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Administration of cross-college interdisciplinary academic programs

August 9, 2023

Jamie Dyer

Interim Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies, Mississippi State University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

As the industry responds to changing needs for employee skills and knowledge that bridge multiple disciplines, higher education institutions must respond by providing interdisciplinary educational pathways. These pathways must be relevant to workforce needs, dynamic in their structure, and reflective of an institutionexpertise and mission.

As Mississippi State University has a faculty with strong research and teaching records across a variety of departments, colleges, and centers, there is a need to establish a framework for the development of academic programs that cross college boundaries to meet the rapidlychanging educational requirements of current and future students.

While interdisciplinary programs already exist at many institutions, developing and managing new programs face many challenges that require flexibility and collaboration. These challenges can generally be defined through the following questions:

  • Who owns the programs?
  • Where do the students in the programs belong”?
  • What are the incentives for faculty involvement?

In terms of program ownership, Mississippi State follows a facultyled strategy whereby faculty governance committees representing multiple department and college interests act as directors of the associated programs. In this way, program development is based on educational outcomes associated with faculty expertise and experience, while administration focuses on facilitating communication and maintaining collaboration among campus units. As the programs utilize existing departmental resources, the funding strategy for the interdisciplinary programs is based on course enrollment rather than majors.

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Students earning a degree in an interdisciplinary program would have a “heavy foot” in the program, but would then have a “light foot” in a traditional department defined by the chosen concentration within the degree curriculum. Gen ed and core coursework define the multi-disciplinary framework of the program, while the concentration coursework (which includes a capstone or integrative project) would leverage the degree to be fully interdisciplinary.

Initial advising would be done through the interdisciplinary program office, while an advisor in the concentration department would become involved during the  concentration-specific coursework. In this way, a student would reside within the department associated with their concentration but would be affiliated with the interdisciplinary program.

To highlight the collaborative aspect of interdisciplinary programs and minimize the impression of competition, both units would share recruitment and advising efforts to maximize student interest and success. Incentivizing faculty to become involved in interdisciplinary programs is critical to their success, especially in terms of credit towards promotion and tenure; therefore, consideration must be given to how administrators recognize and reward faculty involvement in the development of related programs.

To serve as a catalyst between administrators and faculty and facilitate faculty-led development efforts, Mississippi State has developed a new position of dean of interdisciplinary studies. This position provides a mechanism for faculty to communicate directly with the administration and allows the dean to communicate directly with other senior administrators to discuss opportunities and challenges. This proactive approach is vital to ensure future programs share a consistent governance structure, and that all program committees have equal exposure to an administration that is focused on the successful and sustainable development of interdisciplinary degree programs.

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