Imperative Director Sarah Irvine-Belson speaks to Areas of Strategic Focus and Research.
Imperative 1: Areas of Strategic Focus
In an increasingly competitive, higher-education landscape, it is critical that universities establish zones of distinction. By pursuing areas of strategic focus, a university can establish a clear identity, thereby attracting and retaining students and faculty and generating more support for the university’s research efforts.
AU will pursue a multipronged strategy to achieve this goal:
- We will establish areas of strategic focus in cross-disciplinary fields involving some of the most significant issues of the present and the future, fields where AU is already strong and where there is significant potential for further growth.
- We will develop a transparent, competitive process for launching new university-wide centers in these areas of strategic focus to determine where the university will make initial investments and dedicate funding to support these centers. In addition, we will establish criteria for supporting new or existing centers in other targeted areas, specifically where AU’s strength in faculty research can meaningfully address important issues, while we simultaneously establish a clear process for approving and re-chartering centers.
- We will aggressively seek support for endowed chairs to bolster the work and impact of individual faculty members in the areas of strategic focus and other areas of strength.
This three-pronged approach ensures that AU will take advantage of opportunities at all levels—from those that require a large, multi-school commitment to those that can be successfully pursued with more targeted resources. It also makes certain we have a clear and well-defined process for establishing and supporting university-wide centers within the areas of strategic focus and beyond. We will support the change-making work of faculty and others at the university as they continue AU’s proud legacy of using scholarship to address the most pressing issues facing our local, national, and global communities.
Establish Areas of Strategic Focus: In 2012, AU launched the AU 2030 initiative, a grassroots effort whereby AU faculty identified six emerging research areas in which the university could compete at the highest level. Following a second round of AU 2030 proposals in 2017, which eliminated some areas, changed others, and expanded the overall number of AU 2030 initiatives to 13, our provost and deans determined that a majority of those initiatives fell into four general areas of scholarly strength and opportunity—health, data science and analytics, security, and social equity.
Each of these areas builds on a strong foundation across AU’s schools, and each presents promising opportunities for attracting external attention and support. AU will establish four areas of strategic focus and will, on a phased basis over the next five years, establish centers in these areas. Below, we describe the existing foundations of strength for each of these areas, the potential topics of focus going forward, the importance of the intersections among these areas, and the process for launching centers in these areas.
Health: The existing foundation for this area includes the Center on Health, Risk, and Society in the College of Arts and Sciences; the Health Law and Policy Program in the Washington College of Law; an emerging focus on women’s brain health in the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience in CAS; health-related work in the School of Public Affairs; the Center for Media and Social Impact and the Center for Environmental Filmmaking in the School of Communications; and a Department of Health Studies and a thriving undergraduate major in public health in CAS.
Topics for focus within this area include the social determinants of health, health inequities in the US and abroad, women’s health, obesity and dementia, cancer, digital health technology, health communications, and health economics.
Data Science and Analytics: The existing foundation for this area includes the Center for Data Studies in SPA, the Info-metrics Institute in CAS, the Kogod School of Business’s master’s in data analytics, a new cross-school master’s in data science, the AU Game Lab in SOC and CAS, and many recent strong faculty hires.
Topics for focus within this area include data science for government, social science, health, and other policy implications; detecting patterns in incomplete or “fuzzy” data; data security and privacy law; and ethical issues around the use of big data.
Security: The existing foundation for this area includes the Cybersecurity Governance Center in Kogod; the Internet Governance Lab in SOC, the School of International Service, and Kogod; the Center on New Technologies and Emerging Threats in SIS; the master’s program in terrorism and homeland security policy in SPA; the Investigative Reporting Workshop in SOC; and strong faculty across AU’s schools.
Topics for focus within this area include cybersecurity and cyber policy, the security implications of new technologies, security threats beyond those traditionally associated with national security, conflict analysis, and data analytics.
Social Equity: The existing foundation for this area includes the Antiracist Research and Policy Center in CAS and SIS; the Institute on Disability and Public Policy in SIS and Kogod; the Accountability Research Center in SIS; the Center for Post-Secondary Readiness and Success in the School of Education; the university-wide Center for Latin American and Latino Studies; the Institute for Innovation in Education in SOE; and WCL’s robust programs, including its top-ranked clinical programs, centers, and initiatives that address social equity locally, domestically, and internationally.
Topics for focus within this area include antiracism; human rights in a multidisciplinary frame, including disability rights and inclusive development; college access and readiness; equity in education; women’s rights; immigration; and intersectional and critical studies.
