Areas of higher education institutions are often characterized by departmental “silos” — where professors and staffers teach students and conduct research in the context of their own expertise.
Operating outside of these silos, a diverse group of Baylor University faculty and staff are devising plans to untangle some of the world’s most complex problems.
A provost’s office initiative called the Baylor Social Innovation Collaborative aims to examine “wicked” problems caused by a multitude of roots leading to unsolvable issues, such as health care crises in India, hunger on college campuses and child migration across Central America.
“They’re intimidating to work on,” said Andy Hogue, a Baylor senior lecturer and director of the Philanthropy and Public Service Program. “In the context of a university, there are problems that don’t belong to any one field or any one discipline. . . . If you try a single-method approach, you might actually make it worse because of the complex nature of it. You push the problem in a different direction.”
Sometimes, accurately defining these problems is a challenge in itself, he said.
Eight initiatives focused on such issues feature yearslong timelines for research and consulting, and some will include undergraduate and graduate courses for students to study the problems.
The initiatives begin with seed funding from the provost’s office, and other revenue sources will be utilized based on successes of the courses and research.
Next month, associate professor of anthropology Lori Baker begins teaching Child Migration in the Western Hemisphere with Victor Hinojosa, an honors college associate professor of political science. Officials from the Baylor-affiliated Texas Hunger Initiative’s McAllen office will also lecture and provide firsthand knowledge of the issue to students.
Baker founded the Reuniting Families Project, which identifies remains of immigrants who died along the United States-Mexico border and returns them to families. According to her research, more and more child migrants have attempted to cross the border over the past several years.
“Around 2014, I just hit the roof because in the Rio Grande Valley we had the largest number of children coming across the border,” said Baker, also a Baylor vice provost. “We’re talking hundreds and hundreds a day.”
She said fewer people have attempted to cross since the election of President Donald Trump, yet she fears an uptick in homicide rates in Central America because many flee violence in their home countries.
Defining problems while including student research and ideas is exactly what professors seek, she said.
“They’ve been telling us to do interdisciplinary work for a while, but mostly that means we just bring together teams of people, and each one has their little piece and we just put it together, instead of actually working in concert,” Baker said. “So it’s not just bringing these disciplines together, it’s teaching us how to work together in different ways.”
Baker said the collaboration is enriching and also vital to securing federal funding to develop and implement their research.
Another fall semester offering, Healthy River, Healthy Community, dissects management of rivers and impacts to water quality and quantity.
Suzanne Nesmith, an associate dean in the school of education, will teach the course with other representatives from her department, the Hankamer School of Business, the departments of religion and environmental science, the Mayborn Museum, the Office of Community Engagement and Service and the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research.
Nesmith said she is thrilled with the diversity of her 12 students’ majors, which range from museum studies to political science to education.
“This is, to me, the perfect example of something to approach of the multidisciplinary format,” said Nesmith, also an associate professor in curriculum and instruction in science education. “Let’s look at the river. Let’s look at the impact of the river on the community from multiple perspectives.”
An initiative looking to promote better access to health care in the slums of India features faculty members in nursing, art, statistics and business management information.
Ideas for the courses started several years ago, and former Provost and Executive Vice President L. Gregory Jones spearheaded the collaboration over the past year, Hogue said. Jones resigned last month to return to a faculty position at Duke University.
A working group Hogue participated in was overwhelmed by ideas from faculty members. Schools with similar social innovation models include Brown University, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California and Stanford University. Programs such as these could be emblematic of a larger shift in higher education, Hogue said.
Though organized academic disciplines exist for valid reasons in higher education, silos can be constraining, he said.
“We’re trying to cultivate different mindsets and skills in terms of teaching and learning that translate for students into all sorts of different fields they might find themselves later on,” Hogue said. “For faculty and staff, it’s realizing that, ‘I don’t have a monopoly on understanding a problem that’s this complex. Somebody else might help me better understand it, so we ought to think about it together.’ ”