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Learning from Arizona State University about Inter-Disciplinarity: A Conversation with Robert Boyd
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo
Robert Boyd
Robert Boyd
is Professor of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

As someone who started EvoS, the first campus-wide program to teach evolution across the curriculum, I think a lot about inter-(or trans-) disciplinarity. It is therefore with great interest that I have observed the emergence of Arizona State University as a powerhouse in my area. When yet another faculty position was recently advertised, I jokingly tweeted “Hey! ASU should stop sucking up every evolutionary social scientist in the universe!”

Robert Boyd is one of my colleagues who moved to ASU from UCLA, which is also a powerhouse in evolutionary studies. We both attended the first annual meeting of the Cultural Evolution Society, which I played a role in creating through the Evolution Institute, in Jena, Germany during September 13-16. I took the opportunity to have a conversation with Rob about the secret of ASU’s success.

David Sloan Wilson: We are here to talk about inter-disciplinarity. Most universities want it but it’s hard to get. I do my best with EvoS at Binghamton University. You came from a university, UCLA, that if only by virtue of its size allowed for a lot of inter-disciplinarity. Then you went to ASU, which is doing amazing things for inter-disciplinarity. Tell us about your experience with inter-disciplinarity and especially this new institutional experiment that seems to have been initiated by ASU’s president.

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Robert Boyd: Being a biological anthropologist interested in a range of things attached to human evolution, I think is a different problem than most scholars face when they’re trying to do inter-disciplinary work. If you have an anthropology department that’s tolerant, it’s fairly easy to do a wide range of things and publish in a wide range of disciplines–because anthropology doesn’t have a central core journal that you have to publish in. It doesn’t have a central core of ideas, really, that everyone in the discipline shares. So, in a department where people are willing, it’s possible to do interdisciplinary work within a so-called disciplinary context. It’s a discipline, but not very disciplined.

DSW: How many anthropology departments are like that?

RB: Ummm. That’s a good question.

DSW: I mean, there are the famous divisions within anthropology between science and non-science…

RB: Right, and many anthropology departments have–Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, Berkeley–have had these battles. The biological anthropologists have been more or less driven out of the departments. But there are other departments–Washington, New Mexico, Harvard–well, Harvard split, so that’s a counter-example.

DSW: So did Stanford and Berkeley.

RB: Berkeley just eliminated the biological anthropology, as did Chicago. Stanford split and then there was a shotgun remarriage. I don’t think that things are going so well there.

DSW: So you were lucky to be in a cordial anthropology department! The field of anthropology as a whole does not provide a model of inter-disciplinarity! Many anthro departments are microcosms of intellectual dysfunction! [see my interview with the sociocultural anthropologist Robert Paul for more on this theme].

RB: Yeah, but I think that depends on the people. It’s not like economics, where there is a very strong consensus on what journals you have to publish in, what kind of work is mainstream economics. My experience with economists is that expanding the boundaries has to come from the very top. People at MIT or Princeton can expand the boundaries because these have established their prestige, but a young person pretty much has to stay within the boundaries. So, I often felt that I could publish in Nature or Science, I could publish in Econ journals, and the department was fine with that. Once the university committees were deciding on promotion, they were fine with that too because they were made up a wide range of people who understood how that worked. ASU is completely different. By the time I got there in 2011..

DSW: Set the stage for the reader who might not know the details.

RB: OK. In 2003 ASU hired a new president, Michael Crow. He’s a policy scholar from Columbia, I think. He has many interesting ideas and one of them is that growth areas of science are in the boundaries between disciplines. If a place like ASU is going to be successful, it’s not going to compete with Chicago or Harvard head on. It has to do something better. Before he got there, ASU had more or less standard disciplines and he reorganized a good deal of this into much larger interdisciplinary units. So I don’t belong to a department. I belong to the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which was created before I got there and was meant to include anthropology, sociology, a program called global health, which is a semi-applied program that’s interested in issues pertaining to health delivery, ecology and such, in a worldwide context. There are also some epidemiologists in the school and a scattering of other people. Most of the departments in College of Letters and Science underwent this consolidation into larger units. There were some of exceptions, the biggest of which is psychology, which has maintained itself as a separate discipline. Economics was never in the college of letters and science at ASU; it was always in the business school, so it has a different dynamic.

So, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change must be three or four times the size of a typical academic department. It has a director, it has subunits within the school, which are quite fluid, so you can create new subunits…

DSW: That’s important, I think…

RB: Yeah. There is an anthropology program but it doesn’t have the institutional solidity that the typical department has. It doesn’t have its own staff. It can set up a curriculum but you can also set up other curricula for other programs. This is second hand, but my understanding of how my recruitment…Joan Silk is my spouse and a primatologist of some repute, and ASU recruited us both to come to join the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. At the time, the school had a very strong program in paleoanthropology. Maybe the best of the world or certainly one of the best. But almost no primatology and no applications of evolution to human behavior. Except, they hired Kim Hill, who is a human behavioral ecologist. Kim and the director of the school, an archeologist named Sander van der Leeuw, thought that this would be a great way to build a program of evolution and human behavior. They met with Michael Crow, convinced him of the idea, and recruited Joan and I to join and build the program by offering a substantial number of lines. That’s the way that Crow has tried to expand programs.