In addition to building out each area of strategic focus, we will explore the intersections of these four areas, particularly where the overlap presents opportunities for cutting-edge research. One notable example is AU’s work on the environment and sustainability, which spans these four areas and involves faculty at CAS, SPA, SIS, SOC, KSB, and WCL. Pursuing the natural synergies and linkages among them should be an aspirational element of AU’s brand—to bring to the surface areas of academic differentiation and to reinforce the university’s vision, mission, values, and culture.
To build our research capacity in the areas of strategic focus, we will establish a transparent and competitive process for launching and seed-funding university-wide centers in those areas of focus during the first two years of the strategic plan.
A committee led by the provost will evaluate these proposals, with an eye toward how the proposed university-wide center will:
- Bring together a critical mass of faculty across disciplines, schools, and colleges;
- Connect to one or more of the four areas of strategic focus and the goals of AU’s strategic plan;
- Address a crucial question or questions for society;
- Benefit from a strong impact plan;
- Enhance the visibility and reputation of the university, often (but not necessarily) through the recruitment of a distinguished advisory board;
- Attract new funding, both private and public;
- Lend itself to solicitation of a naming gift and/or an endowed chair;
- Allow AU to demonstrate thought leadership and knowledge creation;
- Serve as an intellectual bridge, breaking down university silos, and bringing together thought leaders, policy makers, and industry leaders; and
- Help to train the next generation.
We will also seek at least one naming gift for a center within one of the areas of strategic focus.
Support Centers in Other Areas: AU will also grow or establish centers in scholarly areas that are more targeted. The recently launched Sine Institute of Policy and Politics is one notable example. Like the areas of strategic focus, these centers will drive crucial research, convene important conversations, and support curricular and cocurricular experiences. To support this work, the provost will develop a process, with clear criteria, for providing support to centers outside the areas of strategic focus from a fund established for this purpose.
Approve and Re-Charter Centers: We will establish a clear process for approving and re-chartering centers, including the development of clear outcomes, both within the areas of strategic focus and beyond. All university-wide centers funded under this program will be required to submit—at the time of their initial proposal or their periodic re-chartering—a detailed impact plan outlining their multi-year goals. This plan will build upon a template of outcomes common to all such centers, adapted to highlight the specific ambitions of the center in question and taking its current state of development into account. The plan will also lay out outcomes for a formal evaluation of a center’s progress at the end of three years, then again at five years. Centers under this program that fail to meet the impact targets agreed upon at the time of their launch will be considered for sunsetting.
Secure Funding for Endowed Chairs and the Centers in the Areas of Strategic Focus and Other Areas: We will undertake a dedicated effort through the comprehensive campaign to raise funds for endowed chairs that will support the work of faculty. AU will secure funding for at least three endowed chairs in the areas of strategic focus and endowed chairs in additional areas of focus to support the critical research of AU’s current and future faculty in a wide range of fields beyond those that will be addressed by the areas of strategic focus and the other centers.
Hold Competitions for Additional University-Wide Centers in the Areas of Strategic Focus: We will explore holding competitions for additional university-wide centers in each of the following years, resulting in at least one university-wide center in each of the four areas of strategic focus by 2022. The competitions in future years will be shaped by the lessons learned from the first-year competition.
Pilot Data Literacy for Undergraduates: As part of the efforts in the data sciences and analytics area of strategic focus, we will explore creating a pilot program on data literacy for undergraduate students.
Create a Center of Centers: We will also explore creating a center of centers to allow for the sharing of leadership experience and administrative support among AU’s different centers. This center can share best practices on issues like launch-related tasks, grant submissions, organization of student research experiences, event planning, and institutional processes and procedures.
Consider Additional Areas of Strategic Focus: AU will use the lessons from the launch of these efforts to determine whether to explore the establishment of additional areas of strategic focus.
In five years, AU will have launched major efforts in every area of strategic focus that will have increased the university’s reputation as a leader in each one. These efforts will have enhanced AU’s overall reputation as an institution that cultivates top-flight, cross-disciplinary research to address some of the nation’s and the world’s most important policy issues. The centers, both in the areas of strategic focus and other areas, will have attracted increased external support, including from government, nonprofit, and private sector sources, and AU will have demonstrated increased ability to compete for grants that support research at the $1 million level and above. We will see greater student interest in these fields, as demonstrated by increased enrollment in graduate programs in these areas. Recruitment and retention of outstanding senior faculty in the areas of strategic focus will have improved. We will also see improved rates and placements of scholarly publications in the areas of strategic focus, as measured by impact factors, press prestige, awards recognizing achievements in the arts and humanities, and other outcomes.
