Are there any lessons from the history of our University that can inform our vision for its future development? The more I think about this question the more I realise that our future may be more about rediscovering our roots and values than it will be about re-inventing ourselves.
An example is the need, identified in the strategic review initiated soon after I became Principal, to focus resources and development on areas of established strength. We could do this either by reducing the range of disciplines supported within the University or, as I have suggested, by bringing disciplines together to address complex questions from different perspectives.
I arrived at the latter conclusion having asked a number of people the same question. Why do most successful universities support a broad range of disciplines? Almost everyone believed this was because, in an ideal world, disciplines strongly enrich one another and new frontiers of research and learning often emerge at the intersections of fields of activity. It is but a short step to conclude that the development of interdisciplinary themes is a necessary step to exploit fully the strengths of a broad-based institution such as ours.
Is this a new idea or an old one recycled? Of course it harks back to the founding fathers of University College Dundee, the precursor of today’s modern University. Our interdisciplinary forebears include such luminaries as Patrick Geddes and D’Arcy Thompson. Geddes may be best known as ‘the father of town planning’, but he held the Chair of Botany and introduced his keen interests in art and social welfare to his undergraduate lectures. Thompson authored ‘On Growth and Form’ which famously rehearsed ideas re-emerging today as systems biology by proposing that ‘biological form largely reflects physical and mathematical principles’. He was University College Dundee’s first Chair of Biology combining his skills as a naturalist with his knowledge of languages and mathematics.
The tendency to work within and to strengthen academic disciplines seems to me to be an invention largely of the late 19th and 20t centuries when learned societies were formed to champion specific disciplines. Nothing wrong with that, but for disciplines that exist side by side to enrich one another they must be porous and open to other influences. Geddes and D’Arcy Thompson knew that their interests could not be addressed in any narrow sense and drew on knowledge from a range of disciplines. They also believed it was vital their students thought in the same way, could adapt to new ideas and were confident enough to tackle complex problems.
Adopting a strategy which focuses on interdisciplinary themes, therefore, is not a new approach, but would be a welcome re-assertion of an enduring value.