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Next phase of Beyond Boundaries starts with stakeholder committees using collaborative leadership model

December 11, 2016

 Harald Sontheimer
Harald Sontheimer, executive director of the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, speaks with other faculty during a town hall meeting on proposed Destination Areas in May.

The next iteration of Beyond Boundaries begins today, with the formation of stakeholder committees that will drive the development of transdisciplinary teams aiming to tackle complex, 21st-century problems and prepare the workforce of the future.

The stakeholder committees include deans, institute directors, and faculty members with demonstrated strengths in the key components of Virginia Tech’s five Destination Areas and five Strategic Growth Areas.

The committees will move forward using a model of collaborative leadership, in which individuals from a variety of backgrounds come together to advance multi-dimensional solutions that can be more readily applied to noisy, real-world problems. The committees will guide the work of the large transdisciplinary design teams that developed each Destination Area and Strategic Growth Area during phase one.

The collaborative leadership method brings together individuals with deep subject-matter expertise; the ability to develop relationships and work with those from different backgrounds; experience built across sectors; and a desire to serve the greater good. If that approach sounds familiar, it should: Those are the core values of the VT-shaped experience in which students are immersed. They are also qualities that researchers and thought leaders have identified as necessary to tackling complex, wicked problems with many dimensions.

“If an individual, even a very talented individual, comes up with a solution to a problem, they’ll solve one or two dimensions,” said Virginia Tech Provost Thanassis Rikakis. “These problems have 20 or more dimensions, and we need to approach all of them in an integrative manner. If we have the right people in the room listening to each other, that’s when the really good ideas emerge."

Destination Areas, along with related, smaller-scale Strategic Growth Areas, provide new frameworks for faculty and students to identify and solve complex, 21st-century problems and produce impacts of scale. Developing solutions to these multi-dimensional challenges requires the synthesis of humanistic, scientific, and technological perspectives, which in turn means that long-held boundaries, such as those separating science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields and liberal arts, may not be as meaningful anymore and need to be transcended. 

Even the Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas are connected in a larger, nested network in which they reinforce and support one another. That interconnectivity provides opportunity for collaboration between Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas, and in the process becomes a rich network where new connections and combinations can continuously emerge as new arenas of discovery arise.

That framework, and its potential to deliver research and capable, service-oriented graduates well-suited to change the world in powerful ways, differentiates Virginia Tech as it redefines what a land-grant university can be.

To get there, the stakeholder committees will be responsible for guiding the work of the design teams towards five sets of deliverables aimed at transforming the university’s ability to make a difference: faculty cluster hires targeted at specific topic areas; joint facility planning; development of curriculum to academically support Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas; a dynamic strategy for research that allows quick response to emerging opportunities and changing priorities; and a comprehensive strategy for external validation and partnerships.

The design teams that carried out the first phase of the Destination Areas initiative will remain at the core of the second phase efforts. Stakeholder committees will tap the design teams to carry out many of the tasks involved in advancing the Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas by making new hires, planning more facilities, developing curriculum around key topic areas, and structuring large scale research proposals and research and engagement partnerships. During the second phase, membership in both the stakeholder committees and the design teams may evolve.

The development of the Destination Areas initiative, launched in the spring of 2016, has been guided by the methodology of iterative design. Instead of delaying action over months or years while studying a problem, iterative design involves using what’s known to begin a project, then testing and refining along the way, incorporating feedback in real time to continuously improve and adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

The first phase of the Destination Areas initiative, which extended from spring 2016 through the beginning of November, engaged faculty university wide and included town-hall meetings, collection of survey data, and continuous review and refinement of findings. This second phase will be driven by deep faculty engagement and stakeholder leadership. It extends for 18 months, through May 2018.

The Destination Area and Strategic Growth Area web pages have been updated with the names of the stakeholder committees.

Written by Mason Adams

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