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Clusters Create New Campus Culture

One of the new faculty clusters now working across disciplines at NC State to solve tough research challenges is a group with expertise in genetic engineering. They should feel right at home. After all, the cluster program was designed to make genetic modifications to the longstanding culture of NC State.

For a dozen decades, NC State faculty members have been hired to fill the needs of specific departments and academic disciplines. The focus of the new Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program is to break down those departmental walls by bringing in world-class faculty to collaborate in 12 fields of study.

Twenty-one of these new cluster hires are already on campus, and three additional faculty are set to arrive in January. Two of the clusters are now fully staffed with the other 10 looking to add one to three more new hires.

“We’re hiring in a bold new way,” says Laura Severin, an English professor and special assistant to the provost who studied similar groundbreaking programs at Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan in preparation for implementing NC State’s initiative. “We are hiring through research areas and bringing a group of people together across departments.”

Growing Faculty in Difficult Times

Increasing the depth and strength of faculty is a major priority of NC State’s strategic plan, says Provost Warwick Arden. In fact, the plan calls for the university to hire 300 new faculty members by 2020, both to fill departmental needs and as part of the cluster-hire program.

NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson, Provost Warwick Arden and student government leaders chatted with students in the Brickyard about tuition.
Provost Warwick Arden says the new faculty hiring program will pay big dividends for NC State.

“What had happened over a period of time,” Arden says, “is that we had grown our undergraduate population extensively and our graduate population extensively, but our tenure-track faculty had only grown about 3 percent in 15 years.”

The investment in the cluster program has been huge: nearly $16 million in one-time startup costs, such as office and lab space, plus another $3 million per year in salaries for the new faculty.

But the payoff, Arden says, will be even bigger.

“I think there are two ways fundamentally that the cluster program is going to enhance the campus community,” Arden says. “The first way is just increasing the size and depth of our faculty.

“The other unique thing is that we are adding to the interdisciplinarity of our campus. They may be experts in a particular discipline, such as genetics or physical sciences or aquatic ecology or geospatial analytics. But they also have tremendous strengths in analytical sciences. They are working at the interface of disciplines, which is really very exciting for us.”

Originally, the plan was to add a second cohort next year, but recent budget cuts have postponed the second round until the 2015-16 academic year. Still, Arden is pleased with the progress of the initiative and the implementation of the goals of the strategic plan.

“I have to keep reminding people that we have done this during several of the worst budget years in the history of the university,” he says. “That’s not to pat ourselves on the back, but it will be important as we move forward that we focus on our priorities, use our resources appropriately and really make sure we don’t become a victim of the changing budgetary or resource environment.

“If we are going to have to make difficult decisions, we will be able to make a significant impact on the things most important to moving NC State forward.”

New Ways of Operating

Fred Gould, a professor of entomology who serves as the coordinator for the Genetic Engineering and Society cluster, has been at NC State since 1977. He knows all too well how foreign the concept of interdisciplinary studies is at a decentralized institution composed of three campuses around and between Western Boulevard and Hillsborough Street.

Fred Gould in his garden.
Fred Gould says the cluster-hire program is driving a big shift in culture at the university.

“This is a huge step because departments have always had the most power at NC State, because that’s where research funds flow,” Gould says. “The idea of changing that, of allowing strong interdisciplinary programs to have some of the power, is a big shift in culture.”

The new faculty members were hired by committees that had representatives of different departments and colleges. The new hires have slightly different paths to tenure and promotion.  And they will meet with each other during a full schedule of colloquiums and provost-initiated monthly programs to get to know one another and the campus.

“We made it clear to the committees that each new hire needed not only to fit into their department, but also into the overall interdisciplinary program,” Gould says. “Nobody likes having someone who doesn’t fit shoved down their throats.

“There was a lot of good discussion by the provost in negotiating with the departments and the colleges.”

Attracting World-Leading Faculty

Jennifer Kuzma, a professor of public and international affairs, is one of four new hires in Genetic Engineering and Society, which spans the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the College of Natural Resources.

Her primary research has been on the governance systems for emerging technologies, especially genetic engineering for environmental, health and industrial applications. Having worked in academia and in government, Kuzma believes she has found the perfect home in her office on the fifth floor of the Hunt Library to continue the kind of interdisciplinary work she did during her 10 years at the University of Minnesota.

“This was a position that was almost tailor-made for me,” she says. “I couldn’t pass it up. What we have is one of the most interdisciplinary programs here because we have ethicists, sociologists, historians, molecular biologists and entomologists. We are also doing research, education and engagement that spans academe and takes that knowledge to stakeholders who want more information and discussion on how these technologies could help solve practical problem that society faces.”

Crossing disciplines is not always easy, Kuzma says. One of the primary barriers? Language.

“In one project I was involved in, we had lawyers, policy scientists, a toxicologist and a molecular biologist,” she says. “It took us a year to learn how to talk each other’s language. The lawyers kept wanting to write memos.”

Jennifer Kuzma, one of NC State’s newest faculty members, is a leading authority on emerging technologies, especially genetic engineering for environmental, health and industrial applications.

But Gould, the cluster coordinator, believes he has attracted the world’s foremost expert in the field, which is certainly in keeping with the goals of the strategic plan. To convince Kuzma, he not only brought her to Raleigh to see the infrastructure on campus, he also traveled with her to Panama to show her NC State-led international research.

“We needed to convince her that this was the place to be,” Gould said. “She is the best person in the world to lead this cluster and there is nobody else close. Being able to bring her here made us more attractive to other candidates that we wanted to hire.”

That same philosophy was used by other coordinators to bring in top researchers in fields such as bioinformatics, geospatial analytics, personalized medicine, innovation and design and a slew of other research-intensive disciplines that are critical to the university’s growth moving forward.

“What we identified were clusters that are really quite revolutionary,” Arden says. “That’s what makes me feel really good about this program, because it addresses two or three of the major objectives of the strategic plan: to grow the depth and strength of our faculty, to enhance our fundamental research capacity and to enhance interdisciplinarity across campus.

“Whenever you can have a program like this that has a focused impact on the strategic plan, it is something you have to keep your eyes on. I think we have pulled off some pretty amazing stuff here.”