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Sustaining Interdisciplinary Global Learning in a Financial Crisis

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been hearing a lot about slashed budgets, scaled-back cocurricular offerings, discontinued professional development opportunities, and even the elimination of tenured positions. As executive director of ASIANetwork, a consortium of more than 160 small colleges promoting the study of Asia in the liberal arts, I have spoken with colleagues across the country who are scrambling to keep their interdisciplinary programs afloat.

The sustainability of interdisciplinary programs is tenuous in the best of times. They often exist through cross-listed courses, operating without tenure-track faculty positions or even program budgets. But adversity begets creativity. In this financially challenging pandemic environment, the creative strategies outlined below have helped our members survive and thrive. 

Seek Out Funds from Existing Campus Resources

Development offices often steer donors to specific projects or to the college’s general fund. Faculty and program administrators can sometimes work with development offices to create a dedicated fund for their global learning or interdisciplinary program. Ask your colleagues and others who make yearly donations to the college to designate part of their donation to the fund. 

Most colleges provide each faculty member with a modest fund for professional development, conference curricular development, or research projects. To supplement these funds, some colleges dedicate additional funding for awards given out on a competitive basis. A group of faculty members organizing a professional development program for colleagues can submit a proposal asking that a portion of the fund be set aside for international or interdisciplinary programming. In the post-pandemic world, these funds could support faculty research tours of global or domestic locations, conference attendance, and meetings with scholars or other professionals.

Network, Network, Network

Encourage colleagues to bring an international or interdisciplinary focus to their teaching and research. Introduce them to people you know who focus on these areas in their field of study. A single domestic or international connection can lead to a productive network of joint research projects, university faculty exchange programs, and a lifetime of involvement. You can also expand these networks through partnerships with professional organizations, foundations, local businesses and nonprofits, and faculty members on other campuses.

Connect with alumni from—or living and working in—Asia or other locations across the globe. Invite them as speakers on campus or in virtual events. Seek their feedback and expertise on your programs. Discuss the possibilities of setting up student internships with their organizations, either domestically or internationally. And be sure to inform your institution’s development office of your connections so they can pursue continued links to the college’s work.

Participate in the Hiring of New Faculty

Because your program relies on faculty from a variety of disciplines, schedule meetings with search committees charged with hiring new faculty in related departments. When possible, request the insertion of a statement in the job description encouraging faculty with expertise or interest in global or interdisciplinary studies to apply. Publicize the job opening through global learning, interdisciplinary learning, or Asian studies websites and LISTSERVs. When candidates come to campus, ask the committee for a meeting to discuss your programming and opportunities on campus. 

You can also encourage your college to create a postdoctoral teaching fellow program that helps understaffed programs hire recent PhDs for two- or three-year contracts. Although these hires require a sufficient salary and benefits, they give the college an opportunity to explore new areas without making a commitment to a tenure line. Postdocs bring new perspectives from recent graduate school experience and, in return, gain valuable experience and mentorship that is crucial in the current tight job market.

Collaborate on Consortiums and Learning Communities

Foundations examining grant proposals often look favorably on the work of consortiums. Identify nearby campuses for collaboration on programming related to your work. Explore faculty development, student courses, exhibitions and performing arts, library resources, speakers, and community opportunities for collaboration.  

New program proposals, grant writing, conference presentations, and course development can often be strengthened through collaboration with other interdisciplinary programs. For example, a program focusing on Asian studies could partner with other programs in environmental studies, global health, or Asian American studies. Curriculum and program development is the opposite of a zero-sum game.

College art museums and performing arts programs often solicit the suggestions of faculty members and usually have their own budgets. Share your ideas for arts programming on topics related to your work. In return, you could help them partner with organizations that support global arts programs, such as the Japan Foundation, which funds performing and visual arts (among other things).

Host Speaker Series and Regional Conferences

Many colleges have a speaker series with themes that change every year. Propose a theme that will bring speakers with expertise related to your program to campus. As part of their campus visit, ask each speaker to meet with students and participate in a faculty development workshop for a group of colleagues, perhaps assigning readings recommended by the speaker.

Speaker series, faculty development workshops, and conferences can also draw on local and regional expertise. Connect with nearby colleges, businesses, civic groups, religious organizations, and other organizations to host regional conferences. Some may be willing to cosponsor the program. Bringing someone who can drive to campus for the day limits your expenses to an honorarium, mileage, and meals. If funds are limited, video conferencing services can expand your ability to bring unique expertise to your students and colleagues. You can also encourage students and faculty colleagues to attend the events and conferences, present posters, or volunteer to help out.

Don’t Lose Hope

Financial pressures dominated most of my forty-year career at three liberal arts colleges. Despite the persistent challenges, these colleges continue to offer world-class educations, and their graduates move into leadership positions in business, education, public health, and other fields. Faculty members can thrive as liberal arts college professors when they use their creativity to create opportunities for themselves, their colleagues, and their students.

Gary DeCoker is executive director of ASIANetwork.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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