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American Today


Faculty Research Initiatives Sharpen and Expand

By Sally Acharya

What happens when scholars who share a deep knowledge and enthusiasm for a subject get together? As they bounce their thoughts off each other, ideas sharpen and expand. New ideas germinate. They may collaborate on a project that no one would have imagined individually.

Those are things that AU is striving to encourage as it implements the strategic plan, “American University and the Next Decade: Leadership for a Changing World.”

AU’s goal as it heads into the new decade is an ambitious one: to be known for creating new knowledge that shapes the discourse on major issues. But that doesn’t happen just because of the presence of top scholars. The university, too, has to create an environment and offer an infrastructure that enables scholars to achieve their best.

New initiatives

Initiatives are underway to do that. Rosemary Wander is involved in those efforts as vice provost for graduate studies and research, a position she took almost a year ago.

Wander is a nutritional biochemist who came to AU from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was the associate provost for research and public-private partnerships and chaired the Department of Nutrition. She has also served on the faculty at Oregon State University and Mississippi State University.

At AU over the past year, she’s met with hundreds of faculty members and graduate students as she seeks to gather the information needed to move forward and strengthen the capacity for world-recognized scholarship at AU.

How can the university ensure that everything is in place to enable faculty to achieve what they’d like to achieve as scholar-teachers, compete for top grants, and take full advantage of the presence on campus of other scholars who share their interests?

One major focus is to think outside the framework of schools and colleges and identify areas of common interest—such as the environment, community-based research or Latin American studies—that faculty can “cluster around.”

The traditional model of a department or a school doesn’t necessarily reflect the full reality of twenty-first–century scholarship. An example that Wander gives is the interest around campus in environmental issues. That, of course, involves scientific research; yet research doesn’t go very far if it can’t be communicated effectively to lawmakers, or if legislation can’t be written around it. The university is working to identify faculty with shared research interests and facilitate the interactions that can lead in new directions.

Looking at Infrastructure

But that’s just the beginning. For new ideas to bear fruit, there has to be an appropriate infrastructure, which could involve anything from more support for grant-seeking to new databases to aggressive pursuit of patents for new ideas. Learning what’s needed is the task of the Research and Grants Infrastructure Task Force. Convened by Provost Scott Bass and Vice President Don Myers, it’s a key part of supporting faculty in ramping up AU’s research potential.

The task force has been assessing the current environment for research by talking extensively with faculty and studying best practices from peer institutions. More than 300 people have been involved in at least 30 meetings sponsored by the task force, including a series of town hall forums.

An upcoming report will identify challenges and successes and make recommendations that will influence the next budget cycle. In broad terms, Wander and other task force members have learned that faculty would like to have “an easy, friendly way” to learn the research activities of their peers. They’d also like more effective ways to identify potential funding opportunities.

The task force is co-chaired by Wander and Douglas Kudravetz, associate vice president of finance and assistant treasurer. More information can be found on the Research and Grants Infrastructure Task Force page.

The office is also providing support to faculty who want to patent their innovations—and that’s not limited to the sciences. A patent could be secured for a new educational process, for instance, or a new algorithm or software program. An Innovation Disclosure Form has been developed to help faculty determine if their discoveries can be patented and potentially marketed. It’s found on the Innovation webpage.

In the meantime, Wander continues to talk with faculty and graduate students and look for insights into ways to ratchet up the environment for scholarship at AU. Feedback is actively sought; the email is