Binghamton establishes Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence
April 9, 2013Tweet
Since 1965, when it joined the ranks of PhD-granting university centers in the SUNY system, Binghamton University has enjoyed a strong reputation for research and doctoral education. As Binghamton hires approximately 150 net new tenure-track faculty members in the years spanning 2012 to 2017, that reputation will only be strengthened, according to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Nieman.
“This is a rare opportunity,” said Nieman, who is allocating a significant portion of these new faculty positions to five transdisciplinary areas of research and scholarship. “We’re investing in areas in which we already have significant strength and in which we believe we can achieve international prominence.”
Two transdisciplinary areas — health sciences and smart energy — emerged in 2010-11, as Binghamton developed its NYSUNY 2020 proposal. Three others: citizenship, rights, and cultural belonging; material and visual worlds; and sustainable communities, were identified by a faculty committee appointed jointly by Nieman and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee and chaired by Professor of History Howard Brown.
All five areas address critical social, scientific, technological, economic, cultural and policy issues. “By hiring faculty from a variety of disciplines to explore them, Binghamton will develop solutions to complex and consequential problems,” said Nieman.
Brief descriptions of each area of excellence follow.
Citizenship, Rights, and Cultural Belonging
Citizenship has long derived from membership in a polity, yet citizens often associate through laws, norms, and non-governmental organizations that supersede or conflict with those of states. Competing social contracts produce tension among individuals and groups, and between individuals, groups and authorities. In this context individuals and groups since the beginning of modernity have been mobilizing claims to citizenship and to rights, to enable them to fashion belonging, preserve their heritage or forge new personal identities.
Claims to rights, whether by individuals or groups, are rooted in the cultural fabrics of peoples. They are double-edged. They enhance assertions of equality and demands for fairness. They also divide people, generate dissent and sometimes conflict, contribute to inequalities, and even determine survival.
This area of excellence seeks new understandings of the ideas of citizenship, rights and cultural belonging and supports inquiries that emphasize their cultural, ethnic, gendered, sexual, biological and transnational facets.
More than $2 trillion is spent each year on healthcare in the United States, and an aging population is challenging our system in new ways. The coming decade is certain to see advances in areas ranging from personalized medicine to electronic medical records. This area of excellence will integrate cutting-edge biomedical research with systems science, industrial engineering and microelectronic device development. Additional collaborations will draw upon expertise in disciplines such as psychology, nursing and leadership studies.
Faculty researchers are already focused on cancer detection, child mental health, Parkinson’s disease treatment and medical devices, to name just a few projects. By coming together and partnering with healthcare institutions in the region and beyond, these scholars can have a positive impact on the quality, availability and affordability of American healthcare. This area of excellence will help to ensure that the latest innovations in healthcare travel speedily from lab bench to bedside.
Material and Visual Worlds
Objects and images have an undeniable hold on us. We may take them for granted; yet they shape our behavior even as our desires and behavior shapes them. As humans, the material and visual forms we create define us to a remarkable extent.
Increasingly, scholars recognize the fundamental role of materiality in shaping humanity. Ours is a material world, one that consists of ceaseless and varied interactions among people and their artifacts – including those artifacts we call images. Today we are called to think through things, to understand them as active players in our lives rather than as means to other ends. A well-established tradition has explored how the world has been represented; increasingly we are now asking how the material also makes the world. We depend upon this material and visual culture, and through it realize our grandest aspirations. Our challenge is to consider how objects and images have joined with human actions, emotions and relations to make and remake society and culture from ancient times to the present.
In this changing intellectual landscape, scholars from a wide variety of disciplines – the social sciences, the humanities and the fine arts – seek to analyze things and images as gatherings of technologies, materials, histories and interactions extending through space and time. The production and distribution of a commodity reshapes a vast global landscape. Gift exchange between cultures establishes diplomatic and economic ties. The physical expression of a border between nations both constrains and enables behavior on both sides. Our approaches to the material world challenge us to consider its impact on the most diverse realms of human life.
