Office of the Theme Leaders

August 2011
By Niall McMahon

The OTL was conceived at Dublin City University over ten years ago by the then new president, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and others. The central idea was to encourage academics from different disciplines to see their work in relation to the important problems of our time and, if possible, to encourage them to work together on aspects of these problems. It was thought that this would have several good effects.

The most important proposed benefit was for society. Research efforts could be planned around and directed towards fixing important societal problems; this kind of problem, e.g. climate change, involves contributions from many disciplines and consists of very many smaller problems. In traditional universities, the thinking went, there isn't much inter- or cross-disciplinary collaboration. Encouraging relevant academics to see themselves as part of a broader group tackling climate change issues, for example, would make it easier for the university to engage with contemporary society and for academics from different backgrounds to interact. Such cross-disciplinary description and cooperation has been called intellectual fusion elsewhere.

Another proposed benefit was to make it easier for outside organisations to understand, work with and fund the universities. An energy utility, for example, might understand a multi-disciplinary renewable energy effort more easily than the typically fragmented research descriptions published by universities; rather than the usual ad hoc collaboration with known individual academics, companies could more efficiently engage with the multi-disciplinary effort. In a similar way, such a structure would make it easier for funding bodies interested in energy to engage with the university.

Encouraging academics to think about their work in relation to important problems might have also had the effect of renewing civic spirit and motivate researchers. There were other positive effects proposed; for example, such a model might help new academics secure funds. As part of a larger coordinated effort, their work could align with the interests of funders.

The OTL's task was to make all this happen and to do it in a such a way that it became a part of the university's regular mode of operation. The project received funds from the Atlantic Philanthropies; in theory, the university was to match this investment from its own central funds when the AP money ran out.

The OTL was partially implemented in 2004 - 2005.

Two senior theme leaders were appointed, reporting more or less directly to the university's president. One was responsible for technical and scientific disciplines; the other was responsible for much of the humanities or more specifically, the soft sciences. These two high-level areas of responsibility were themes. Although six themes were originally identified by a committee, only these two were fully implemented. These perhaps coincided with the most useful high-level breakdown of disciplines for DCU in any case, i.e. between the hard and the soft sciences.

The themes still exist as part of DCU's plans and the office was never formally shut down; the one remaining theme was re-designated in the past year or so and continues with some success. Some of the difficulties encountered by the office are discussed, more generally, here.

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