Strategic research funding draws mixed reactions

The current University administration believes that the path to improved national distinction requires reexamination of financial and physical resources aligned with the newly proposed “spires of excellence.”In a recent press release, UVM announced that it is planning to launch a Transdisciplinary Research Initiative in attempt to solidify the University’s status as a cutting edge research center and attempt to ensure enrollment of the most academically talented students.According to a University announcement, the initiative is scheduled for implementation during fiscal year 2011 and involves investments in eight categories.These topics discuss research collaboration, funding for scholarly pursuits and faculty research projects, recruitment of accredited faculty members and the allocation of University resources to projects that will bring national prominence to the school and attract long-term outside funding.During a UVM Today interview with Provost Jane Knodell and Vice President for Research and Graduate Study Domenico Grasso, Grasso said that strategic allocation of University funds will be used to make investments in “spires of excellence,” or world-class programs within transdisciplinary topic areas. “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.”According to both Grasso and 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. “The spires will also influence the proposals for external funding that we choose to support with matching funds,” Grasso said.The “spires of excellence” proposal has been met with mixed reactions from UVM faculty. Some faculty members are skeptical about the possible elimination of existing programs in order to make more room for new initiatives, as was discussed in the recent Burlington Free Press article. Others are displeased by the lack of faculty consultation regarding the new developments. According to an article issued by Jeff Wakefield of University Communications, the University sent out a campus-wide 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 article states that each group is tasked with exploring ways in which the University can invest in world-class programs with the goal of attaining national distinction.These proposed reconstructions are in the process of being finalized and the administration is offering faculty the opportunity to articulate their positions on the policies.