Bridge Professors to Work Across Disciplines

First initiative from T10 Strategic Plan seeks faculty input for new teaching positions
students in classroom
“Students come to us with a certain set of ideas, and it’s our job to expose them to things they’ve never encountered before,” says David Harris. Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 7, 2013

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People understand bridges—they get you where you’re going, erase divides and create connections.

Those are exactly the ideas that led to the establishment of the Bridge Professorships, new faculty positions that will span disciplines, departments and schools to advance Tufts’ teaching and research in complex issues across the humanities and sciences. They will form the foundation upon which new interdisciplinary connections are forged across the university.

The concept for the Bridge Professorships grew out of more than a year of conversations among faculty, students, staff and administration on all three campuses that built the university’s strategic plan, Tufts: The Next 10 Years (T10), which the Board of Trustees approved on Nov. 2. The professorships are the first T10 initiative to be implemented.

These teaching positions are “a mechanism to incentivize us to seek out and hire those scholars and researchers whose work resonates deeply with more than one school, department or discipline,” says David Harris, provost and senior vice president. “And the program acknowledges what we already know—that many of the challenges we are pursuing as an institution do not align solely with one department or one school.”

The search for the first two Bridge Professors will begin this spring, but not without additional input from faculty. A request for proposals for the new positions asks faculty to identify important interdisciplinary areas that cross schools or departments and programs within individual schools. The deadline for submitting proposals is Dec. 15.

The new academic positions “grew out of deep discussions with the faculty and the constraints they have in trying to do interdisciplinary and cross-school research,” says Kevin Dunn, associate provost and associate professor of English, who is guiding implementation of the initiative. “So this is not a top-down initiative at all: faculty must propose what kinds of topics they would like these new professorships to address.”

Harris says the Bridge Professorships draw from the same philosophy as “cluster hiring” in the School of Arts and Sciences that brings in faculty to support a particular interdisciplinary program. The first cluster hires, in environmental studies, began arriving at Tufts last year. The Department of Economics hired an environmental economist, who started in fall 2012. The Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences hired a specialist in climate change, and the Department of Anthropology hired an environmental anthropologist; both joined the faculty this fall.

“Cluster hiring is an exciting model that facilitates us hiring people who really fit our mission, and the Bridge Professorships add yet another dimension,” Harris says. “Crossing disciplinary lines is really where higher education is headed. It is the way in which Tufts can attract some of the best people out there.”

The strategic plan proposes hiring as many as 10 Bridge Professors over the next five years, creating a real culture change across the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences, and complementing the typical, critical hiring that occurs within departments and schools, Dunn says.

Bridge Professors will also contribute to another plank of the strategic plan: creating and nurturing transformational experiences for all students. Those kinds of experiences, according to the plan, “fundamentally challenge a person’s assumptions and preconceptions, as well as their beliefs and values, and thus affect how they understand themselves, others and the world.”

The Bridge Professors will share ideas coming out of more than one school or department, and thereby enrich the educational environment and scholarly dialogue for students, Harris says.

“Students come to us with a certain set of ideas, and it’s our job to expose them to things they’ve never encountered before—people, concepts, places, situations—and then to help them maximize what they can do with these new possibilities,” he says.

The request for proposals asks faculty to “tell us about an exciting area you think is of critical importance to your students, to the kind of work that gets done at the university,” says Harris. “This initiative helps provide a bridge that will take Tufts where a university of this caliber needs to go.”

Learn more about the Bridge Professorships program.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.