DSW: You already had a great place at UCLA, so you needed an incentive to come to ASU.

RB: When I came to interview it was as a kind of a courtesy. I didn’t think there was much chance I would leave Los Angeles to come to Phoenix and leave UCLA to come to ASU. But they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.

DSW: Not just a big financial offer, but an interdisciplinary offer.

RB: It’s what I have been wanting to do at UCLA forever and there was never any chance of getting even one additional line. What we had done at UCLA was build a fairly strong program in Evolution and Human Behavior, but not building any traditional physical anthropology, genetics, or paleoanthropology. We just didn’t have the lines to do it with. As another example, just after we arrived, Crow and some people in our school entered into a negotiation with Randy Nesse, who is one of the two or three founders of this interdisiplinary idea of evolutionary medicine. He eventually succumbed to a similar offer. He was offered an even a bigger package of lines and has created a Center of Evolutionary Medicine which is very dynamic. And there is quite a bit of synergism between his program and ours.

DSW: This is a good example, because the whole field of evolutionary medicine–first of all, why medicine wasn’t already evolutionary is one story, and the other story is that evolutionary medicine has remained this tiny, tiny thing for, like, two or three decades, because of its interdisciplinarity. Now it has fertile ground to grow at ASU [go here for my TVOL interview with Nesse and his move to ASU].

RB: Right. He’s hired a bunch of good people, we’ve hired a bunch of good people. It shows that you can do it if you have the resources. Nobody from the School of Evolution and Social Change has really objected to the fact that we had control over the positions. The resources came to us and not to the department as a whole and the other things that people might have wanted to do. At the School of Life Sciences some people have opposed the evolutionary medicine idea, but Crow can direct from the top in the way that most university presidents can’t.

DSW: It bothers me a little bit that a dictator was required to make this happen, we’ll leave that aside.

RB: Absolutely.

DSW: Our president, Harvey Stenger, who is very ambitious for transdisciplinarity and very inclusive, actually, set up what we call Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAEs). They work to a degree but there are two reasons why they don’t work as well as what’s happening at ASU. First, they actually don’t have a lot of resources at their disposal. Second, they are pasted onto the traditional departmental structure. So, someone like me who directs EvoS or my colleague, Carl Lipo, who directs the Environmental Studies program–we just don’t have the support that come naturally to a department. Beyond a rather meager level, inter-disciplinarity won’t work without institutional change.

RB: I think the two key resources are faculty lines–permanent faculty lines–short term money doesn’t build, really, because people aren’t willing to invest. The other thing is graduate student support. You need to have internal support for graduate students. This is more true in the social sciences. In the natural sciences it’s easier to find graduate student support.

DSW: Grants and the like.

RB: We were lucky to get the first one in spades. Graduate support is not as generous here but we’re working on it.

DSW: Your president also did something bold with respect to undergraduate admission policies, right? Could you discuss that a little?

RB: This is again second hand, before I came, but my understanding is that the size of the university has expanded from about fifty-two or three thousand to about eighty thousand, by opening up the undergraduate admission policy. I know for sure that part of his philosophy is that a great research university does not need to be selective at the undergraduate level and in fact shouldn’t aspire to be selective, because the charge of a public university should be to provide education for as wide a range of people as possible. There is no tradeoff with that and producing good graduate students doing good research. Those aren’t in competition with each other. In fact, I think the increased enrollments were part of where the lines came from.

DSW: No doubt. You told me earlier that there is actually not much of a difference…

RB: Right. UCLA admits the top 3% of California high school students and ASU admits over 50% of Arizona high school students–and the students aren’t that different. You notice a difference, but it’s not as big as it ought to be given the difference in selectivity.

DSW: Often, when I get non-traditional students, they are fascinating. They have all sorts of resources…

RB: Absolutely! There are a lot of veterans at ASU, and older people who have a better idea of why they are doing what they are doing. Sometimes they don’t perform so well on admission tests. We actually admitted a graduate student this year who was a cryptologist in the Air Force and had graduated from high school in an environment where going to college wasn’t on the table. She spent seven years in the Air Force and turned out to be quite good with numbers. She was an undergraduate with us and we plucked her out of the undergraduate pool and admitted her as a grad student. She’s terrific.

DSW: So is this interview! Thanks very much. I think that this interview will be helpful for people everywhere who are attempting to achieve inter-disciplinarity.

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  1. Rory Short says:

    My partner lectures in the school of languages at the University of Limpopo South Africa. Her passion is indigenous art. The region in which the university is situated has a strong tradition of wood carving and other art forms like music. However you would not think so from the current academic offerings at the university. My partner has only met disinterest and rejection in her efforts to get the university to take an academic interest in these gems of local life. There is only interest in the things which fit strictly within the existing confines.