By making particular investments in four areas of strategic focus—health, data science and analytics, security, and social equity—AU will achieve distinction in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape, attracting and retaining even stronger faculty and students and generating increased support for research.
At the heart of AU is its dual strength in both research and teaching. AU places a premium on having top scholars who are also committed teachers. This approach, seen in AU’s embrace of the scholar-teacher ideal, creates a unique learning experience for our students. AU will continue to differentiate itself by being an “and” institution—one that strives for excellence in the production of new knowledge and creative output, an institution that helps faculty achieve distinction in both.
By building on its strengths in both scholarship and teaching, AU will create a learning and scholarly environment that attracts and retains faculty and undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. The growth in externally supported faculty work will diversify and grow our revenue sources, while creating new knowledge that connects our community to the world and the world to our community. These funds will enable meaningful and impactful scholarly work and sustain the infrastructure and services that underpin such work. Through their experiences inside and outside the classroom, AU’s graduates will be prepared to be changemakers in their own communities, across the nation, and around the world.
We recognize that our faculty are heterogeneous—and this is a great asset for AU. While, as an institution, we will continue to emphasize the “and”—meaning we do research and teaching—each faculty member will not be responsible for embodying this characteristic individually. Some will be more focused on teaching. Others may be devoted more to knowledge creation. Still others may pursue a balance of the two. Moreover, because the landscape of scholarly output is dynamic, we will ensure that AU supports and rewards scholarship and creativity in the varied fields in which our faculty work. As we look to expand our sponsored research support, we are cognizant that some of the high-impact research that AU’s faculty produce is not amenable to external research support.
Grow Sponsored Research Activities: AU will double its indirect cost recovery over a period of five years. We will review and overhaul the university’s existing infrastructure for grant-seeking and administration so the support we provide to faculty is more agile and responsive, both to their concerns and to developments in the sponsored research context. As part of this review, we will convene a working group composed of existing principal investigators, program managers, those responsible for pre- and post-award work at the school level, and other relevant stakeholders to review progress since the last high-impact research report in 2015. This working group will provide recommendations on improving the research infrastructure. While this overhaul is taking place, AU will provide targeted support to the top recipients of sponsored research funding on campus as part of a surge of support to catalyze the growth of external research funding. AU will move toward a culture of “yes” around grants, and move away from a strict compliance-only culture. We will focus on how we can better leverage our location in the Washington, DC, region—proximate to many major funders—to support this expansion of sponsored research.
Expand Faculty-Student Research Collaborations: AU will substantially expand opportunities for faculty-student research collaboration.
Assess Further Avenues of Support for Research: AU will consider how to balance shared services and school-based resources as part of the new approach to pre- and post-award support. We will also explore mechanisms to bolster early-career researchers, like offering training on seeking external funding, establishing a mentorship program with senior faculty members, and creating “navigators” who will help professors navigate the process if they are new to sponsored research or encountering difficulties.
Review Incentives for Faculty Research: AU will review its practices around incentives for faculty research, including those incentives for faculty who already excel at obtaining external support.
Implement Micro-Grant Programs for Faculty-Student Research: We will explore implementing a micro-grant program to help faculty develop opportunities for students to collaborate with them on research projects, and providing no-cost summer housing options for undergraduate students if they are conducting research projects with faculty.
Examine PhD Programs to Advance STEM Our Way: As part of our efforts to advance “STEM our way,” AU will examine its existing PhD programs and explore opportunities for the development of new PhD programs in the sciences, particularly in interdisciplinary fields.
In five years, AU will have diversified its revenue sources by attracting significantly more external funding for research, scholarship, and creative activity, including activity with higher rates of indirect cost recovery. The number of applications and awards received by faculty will have increased, as will have other indicators of research, creative, and professional impact—all with positive impacts on AU’s reputation. Faculty participation in faculty-student research projects will have grown dramatically.
AU is enhancing its scholarship and reputation as it diversifies its revenue sources by attracting significantly more external funding for research, scholarship, and creative activity, including projects with higher rates of indirect cost recovery. By building a faculty-centered research culture, we are reducing barriers to getting and managing external grants, which increases the impact of our scholarship. The number of applications and awards faculty receive will increase, as will other indicators of research, creative, and professional accomplishments—all positively impacting AU’s reputation. In addition, we will also increase faculty-student collaboration in research projects.