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Revised Academic Plan nearing completion

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - February 25, 2008


A revised Academic Plan that will set the future direction and priorities for the entire University, including the Health Center, is now nearing completion.

A public forum to discuss the draft Plan will be held on March 4, at 4 p.m. in Konover Auditorium. An updated draft will then be presented to the Board of Trustees at its April meeting.

Parts of the Plan are already available in draft form on the Web and the whole draft will be posted there prior to the March 4 forum. Link: Academic Plan website

The Plan builds on the previously identified themes of health and human behavior; the environment; and education and economic and workforce development. Newly organized into four sections – undergraduate education, graduate education, research, and outreach – it includes specific goals for each theme, designates the office responsible, and identifies timelines and metrics to evaluate the accomplishment of each goal.

The reworked Plan takes into account input from a dozen faculty colloquia on specific themes and feedback from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges reaccreditation team, as well as the recent reorganization that aligns the Health Center more closely with the rest of the University.

“The new Academic Plan will reflect the whole University,” says Provost Peter J. Nicholls, whose portfolio will include the academic programs at the Health Center.

“The Health Center has been doing strategic planning for a couple of years and has a document in close to final form,” he says.

“It’s a question of melding the two plans, especially where we’re working on some of the same things.”

Nicholls says he appreciates the “very substantive input” he has received from many different constituents. The topic that has generated the most discussion so far, he says, is interdisciplinary work.

“The broad themes we’ve identified are all interdisciplinary,” he says.

“Interdisciplinary work is the cutting edge across the board, not just in the sciences. UConn, like most universities, is organized around strong disciplines, and faculty are concerned about barriers and incentives to work across disciplinary boundaries.”

One possibility being explored, says Nicholls, is to establish one or more interdisciplinary departments with tenured faculty lines.

Currently, he says, some interdisciplinary units offer joint faculty appointments, but an individual’s “tenure home” is still a particular academic department.

“We will always aim for strength in the basic disciplines – such as math, English, and history – but faculty engaged in interdisciplinary work feel pulled because of the promotion and tenure process and merit review,” he says.

“If the University is stressing interdisciplinary work, then that has to be given weight.”

Nicholls says he anticipates the plans for a new research vice presidency spanning the entire University will open up many possibilities for collaboration.

“Hopefully, a lot of current obstacles to joint research between Storrs and the Health Center will be eased or even removed,” he says.

When the state announced its intention to put significant funding into stem cell research, Nicholls says, “we had to come together as a university and decide who the scientists would be and where to site the labs, and submit grant proposals for the entire institution. Our significant success in the state competition attests to the fact we can do this.

“Our work in the area of human stem cells falls under the health and human behavior theme of the Academic Plan,” Nicholls adds.

“It encompasses significant work both at Storrs and at the Health Center.”

He says there are many other research strengths, including for example nanotechnology, musculoskeletal science, genomics, and human behavior, that pertain to more than one campus.

Others, such as the fuel cell program, which relates to the environmental theme of the Academic Plan, are concentrated at one campus, in this case Storrs.

Nicholls says the Academic Plan will also guide the development of the regional campuses, noting that they represent a significant piece of both the undergraduate education and the outreach components of the Plan.

In addition, he says, they host various special programs that aren’t offered elsewhere.

The marine sciences research at Avery Point, for example, reinforces the environmental theme, and the business programs at the Stamford Campus are important to workforce development in the southwestern portion of the state.

Nicholls says the Academic Plan will shape decision making in the allocation of resources, such as new faculty hires, as well as the choice and sequence of 21st Century UConn projects.

“The priorities will derive from the Academic Plan,” he says.

For example, once the Arjona/Monteith buildings are replaced, the next major project will be the science/technology neighborhood involving the Gant Complex, the old warehouse, Torrey Life Sciences, and engineering.

“What’s housed there are units that are going to be very significant contributors to several areas in the Plan, including some of the basic sciences, the Institute of Materials Science, and some of the biology programs,” Nicholls says.

The renovation of Storrs Hall will also assume a high priority, he says; the School of Nursing, which is housed there, will play a critical role in workforce development. And the deferred maintenance program will address critical needs in many structures that are “desperately needed for teaching and research.”

Capital projects planned at the Health Center are also prioritized on the basis of this kind of strategic planning.

Infused throughout the Plan are the concepts of globalization and diversity. Undergraduate education, for example, includes the goals of increasing the diversity of the undergraduate population, as well as raising the percentage of students who study abroad, expanding the new global living/learning community, attracting more foreign students, and infusing the curriculum with more international material.

In the research arena, Nicholls says, one of the goals is to identify a handful of overseas institutions with which UConn may establish not only strong research connections and undergraduate exchanges but possibly also joint graduate degree programs.

Once the Plan is approved by the Board, it will enter the implementation phase. This, says Nicholls, will require both new funding and reallocations, and also the establishment of a central fund.

He adds, “In this Plan, the institution has mapped out a path for its future. We have deliberated thoughtfully in setting our agenda, and as we move forward, our decisions will be guided by the priorities of the Plan. We hope to see interdisciplinary units of one form or another assume a more central role, and we hope to see a lot of collaboration and interactions with our colleagues in Farmington.”

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