Big Problems, Bold Solutions: The Transformative Excellence Program

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I view universities as the context where the most visionary, path-breaking approaches to urgent challenges should be explored. If not within the academy, where creative thinkers from a wide range of fields work in close proximity in an environment where risky work is allowed if not encouraged, then where would we hope to address societal concerns such as prevention of disease and disability, climate change, air quality, and the analysis, synthesis and application of large quantities of data?

This reasoning is what compelled us to create the Transformative Excellence Program (TEP), a faculty cluster hiring effort built around ideas that emerged from the faculty. The TEP is designed to amplify existing strengths of the university, address urgent problems, and raise the capacity, visibility and impact of Utah scholars through the highly strategic addition of a small cluster of new hires across disciplines. More than 20 clusters were proposed; submissions were reviewed by a team representing many fields. Strategic hiring within four promising clusters will be supported in this initial cycle:

• Lifespan Health and Wellness (Dean Cindy Berg, cluster leader)
• Digital Humanities (Department Chair Barry Weller, cluster leader)
• Large-Scale Data Analysis/Utah Statistical Center (Department Chair Peter Trapa, cluster leader)
• Society, Water and Climate (Department Chair Andrea Brunelle, cluster leader)

These clusters bridge departments and cross colleges, bringing together teams with varied expertise and research traditions, with the idea that these combinations have potential to advance knowledge, facilitate understanding, and promote viable solutions to pressing issues of the 21st century. The model is not unlike that of celebrated research institutes, such as Bell Labs (see The Idea Factory), and recognizes that the boundaries of university departmental structures are highly permeable.

Many, many promising ideas were submitted, and I regret that available resources did not allow us to support a greater number of good ideas in this pilot phase. I hope that this initial effort is a success and that we learn from it in order to support a “Phase 2” of the TEP where additional proposals can be solicited and selected.

Each of the thematic clusters received a small amount of funding to assemble scholars from across the campus with shared interests and expertise, though a conference, event, or high profile visitor, for example. I hope that you will take the opportunity to participate and see what is possible. If this initial round is not relevant for your work, give some thought to a future cluster proposal. Please contribute what you can to foster the success of this program. We share in each other’s success. As the University of Utah advances in achievement and visibility, opportunities increase for all. As U faculty members generate solutions to urgent challenges, we progress as a society as well as a community of scholars.

Diversity and Excellence in our University

I speak often of the close connection between diversity and excellence, the belief that we will be a stronger, more effective university – in education, scholarship, outreach and economic development – when we more fully represent the society we serve.

Janet and Theresa

Last week’s event celebrating our Hatch Prize recipient, Professor Theresa Martinez, was potent testimony to the significance of faculty diversity for institutional effectiveness and impact.  The Calvin S. & JeNeal N. Hatch Prize is awarded annually to an outstanding member of our faculty who makes exceptional contributions to teaching.  Professor Martinez was recognized by many current and former students as a remarkable teacher and mentor, and as a role model for students of color.  I heard the students’ voices very clearly; engagement with faculty from diverse backgrounds enhances learning and fortifies students’ belief in their potential.


Theresa and students

Undergraduate student groups have been active throughout the Spring semester in expanding the reach of the U to high school students from diverse backgrounds.  Three student groups, AASA, MEChA, and PISA, hosted high school conferences that brought hundreds of prospective 9th-12th graders to campus.  The Black Student Union (BSU) will host a high school conference for students and families on Saturday, May 10.  Like Professor Martinez, student conference organizers serve as models for those who may be the first in their families to pursue higher education, and make the U more accessible and welcoming.



AASA PISA

Universities are designed to be places where people of different backgrounds and views come together to learn, innovate, and advance society.  This brings with it some natural tension as divergent perspectives come into contact.  Yet, public universities serve as a central place where talented, hard-working people from all backgrounds advance, founded on a belief in the “right to rise.”  We fulfill our public mission when we expand diversity in our faculty, when we reach out to welcome talented students from all backgrounds, and when we include many voices in our campus dialogues.

Transformative Excellence Program

A quick scan of this morning’s Salt Lake Tribune highlights some of the most pressing issues we struggle with as a society – our environment and air quality, conflict across cultures throughout the world and the quest for peace, health in a sedentary society, access to the arts and creative experiences across socioeconomic strata, the effectiveness of public education, clean energy, ethics in political and business leadership.

As a public research university, one of our core missions is the generation of knowledge, through scholarship, that is relevant to the urgent concerns of our time. The challenges we face are complex; meaningful progress in understanding and addressing these challenges will require innovative strategies, strategies that bring together scholars from varied disciplines who, collectively, can shed new light on old problems. In the area of health, for example, we have known for years that physical activity promotes health. What we need to know more about is how to change behavior to promote and sustain the type of physical activity that will enhance health across the lifespan. This work requires the partnership of scholars who understand human behavior with those who study determinants of health outcomes.

In order to strengthen the capacity of our campus to address complex societal problems, we are launching a Transformative Excellence Program (TEP). The TEP enables recruitment of faculty in strategic clusters, clusters that bridge different fields of study, focus on specific areas of societal importance, and build on existing strengths already present at the U. Our hope is that by adding clusters of scholars to our campus in strategic areas, we will significantly expand our capacity to address urgent concerns, strengthen our visibility and impact as one of the nation’s flagship research universities, and extend new knowledge to education and to communities. Additional information on the Transformative Excellence Program, including the request for proposals, can be found at the TEP.