Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, Spring 2016: Dean’s Letter

From Dean Nordt

The Baylor College of Arts & Sciences is a diverse academic unit, spanning the sciences, humanities, social sciences and arts. In these remarks, I’d like to explore how we strive to make sense of such diversity within the confines of a single academic unit.

Some claim that the size and diversity of the College of Arts & Sciences represent some of our greatest strengths, while others believe those broad dimensions weaken us because of the potential to become directionless. These age-old opposing viewpoints are reflected within Baylor’s university-wide commitment to general education outcomes that are articulated in our “Four Cs” (critical thinking, communication, Christian commitment and civic responsibility). These outcomes are foundational and unify varying aspects of the liberal arts and sciences core curriculum.

We then build on these foundations with an intense commitment to skills and knowledge within specific fields of expertise. Our 25 departments, organized along the lines of each academic discipline, prepare our undergraduates to excel in their respective disciplines as they pursue graduate and professional studies, leadership positions in the workplace, and lifelong learning opportunities.

Further, when opportunities arise for cross-disciplinary teaching or research, we are able to take advantage of such collaborations that can result in discoveries, novel insights or successes that would have been unimaginable if the participants had remained in their disciplinary “silos.” Fostering such teaching and research through interdisciplinary relationships is a priority for us.

For example, in April 2016 the College of Arts & Sciences sponsored our second annual transdisciplinary symposium designed to explore topics across the sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. This year’s symposium, titled “The Anthropocene,” featured guest experts from the fields of tropical medicine, geoscience and environmental science. By its very nature, this new area of study requires an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving as we try to understand the impact humans have (anthropo) on their environment (cene, or most recent geological epoch).

Many insights will emerge from this field of study, including more complex understanding of the impact of human life on myriad aspects of our world, clearer histories of how significant problems unfolded, recognition of the interplay of dynamical systems, new ways to learn about the impact of humans on nature, and discernment of how to begin to solve such problems.

This and other related topical areas are addressed under the term “grand challenges” because they require multidisciplinary teams working together across scientific, political, social and cultural boundaries. For example, how does one solve a pollution problem only studying the geochemical assay of the water? You cannot –– without understanding the source of the water, the people using the water and their perceptions of it, and the governments that supply and distribute the water.

You will see in this issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine an account of faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences who conduct research on a variety of aspects of cancer –– and it’s an impressive list of scholars and teachers. This cancer research ranges from “basic” to “translational” to “clinical.” The basic benchtop research studying the interactions of various molecules might lead to a translational research approach using those molecules as suppressors of tumor growth, and that might in turn lead to clinical trials on various drug therapies. Such new drug therapies might then be brought to society, perhaps even in a global context –– an arena that Baylor is becoming more involved in –– where teams of researchers across disciplines work together to solve vital health concerns.

Whether it is seen by environmental scientists working alongside social scientists, or in theologians and philosophers collaborating with colleagues from engineering and business, such dynamic interactions bridging diverse disciplines are critically important to solving the grand challenges of society. To come full circle, the transdisciplinary approach to both teaching and research magnifies the strengths of diversity and illuminates pathways towards strategic areas of concern. It leaves us stronger, rather than weaker, because of our enhanced ability to address complex matters of national and even global importance.

Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” and a 1970 Nobel Laureate, is credited with saving some 30 million people from starvation in India and Pakistan during the 1960s by having developed high yield strains of wheat. He once told me that developing the advanced strains of wheat for increased food production was not nearly as difficult as implementing the technology into countries with varying cultural perceptions and the complexities of different governmental systems. This is much the same lesson we have learned in Arts & Sciences –– that some challenges are too complex to be solved by studying only one aspect of the problem.

Dr. Lee Nordt
Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences

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