Interdisciplinary studies has been a strategic focus at Duke University for more than a quarter century. The current academic strategic plan reaffirms that interdisciplinarity comprises an integral part of Duke’s identity.

Duke has invested in interdisciplinary inquiry and education almost from the moment that James B. Duke’s 1924 gift transformed Trinity College into a major research university. Its current roster of interdisciplinary units includes several founded at least 50 years ago, and a few with histories that reach back nearly a century.

Over the last half-century, interdisciplinarity has steadily become a more important focal point at Duke. The major strategic plans developed over that period articulated interdisciplinarity as a compelling aspiration, and eventually as a notable advantage.

Those plans further document a steady increase in the scale and scope of strategic investment in interdisciplinary endeavors, as well as a growing commitment to facilitate those undertakings through cross-school mechanisms of coordination, overseen by the Office of the Provost.

Key Documents

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This report, commissioned by President Brodie and Provost Griffiths, set the stage for the university’s ongoing commitment to a culture of intellectual innovation and collaboration.

Provost Langford established this position (to be held by the Dean of the Graduate School) following a recommendation of the 1988 university strategic plan. The office had the responsibility of facilitating, administering, and evaluating both new and existing interdisciplinary programs, with the goal of minimizing institutional barriers to collaborative activity of faculty across the campus.

The full-time appointment, made by President Keohane and Provost Strobehn, underscored the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and research. English professor Davidson became the first individual to hold such a position nationwide.

Released under the stewardship of President Keohane and Provost Lange, this plan called for a series of major cross‐departmental and cross‐school undertakings. The plan was supported by significant central resources to amplify presidential and provostial leverage in setting institutional priorities.

Emerging from a university-wide planning process, this strategic plan reflected the leadership of President Brodhead and Provost Lange. They put forward a bold vision with a central role for interdisciplinary studies, which resulted in the building of an infrastructure for interdisciplinary scholarship, teaching and practice centered on seven university-wide institutes.

Psychology professor Roth took on the responsibility for implementing the interdisciplinary goals of “Making a Difference.” Under her leadership, Duke’s portfolio and supporting infrastructure of interdisciplinary units matured.

Duke both invested further in the Social Science Research InstituteFranklin Humanities InstituteKenan Institute for Ethics, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, and completed the group of seven signature interdisciplinary university institutes and their affiliated centers (UICs) by establishing the Duke Global Health Institute and Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. The latter two institutes were partnerships with the School of Medicine.

The provost’s joint school‐UIC tenure/tenure‐track faculty hiring program facilitated UIC partnerships with the schools to enhance Duke’s vision of knowledge in the service of society and more broadly raise the profile of interdisciplinary studies at Duke.

This office opened as the central administrative infrastructure to promote program delivery and innovation, realize economies of scale, set standards of staff expertise and competence, provide close oversight for good stewardship of university resources and compliance with university regulations and standards, and establish a new financial model and metrics to guide investments in the university institutes and centers. 

After a successful effort to assess and sunset idle centers, Duke transferred administration of more than 60 remaining interdisciplinary school-based centers to school deans, with procedures for the chartering and review of school-based centers initially monitored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Following a recommendation in the 2006 strategic plan, Duke rolled the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and the Department of Public Policy Studies into a school.

In 2009, Vice Provost Roth initiated a strategic planning process for interdisciplinary studies at Duke. A group of faculty met weekly to formulate a set of goals for the next five years. The resulting strategic plan was published in 2010.

Initiatives with university-wide potential rounded out Duke’s strategic interdisciplinary profile. Duke launched the Energy Initiative to tackle major global issues, and planning began for a new program to support interdisciplinary research teams incorporating faculty and students, which eventually became Bass Connections.

In line with the recommendations of the 2010 interdisciplinary studies strategic plan, Duke instituted an external review process of the seven signature university-wide institutes and centers (UICs). Modeled after departmental and school reviews, the process brought in external teams of experts to assess and provide feedback on each institute. Duke also initiated a second cluster of joint hires between schools and UICs.

