divisions, and academic leaders—deans, chancellors, and unit heads—should encourage faculty in greater numbers to team teach courses that lend themselves to interdisciplinary inquiry. A portion of workload adjustment funds should be set aside to encourage such collaboration.

  • Senior Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School—Primary
  • Academic Leadership Council—Secondary
  • Executive Vice President and Provost
  • Senior Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the College of Medicine
  • University Faculty Senate
  • Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education