Details of research initiative spark debate among faculty

The administration’s recently announced “spires of excellence” research initiative has been met with resistance by faculty members expressing concern for budget models and program structure. Eight professors wrote an open letter in opposition to the plan on Oct. 8, applauding the concept, but taking issue with the “process, timeline, and absence of analyses.”On Oct. 2, UVM announced that it is planning to launch the research initiative in an attempt to solidify the University’s status as a cutting-edge research center and to ensure enrollment of the most academically talented students.The initiative is scheduled for implementation during fiscal year 2011 and involves investments in eight different categories. During a UVM Today interview with Provost Jane Knodell and Vice President for Research and Graduate Study Domenico Grasso, Grasso said that allocation of University funds will be used to make investments in “spires of excellence,” or world-class programs within transdisciplinary topic areas. Grasso referenced the success Stanford University had with a similar program. “Stanford utilized a spires of excellence strategy when it went from being a regional school to an internationally renowned institution in the last century,” Grasso said. “They implemented strategic phased growth and investment, and they became great.”  Knodell said that this type of research is important because much of today’s interesting intellectual work is occurring beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.   She also said that the initiative will allow UVM to more actively compete for highly accredited faculty members and distinguished laboratories that are enticing for prospective undergraduates. “We’ve been successful in hiring outstanding faculty members,” Knodell said. “With greater focus, we’ll be even more competitive for the very best people on the market in the areas in which we’re building strength.” The “spires of excellence” proposal has been met with opposition from some UVM faculty.  A recent letter from the College of Arts and Science Planning and Budget Committee to University President Daniel Mark Fogel expressed concern.The letter addressed issues including minimal faculty involvement in the program’s planning process, lack of displayed market research and data, lack of information regarding the utility of said programs and issues with the general timeline of the initiative.”Given the economic crisis of last year and its predicted re-occurance next year, we are deeply concerned about the financial plan for this initiatitive,” the letter stated. ”To date, no budget model has been put forth supporting such an ambitious initiative.”In an article issued by Jeff Wakefield of University Communications, Wakefield said that the University sent out a campuswide announcement inviting faculty members to nominate themselves to serve in one of the eight groups organized around broad topic areas ranging from biological sciences and engineering to policy studies. “The first gesture towards faculty participation was just issued this week in the form of a call for self-nominations for working groups,” the letter said.”However, the call did not include the criteria for the nominees to the working groups nor for the internal and external proposal selection committees.”According to Knodell, the initiative will be primarily funded through the strategic hiring process and the use of University dollars will be prioritized and aligned with the spires, possibly eliminating some programs, according to an article in The Burlington Free Press.”The spires will also influence the proposals for external funding that we choose to support with matching funds,” Grasso said.

Julie Roberts, professor of romance languages and one of the signers of the open letter, said the spires could have a direct and negative effect on undergraduates, one that would not be compensated for by the initiative.