Ditch the departments, put the people together

July 12, 2002

Universities must drop ancient divisions and take an interdisciplinary approach, argues Michael Gazzaniga

One hundred-year-old academic disciplines and their entrenched bureaucracies are inhibiting the growth of modern knowledge. The time to begin thinking about how to remake the underlying structure of the modern university is overdue.

There are still fundamental disciplines such as physics, maths, chemistry, history and languages that are basic and must be mastered, but there are also new areas of knowledge that require fluency in diverse topics and need new administrative structures to facilitate the dynamic, ever-changing ways of modern academic pursuits.

The increased specialisation that inevitably occurs in all disciplines as ever-more information is gathered further complicates the problem of university life. While the overall body of human knowledge increases, individuals seem to know more and more about less and less. Taken together, the modern university is often a mosaic of isolated efforts, digging deep into sub-fields but leaving little time for synthetic efforts.

Possible solutions require clarity about the true function of the university. As I see it, the function of the university is to provide a culture where the ideas of the past contextualise the unknowns that lie before us. It is a place where the daily challenge is to step beyond the safety of what is known into the angst of what must still be achieved in understanding the nature of life, mind, culture and the universe. It should change and adapt as the knowledge base grows. Unfortunately, universities rarely meet this goal, even though most administrators are sympathetic and understand the problem.

The first obstacle is structural and administrative. There is a need for more interdisciplinarity. Take cognitive neuroscience, the study of how the brain enables the mind, a field that calls on the knowledge of several traditional academic departments. Students of this discipline must now be fluent in neuroanatomy, physiology, psychology, computer science and brain imaging. Indeed, as disciplines such as social psychology see the advances made in understanding the biological basis of mind, they too want to join in the effort. In the past two years, "social neuroscience" has been born.

Committed scientists want to achieve and get the job done. But in pursuing hybrid programmes, they are stymied by the vast costs in time, in duplication of effort and in nonsensical administrative devices created to hire crucial people without the status of normal faculty. It becomes even more ironic when those hired in this way are often more essential to the progress of a field than any member of the standing faculty.

The underlying problem is intellectual, not administrative. The problems that we want the next generation to solve require serious tools of synthesis - for that matter, the skills that today's research and scholarship require are the skills of synthesis, of multiple lightning-speed data streams pouring in from diverse areas. Our mission and challenge is to provide the skills that will enable this.

The problem of outdated university structure cuts across all of academia, even the humanities. Consider the interactions that must occur between ethics, government policy and biology if we are to address the social issues arising from biomedical research. By some estimates, advances in cell therapies will go a long way towards conquering heart disease within the next five years. That will add several years to our life expectancy. When such a fact crosses the desk of pension-fund managers, they panic. They know the funds are not there. There are clear implications for extending the retirement age and for potential problems in youth employment.

For universities, the ideal solution would be to organise institutions around problems, not disciplines. Coalitions could be created and dissolved as problems were addressed and solved. This would rejuvenate the languishing and the committed scholars and researchers and focus the academic enterprise on tackling exciting new issues. Rockefeller University, New York, has a form of this model, and its success as an institution in unquestioned.

More generally, we need to present the university as more of a whole. If we cannot start big, then we should at least have centres of synthesis - humanities scholars, scientists and engineers rubbing shoulders every day. Students should listen to and take part in their exchanges. They need to see an intellectual world that is not the Balkanised world of their forebears.

The administrative problems are difficult. The resources needed to make effective changes are great. Nevertheless, the realisation that academic life is in urgent need of a change is rapidly taking root.

Michael S. Gazzaniga is professor of cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, US.

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