Duke established Bass Connections, a university-wide initiative seeded by a $50 million gift from Anne and Robert Bass. The program links faculty, graduate students and undergraduates to respond to complex societal challenges through problem-focused project teams, courses and summer programs.

After more than a decade of rich scientific discovery and significant faculty and student recruitment, the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy evolved into several new programs, including the Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology, Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine and Duke Science & Society.

History professor Balleisen’s priorities include heightened focus on support for interdisciplinary faculty research, amplification of interdisciplinary opportunities for graduate students, the expansion of collaborative, problem-centered inquiry across the Duke curriculum, a reinvigoration of partnerships among university institutes and centers (UICs) and Duke’s schools, and the fostering of more sustained research connections with community partners. 

Additional units and programs reporting to Balleisen include Duke University Press, Center for Documentary Studies, Center for Advanced Hindsight, Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine, TeachHouse, Keohane Visiting Professorship, and Reuben-Cooke Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Practices Project. 

Duke received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to launch Versatile Humanists, a partnership among the Graduate School, the Franklin Humanities Institute, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. In addition, Vice Provost Balleisen launched two funding programs, Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks and Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants.

The strategic plan strengthened the university’s commitments to interdisciplinary research, a transformative educational experience for every student, and engagement with communities around the world on pressing 21st-century challenges. 

Provost Kornbluth launched a funding opportunity for faculty, Research Collaboratories, managed by Interdisciplinary Studies. 

Initiated by Provost Kornbluth, the University Priorities Committee issued recommendations from its 2017-18 financial review of all Duke university-wide institutes and initiatives. Resulting actions included targeted adjustments in provostial spending, centralization of some administrative functions, and revision of some units’ faculty governance structures.

Provost Kornbluth launched an ad hoc faculty committee to undertake a focused review of Duke’s university-wide institutes, initiatives and centers. The committee’s work built on that of the University Priorities Committee in 2017-18, and refined budgetary realignment for investment in interdisciplinary activities, identifying the kinds of interdisciplinary public goods most deserving of support from the central administration, and describing ways to update Duke’s modes of coordinating and orchestrating cross-school interdisciplinary activity across campus. 

The Bass Connections program phased out the Education & Human Development theme and launched the Race & Society theme.

Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship moved to the Fuqua School of Business, retaining a dual dotted line to Interdisciplinary Studies. 

Interdisciplinary Studies played a role in providing support and guidance for graduate students during the Covid-19 pandemic, including organizing summer opportunities for Ph.D. students as Duke approached its 12-month funding commitment. 

The Interdisciplinary Priorities Committee issued a final report with analysis and recommendations.

Duke combined the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Duke University Energy Initiative into a new entity, which went on to become the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability. The institute advances the university’s environmental mission by developing transformative educational experiences; galvanizing and conducting impactful research; and engaging with decision makers at the global, national, state and local levels.

The Office of Interdisciplinary Program Management merged with the Provost Academic Support Office to become Specialized Administrative Support. It provides finance, human resources and operational expertise to the university institutes, initiatives and centers as well as the broader Duke community.

Guided by the recommendations from the 2021 Interdisciplinary Priorities Committee report, OIS launched this university-wide council, charged with advising the provost and the vice provost for interdisciplinary studies on ways to sustain and strengthen Duke’s efforts to foster vibrant interdisciplinary scholarship, education and civic engagement.

Membership is comprised of at-large regular-rank faculty representation from all of Duke’s schools, including one faculty member from each of Trinity’s major divisions and three directors from the university-wide institutes, initiatives and centers. 

The Bass Connections program celebrated its tenth year with a special event and exhibit, and hosted colleagues from other universities and institutions for a two-day symposium, The Future of Higher Education.

The Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy became the Duke-Margolis Institute for Health Policy, a move that elevates the center and advances Duke’s commitment to improving health care quality, equity and affordability through health policy.