In this article Steven Brint (2005) examines the strategies some public and private research universities are using to increase income and other political and economic resources. This examination is based on interviews and the analysis of university plans.
In contrast to the long history of research universities funding specialized departments, research universities are moving in a "new direction" by supporting the funding of "interdisciplinary creativity". In many cases this means creating teams of people from different disciplines to work on research projects. For example, in the sciences interdisciplinary teams may work to create private sector support for innovation in biotechnology and materials science. In the arts and humanities, teams may work together to create new forms of cultural expression. Many of these collaborations take place outside of specialized departments at new "centers of innovation" funded by private and public donors who hope to license discoveries and products to entrepreneurs. Additional evidence of this "new direction" can be seen in interdisciplinary journals and conferences. In short, the goal of many research universities to enhance disciplinary knowledge has now shifted to an interdisciplinary focus on the "the creation of the future" through economic and social innovation.
This new direction has led to more autonomy for public research universities because they now rely less on tuition and state funding for research. There is also more emphasis on hiring staff involved in interdisciplinary research and promoting interdisciplinary programs to undergraduate and graduate students.
Brint mentions that public and private universities adopt the interdisciplinary strategy for different reasons. He states that public universities with Land Grant origins tend to focus on projects that will enhance the local and state economy while private universities have been shown to use this strategy to draw excitement towards new fields of study.
Brint ends his discussion stating reasons why this new direction of interdisciplinary creativity may be a passing fad including the possibility that the federal and state governments may lose interest in funding large technology projects. He also gives reasons why this trend will continue such as the need to compete with other countries like Japan and China who are developing national innovation systems.
While reading this article, I couldn't help but reflect on how UW-Madison is using "interdisciplinary creativity" to increase political and economic support. The following are a few questions I found myself asking. What role does the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery play in securing political and economic support for new innovations? What private sector organizations are investing in UW-Madison research? What knowledge about these collaborations is not available to the public because research is now tied to the private sector? How does the role of university students (undergraduate and graduate) change when they assist on projects that are privately funded?
I look forward to discussing this article because I have additional questions about the author's research methodology and I am interested in knowing what my peers think of his findings.