President's Report Masthead
December 31, 2013

The Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence: An update

Binghamton University’s Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAEs) moved rapidly from concept to reality during fall semester 2013, thanks to a strong partnership between the Division of Academic Affairs and the Division of Research. “The effort has benefitted from strong collaboration between Academic Affairs and the Division of Research,” Provost Donald Nieman explained.  “I can’t thank my colleague Bahgat Samakia (Vice President for Research) enough for his support, involvement and insights.”

A faculty committee appointed jointly by the Faculty Senate Executive Committee and the provost identified five TAEs during the 2012-13 academic year:

• Citizenship, Rights and Cultural Belonging
• Health Sciences
• Material and Visual Worlds
• Smart Energy
• Sustainable Communities

All raise important questions and are designed to bring faculty from a variety of departments and schools together to answer them. They are also areas in which Binghamton University has existing strength and can, with additional investments, become premier, enhancing its stature as a research university.

In April 2013, Provost Donald Nieman appointed faculty members to serve on steering committees to guide each of the TAEs, and each steering committee identified a member to chair its group. They are:

• Bat Ami Bar-On (Citizenship, Rights and Cultural Belonging)
• Terry Deak (Health Sciences)
• Wayne Jones (Smart Energy)
• Tom McDonough (Material and Visual Worlds)
• Pam Mischen (Sustainable Communities)

The committees range in size from 11 to 16, and include 71 faculty members altogether. The Health Sciences and Smart Energy steering committees met regularly during the summer, and the other three committees began meeting regularly when the fall semester began. 

“The work that the steering committees have done in a very short time is truly remarkable, and I am grateful for their hard work,” Nieman said. “They have developed initiatives that have created a sense of identity for each of the TAEs and are generating a sense of excitement about the possibilities they hold.” With the assistance of the Department of Communications and Marketing, each TAE has developed a website to promote its activities.

Each of the steering committees has either held or planned events to engage faculty and community members in their work. For example, the Sustainable Communities steering committee sponsored a highly successful conference at the University Downtown Center attended by 75 faculty, students and community members in early November; and the Smart Energy Committee has held a workshop series that has brought notable speakers to campus. The other three steering committees have planned conferences and speaker series for the spring 2014 semester.

“The steering committees have benefitted from outstanding staff support,” Nieman added. “Katie Ellis (senior director, Communications and Marketing), Gerald Hovancik (senior Web developer), Rachel Coker (director, Office of Research Advancement), Mary Beth Curtin (assistant vice president for Research Initiatives) and Vicki Griffin (senior staff assistant, Academic Affairs) have devoted considerable time and made invaluable contributions to this initiative.” In addition, six student interns — all members of the Binghamton University Scholars Program — have assisted in planning and executing steering committee initiatives.

“Steps to foster transdisciplinary research collaboration are also well under way,” Nieman said. “With funding provided by the Road Map, the Provost’s Office, and the Division of Research the committees have all conducted competitions for seed grants to support research collaborations by interdisciplinary faculty teams. We believe this is one way to help build the foundation for successful, major grant proposals.” 

Thus far, 13 seed grants have been awarded, and plans for another round of competition are being developed. In addition, three steering committees have identified research themes designed to foster collaboration.

The steering committees have also provided guidance for collection development in Bartle Library. Because the TAEs define the future of research at Binghamton University, Libraries Dean John Meador decided that a significant portion of the new resources provided to Bartle Library by the Road Map should be used to purchase materials that will support the TAEs. Librarians met with each of the TAE steering committees to ascertain their most critical needs and developed purchasing plans that will fill them.

Participation in faculty hiring was perhaps the most important and time-consuming activity engaged in by steering committee members. As they assembled the 2014-15 hiring plan, the provost and deans identified 38 positions as affiliated TAE hires. (Affiliated hires are positions that are allocated to a department or school but aligned with a TAE.) Each of these 38 search committees has members of a TAE steering committee serving on it. “So far, the experiment has been successful, balancing the interests of the TAE and the department or school in the selection process,” said Nieman. “Two of these searches have already been brought to a successful conclusion with broad consensus between the department and the TAE representatives concerning the best candidates. Other searches are under way and will conclude in the spring.”

In addition to participating in searches for affiliated hires, TAE steering committees have begun to identify future hiring needs — for affiliated and core positions to be filled in 2015-16. (Core positions are senior hires associated with a TAE, and searches to fill them will be led by members of the TAE steering committee.) On Dec. 4, 2013, a memo asking deans, departments and TAE steering committees to begin prioritizing affiliated and core hires for 2015-16 and directing them to a website to request positions was circulated.

“In conclusion, the TAEs are off to a strong start,” said Nieman. “The University is recruiting faculty who will strengthen each TAE, and the steering committees have initiated activities to build identity, stimulate intellectual exchange and promote collaborative research for their TAE.”

In addition, to highlight the work being done by the TAEs, they were featured in an ad placed in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 22, 2013) calling attention to Binghamton University’s “Bold New Approaches to Discovery.”