Beyond the Hill

Professors at University of Iowa work across disciplines to enhance student learning

Devyn Passaretti | Head Illustrator

The University of Iowa is striving to address challenges by hiring professors from diverse disciplines to work together in team-based atmospheres.

The Cluster Hire Initiative has set out to “meet the grand challenges of the 21st century,” according to the webpage of the university’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. The initiative has so far created seven “clusters” of professors with different areas of specialization to address specific issues.

University of Iowa Provost Barry Butler said professors are still hired with a focus in a traditional department, but in accepting the position, they know that they will be working within a cluster, as well.

The effect of the clusters on students is that they have the opportunity to take a wider range of courses, Butler said.

“The program is built with a research focus, and many of the large research issues in the country right now require expertise in more than just a single discipline,” Butler said. “The students are not getting a degree in the cluster area. Their degree is still in a traditional discipline, but this broadens the courses they take and allows them to expand their knowledge of different subjects.”

Butler said he doesn’t have any quantitative data to prove the cluster setup will help students in the workforce, but he said he believes it will because the clusters provide students with relevant research topics and expand their network of resources for collaboration and references.

The first cluster implemented was the Water Sustainability cluster, Butler said. Since then, the university has added six more clusters, including The Aging Mind and Brain, Genetics, Informatics, Public Digital Arts, Public Humanities in a Digital World and Obesity, according to the provost’s website.

To explain how the initiative operates, Butler said one of the professors that works within the Obesity cluster is primarily situated in the Tippie College of Business, but has an interest in health economics. That professor helps with research on the financial side of lost wages due to obesity-related health problems, Butler said.

Butler said he believes the program has so far been a success. He recently received the annual report from the Obesity cluster, which showed that eight of the nine junior faculty in that cluster have received funding from the National Institute of Health.

“Our ability to hire people into the clusters have helped them,” Butler said. “It means they’re associated with more senior faculty, who they can collaborate with and learn from.”

Faculty can and often do submit proposals for new cluster ideas, and they typically accept proposals to introduce a new cluster every year or two, Butler said.

Half of the funding for an approved cluster proposal is provided by the provost’s office, and the other half is provided by the individual college that is hiring, Butler said. The amount of funding clusters receive varies by each case, and is dependent upon what they need for their research, he said.

“Some people still think we should hire only in very specific disciplines, and I respect that, but it’s not what is best for the larger campus,” Butler said.

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