July 19th, 2008

Creating Successful Interdisciplinary Programs


The University of Oklahoma’s (OU) College of Arts and Sciences has a long history of successful interdisciplinary programs. Each was created under different circumstances without a standard process, but they all share several characteristics that have helped them thrive. Academic Leader recently spoke with Paul B. Bell, Jr., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and vice provost for instruction, about what makes these interdisciplinary programs successful.

According to Bell, successful interdisciplinary programs have the following components:

  • Dedicated faculty—“Every one of our [interdisciplinary] programs started with a group of faculty—sometimes only two or three—who were passionate about teaching something that was really not part of the existing curriculum. They got together and created this interdisciplinary teaching effort by getting their colleagues involved. If you don’t have the faculty doing it, then it’s not even worth thinking about,” Bell says.
  • An energetic director—For long-term success, a program needs to be formalized, which includes appointing a director (usually a faculty member appointed half-time as the director). “Having a director is essential for the program to go beyond the start-up phase because you’ve got to continue to recruit students to the program and to encourage faculty to teach courses that are relevant to the program,” Bell says.
  • An operating budget—“Many of the interdisciplinary programs in arts and sciences were given a very modest operation budget—typically $5,000—which allows them to cover office expenses and the various things they need to do to promote the program and possibly hire a part-time graduate assistant to help with some of the secretarial stuff,” Bell says.
  • Ongoing interest—“Student numbers are important. If students don’t take the program, there’s not much reason to have it,” Bell says.

Most of OU’s interdisciplinary programs begin informally when faculty members with common interests come together to share research or to team teach. Often the first formal thing that happens is that there is enough interest and enough people teaching courses to offer a minor. At OU, the creation and approval of minors occur at the college level. Creation of a major program is a more formal process that includes approval by the State Regents for Higher Education.

Typically OU’s interdisciplinary programs have started as minors and grown into majors. The one exception to this was the creation of Religious Studies, which the university’s president advocated for based on student interest. He provided money to create a couple of faculty positions.

In most cases, OU’s interdisciplinary programs have few faculty members who work in the program alone. Instead, these programs draw heavily from existing courses in various departments. “Most programs start off with the director being the only person actually appointed to the program, but when we create a program, we establish it as a separate budget unit. We create a formal entity, and for all practical purposes we treat that program just like any other department in the college,” Bell says.

It is the director’s role to make sure that the courses that students need are actually being offered, which involves ongoing conversations with chairs of the various departments from which the program draws. “If there are issues, such as a department loses a faculty member and there is inadequate staffing to teach certain courses, then the dean gets involved. But most of that gets worked out at the departmental level. The biggest problem we ever have is losing a faculty member who is the only person doing x, and so we have to figure out what we’re going to do in the short term before we can permanently replace the person,” Bell says.

Some faculty members have joint appointments between the interdisciplinary program and an academic department. Others work exclusively within the interdisciplinary program. “It used to be that we had almost nobody appointed in the interdisciplinary unit except the director, and it turns out that in terms of long-term stability, it’s probably helpful to have at least a couple of faculty who are appointed full time or part time to the program,” Bell says.

When faculty members have joint appointments, it’s important that the terms of those appointments and evaluation are clearly defined when the faculty member is hired. At OU, both units are required to agree in writing on evaluation criteria, and when it comes time for a tenure decision, both units vote. Although it has not happened, it is possible that a faculty member will end up being approved for tenure in one unit and denied tenure in another. If such a case arises, that faculty member will be tenured in whichever unit grants tenure. Such a scenario is unlikely because both units will have been talking about this faculty member and giving feedback over a six-year period. “People should know pretty much where they stand, and if there have been any disagreements between units about what a faculty member has been doing, that will emerge very early in the process,” Bell says.

An individual faculty member’s interest in an interdisciplinary program might be based on research or teaching interests or a combination of research and teaching. Knowing which aspects of the program interest a faculty member is important in negotiating the terms of his or her appointment. For example, currently none of the interdisciplinary programs at OU offer PhDs, so if a faculty member is interested in mentoring doctoral students, it would probably be best for his or her appointment to be in a traditional academic unit that has doctoral students.

Contact Paul B. Bell, Jr. at pbell@ou.edu.