Energy research is gaining importance nationally and globally. Political and industrial leaders have identified energy challenges as among the most pressing they face. Demand for energy, and particularly alternative energy, will only increase over the coming decades. This area of excellence will build upon existing strengths in four key areas of alternative energy research:
• Solar and thermoelectric energy harvesting
• Energy storage
• Energy efficiency in electronic systems
• Sensor development for energy resource management
Scholars in fields such as chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer science and materials science are contributing to this critical research. They are working to make solar power economically competitive. They are discovering ways to reduce and use the thermal energy generated by computers and other electronic devices. They are also contributing to new mechanisms for the storage and transmission of energy through high-capacity batteries, fuel cells, and ultra capacitors.
A new Smart Energy Research and Development Facility will foster new partnerships with industry and provide faculty members working in this area with cutting-edge labs, state-of-the-art classrooms and integrated outreach offices.
Communities are complex and dynamic: they require nurturing to sustain core elements such as environmental quality, safe neighborhoods, good schools, accessible healthcare and engaged citizens. To sustain this balance of ecological, social, economic and political vitality, communities must continuously adapt and improve. Scholars can help, but too often, rigid disciplinary boundaries get in the way. By combining the perspectives and methodologies of several disciplines, we can examine the many dimensions of sustainability—spatial, temporal, and systemic—and devise powerful solutions to complex problems.
By developing new paradigms and vital partnerships with community members and organizations, this area of excellence will help us understand what it takes to model, build and maintain sustainable communities. Collaboration among faculty from many disciplines will enable a deeper understanding of past, present and future trends in society and nature. New ideas will emerge and enable us to improve our policies and practices at local, national and global levels.
How hiring decisions will be made
“During the next four years, departments and schools will develop and prioritize requests for new faculty positions,” Nieman said. “Preference will be given to those that promise to strengthen the five areas of excellence, and while not all new positions authorized will be associated with on1e of the transdisciplinary areas of excellence, a significant number of them will.
“In addition, because faculty lines vacated by retirement or resignation remain in the schools, deans will be able to use then to address needs not connected to the areas of excellence,” said Nieman.
Each area will be guided by a steering committee consisting of highly accomplished faculty whose research is identified with the area. The committees will be responsible for setting directions and organizing scholarly conferences and symposia on critical topics in the areas as well as providing leadership for faculty hiring. “The chairs of each of the steering committees will also form a council that meets regularly with the provost and the vice president for research,” said Nieman. “This council will monitor the progress of the areas of excellence and share best practices developed by the five steering committees.” Initial steering committee appointments will be made by April 15, 2013, and additional members will be added as the areas evolve.
Nieman said hiring in the areas of excellence will be divided into two types of positions: core and affiliated. Steering committees will identify a focus for core positions in their area to be filled at the associate or full professor level. After the focus of a core position is identified, a search committee will be appointed consisting of several members of the area steering committee and representatives of the disciplines from which candidates are most likely to be recruited. The search committee will develop the job description, recruit and screen candidates, and recommend to the provost a group of finalists to be invited to campus for interviews. After campus interviews, the area screening committee will solicit responses from constituents who met with the finalists during their visits to campus and make a recommendation to the provost. Successful candidates will have a berth in an academic department but may also hold joint appointments.
Affiliated positions will be hired by academic departments in consultation with the appropriate area steering committee. Departments and schools may request positions that will meet department needs and also strengthen an area of excellence. Their request to their dean and the provost will articulate how the position they seek to fill will strengthen the area of excellence with which the faculty member will be associated. After the position has been approved, a search committee consisting of three members of the hiring department and two members of the area steering committee will be appointed. When finalists visit campus for interviews, in addition to the search committee, they will meet with the area steering committee, department faculty and students, the dean and the provost. Area steering committees will provide feedback to the search committee and department. The faculty caucus of the hiring department, the area steering committee and the dean will make their hiring recommendations to the provost. Affiliated faculty will hold tenure berths in an academic department but be expected to participate in the activities of the area of excellence into which they are hired.
“These areas of excellence will help transform Binghamton and help us develop ways to work across disciplines on issues that are critically important in today’s world,” Nieman said. “It’s an exciting time to be here as we hire new faculty and bring a higher level of visibility to Binghamton’s research, scholarly and creative activities.”