Crossing Boundaries

How intellectual initiatives form and flourish

Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional Research, Office of the Provost

Vol. 7 No. 1
September 2004

The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Memories of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves to anything around them.
Kerry Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.
Angelika Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Upon My Return to the Chair
Identity and academic sacred space in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies
Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Neuroscience for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

Crossing Boundaries
How intellectual initiatives form and flourish
Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional Research, Office of the Provost


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Last February’s Academic Exchange article “The Test of Time” addressed the ways interdisciplinary work is transforming the intellectual landscape at Emory and elsewhere, as new programs
emerge and some even become full-fledged departments. But
what does it take to launch a successful cross-disciplinary initiative at Emory? How do these programs and their leaders create structures that are both nimble enough and strong enough to withstand the changing demands for knowledge?

To better understand exactly such issues, the Office of the Provost began a study in 2001 of a variety of centers and programs at Emory that cross school boundaries. We examined program leaders’ views of the origin, mission, structure, barriers, and benefits of these programs. Our sample of initiatives ranged from fairly large centers with external grant funding to a small faculty reading and discussion group. All crossed at least one school boundary and centered around scholarly inquiry, although some also had a teaching component. Through a qualitative analysis of interviews with leaders of these eleven cross-school initiatives, we tried to understand what makes them tick. What factors help shape the genesis and evolution of cross-school intellectual initiatives? What benefits do they offer for both faculty and the university? What challenges do they encounter?

Our findings echo the observations of program leaders featured in the Exchange article about the tensions between departmental requirements and the value of flexible structures that permit disciplines to evolve and connect. Some initiative leaders interviewed for our study described their roles as “one-person shows” with
cross-disciplinary work being done “on top of” departmental responsibilities. They acknowledged the difficulties of wearing “multiple hats” and being “spread too thin” across competing obligations. Yet these leaders agreed that such initiatives create new knowledge, garner prestige for the university, and serve as an “intellectual refuge” for scholars.

We found that certain traits of the founding scholars are key in helping launch or sustain an initiative in the face of the challenges posed by traditional university structures. Most of the eleven programs started because one or two scholars were committed to an idea and worked on it together, day after day. Although the programs were different, the leaders displayed similar personality traits, such as dedication, patience, consistency, imagination, tact, and organization—all traits that helped them overcome the challenges of creating and managing these programs. According to one director, good leadership requires the diplomatic skills and open-mindedness to “sell the program” not only to potential scholarly participants but also to the “administration and the larger community.”

Another critical quality of leaders is their powerful networks of collegial or collaborative relationships across the university. Often founders drew on relationships established outside their home discipline in other interdisciplinary forums at or beyond the university, or through work on university-wide committees. In one example, team-teaching encouraged faculty to reach out to colleagues beyond their discipline and strengthen relationships across departments and schools. Three faculty members in religion, biology, and physics, for instance, grew a team-teaching experience into a discussion series in science and religion that flourished well beyond its teaching roots. Collegial networks also helped bring intellectual and financial resources to some programs.

In addition to strong leadership and collegial networks, three other traits often characterize thriving cross-school initiatives. First, it appears that cross-school initiatives are more likely to garner initial interest and support when they have predominantly outward-looking and problem-based research missions. For example, a law and religion program developed a focus on scholarship pertaining to human rights; a health and society program gathered scholars, community leaders, and public health officials to address community-based approaches to preventing disease; and a science and religion program grappled with the effects of physician-assisted suicide, genetic screening, and the ethics of alternative medicine.

Early support, or “seed money,” from central administrators is a second key predictor of success. To launch the behavioral neuroscience program, for example, early financial commitment from Emory and a state governmental agency helped to win a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Small-scale help can be powerful as well. Although the law and religion program later received funding from a number of schools and administrative units as well as external grants, a few thousand dollars from the provost’s office helped establish the program in 1982. In addition, many leaders described the early support and enthusiasm of deans, the provost, department chairs, or leaders of other interdisciplinary programs as critical in getting programs off the ground.

Finally, we found that flexible governance structures permitted leadership practices and missions to change as interests and funding opportunities shifted. None of the leaders envisioned a natural endpoint for their initiatives. Instead they described a cycle in which one project faded as another took its place. In other words, the initiatives adapted to the changing interests of faculty as fields, resources, and technologies evolved.

These findings present several implications for launching a cross-disciplinary initiative. Although universities tout the benefits of cross-disciplinary programs, the reality is that it is increasingly difficult to communicate across the growing maze of structures that characterize research universities. Administrators must be tenacious to overcome the poor communication channels among departments and initiatives. Universities could better recognize the value of cross-disciplinary efforts by adjusting reward structures, establishing flexible structures, and providing timely resources.

One can reasonably expect that scholars at both Emory and other research universities will expand the number of cross-school initiatives. Such programs not only address some of society’s most pressing problems but also help universities define their distinctiveness. Two publications offer additional information about this study. A brochure, “Intellectual Initiatives: Working Across Disciplines, Schools, and Institutions” is available from the Office of Institutional Research ( And the summer issue of The Review of Higher Education features an article that explores these findings in the context of the history and theory of the development of higher education. Despite the challenge cross-disciplinary initiatives face, the growing literature on them suggests that their potential to advance scholarly inquiry will continue to help them form and flourish.