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Working Across Schools: Breaking Down Barriers

Other articles in the 2019 May Newsletter:


At the 2019 Joint Provost/Senate Retreat, Sofia Gruskin (Director of the Institute on Inequities in Global Health and Professor of Preventive Medicine and Law) chaired a session about breaking down barriers to interdisciplinary work. She stated that we all recognize the importance of working across schools for better research, better teaching, and to solve complex problems.  While there are efforts underway to promote interdisciplinary work including Provost and Senate initiatives, significant barriers still remain.

First, Mark Todd (Vice Provost for Academic Operations) gave an overview of how Revenue Center Management (RCM) works at USC. For more details about his talk and other information about financial barriers to working across schools, click here.

Janis McEldowney (Associate Senior Vice President for Human Resources) then briefed attendees on aligning Human Resources (HR) to promote work across schools. She stated the HR system is siloed itself, with 150 central HR staff, 36 HR partners, 34 faculty partners, and 316 HR support staff for whom HR-related tasks are only a part of their jobs. She explained how HR support is a balance between central and local offices: central HR offers expertise in HR-specialty issues, provides consistency between schools, and can affect institutional priorities, whereas school-based HR can offer tailored support for school priorities, has an in-depth knowledge of the discipline and workforce, may be more readily available, and often is perceived as more trusted. McEldowney noted keys to breaking down barriers between schools would include having a common vision and standards which focuses on the employee experience, regular and robust communications, shared data sets and platforms, common professional standards with cross-training, and accountability and avoidance of duplicative efforts.

Randy Hall (Vice President of Research and Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering) discussed interdisciplinary research. With about 7,000 faculty, staff, postdocs, and students who receive at least part of their compensation from sponsored projects, interdisciplinary research touches many at USC. He stated this work is essential, but funding for research comes from either the University or externally funded sources, and certain costs are not chargeable to sponsors (e.g., administrators supporting research, other indirect costs). Research, particularly collaborative research, requires University investment and subsidy. In practice, the Office of Research also has long-standing standards about how to manage research projects that span multiple schools, as well as a checklist to help navigate joint appointments of faculty.

To address interdisciplinary teaching, Akira Lippit (T.C. Wang Family Endowed Chair in Cinematic Arts, Vice Dean of Faculty, and Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Comparative Literature) stated common struggles of interdisciplinary teaching: outside hiring of faculty to teach interdisciplinary classes (instead of hiring of faculty at another school), redundancy of resources, replication of classes, and information blocks between schools or even between departments or programs within the same school. Lippit offered ideas that would promote interdisciplinary teaching, such as allowing faculty to designate a course as “portable” across schools or departments, or having each department create “universal” courses which students from outside the department could take, but still have it count towards their major.

The final panelist, Alex Capron (University Professor, Vice Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs, Scott H. Bice Chair in Healthcare Law, Policy, and Ethics, Professor of Law and Medicine, Co-Director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics), Co-Chair of the joint Senate/Provost Task Force on Interdisciplinary Communities, contended interdisciplinary work seeks to answer questions that do not have a narrow discipline basis, that require interaction to solve, and that can enrich the foundation of disciplines or be instrumental in solving complex problems. Capron argued interdisciplinary education and training equip students with the skills and viewpoint to solve problems, and that individuals who have dual training or whose research crosses schools produce interdisciplinary scholarship. He described multiple important types of “communities” in which interdisciplinary work occurs: informal gatherings (reading groups, seminars), activities that give rise to ongoing relationships beyond a particular “product,” and true “dual citizenship” for scholars in a diaspora. Capron stated many barriers to interdisciplinarity at USC, including lack of understanding for scholarship published outside the discipline in appointment, promotion, and merit review processes, the current RCM financial structure, tenure-track appointments being based in departments and not centers, and more. He then explained what makes interdisciplinary work possible, including internal and external funding, supportive leaders, knowledgeable administrators, and space. He closed by reporting the Task Force on Interdisciplinary Communities (TFIC) has looked at existing literature, conducted qualitative research interviews with about 20 faculty, and are making plans to distribute a faculty-wide survey to provide broader data to inform progress in this area.

After the panel, Provost Quick gave an overview of the session, and stated we should pursue two paths; first, we should continue to make smaller adjustments and learn from the successful collaborations that are happening on campus, and second, we should do a “deep dive” into this issue as we welcome the new administration and think forward to what kind of university we want to become.

Attendees then broke out into smaller groups to further discuss teaching, research, strategic planning, and day-to-day barriers more in-depth. The main barriers and proposed solutions for each group are listed in the table below.

Breakout Group Topic Barriers Proposed Solutions
Teaching Not considering the whole product that is delivered, but only the numbers (teaching load, money, etc.).

Successful programs seem to be all ad hoc.

Develop ways to create communication lines, so faculty can get to know other faculty with whom they might develop and deliver courses.

Create a roadmap/template (at the Provost level) that guides faculty where to go, who to talk with, which boxes to check.


Need for dedicated space for idea-sharing.

Clear directive from administration to schools and departments valuing interdisciplinary work, with a plan for operationalizing and supporting this directive.

Appointment, promotion, and tenure committees invite people from other schools to evaluate work.

Strategic Planning Barriers are both structural and cultural Study this; be more data-driven, look externally at other models. Try to determine what is the optimal balance between disciplinary and interdisciplinary work, school-level and central decisions.

Have deans do small experiments to get creative; look for synergies, forums, etc.

Day-to-Day Barriers Logistics: space, meeting capabilities, transportation, etc.

Culture at all levels; convergence is in the strategic plan, but we do not have a culture of collaboration.

Create a vision for us as an interdisciplinary university, including a way to change the culture around collaboration.

Look into potential “middle ground” with RCM, and try to find the right way to incentivize collaboration at the individual faculty, departmental, and dean levels.


Ashley Uyeshiro Simon
Secretary General
Associate Professor of Clinical Occupational Therapy
Chan Division of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy
Ostrow School of Dentistry