Sue L.T. McGregor & Russ Volckmann

Transdisciplinarity in Higher Education
The Path of Arizona State University

by Sue McGregor and Russ Volckmann


Sue McGregor

Russ Volckmann

This is the second article in a five-part series about transdisciplinarity (TD) in higher education. In an attempt to profile universities on a journey towards transdisciplinarity, we are starting with Arizona State University (ASU), a major and growing American university. Its president, Michael Crow, has billed ASU as a model for the New American University. ASU has created a powerful video of its vision for transforming higher education in the United States ( This video is a must-watch before reading any further. Since coming to ASU in 2002, Crow, the architect of this vision, has been and remains the driving force behind this vision. On campus, as you will see, there are hundreds and hundreds of TD-related activities addressing issues pertaining to sustainability, technology, prosperity, human rights, vibrant communities, personal health and wellness, and the origins of the universe.

As they say at their website, ASU strives to “bring to life the big, bold ideas at the core of the New American University.” This core includes: complexity, emergence, transcending disciplines, three-dimensional thinking, capacity building, curiosity, self-organizing systems, organic dynamics, reframing, and a relentless quest for knowledge, innovation and vision–ASU is a place that is becoming. ASU realizes that significant changes in higher education are mirroring some of the changes that are going on in economies and other aspects of society in the world. These changes have raised poignant questions, part of the soul searching worldwide about higher education in the 21st century: what is the link between science and society; what is the role of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity; what is the role of science and the humanities? To answer these questions and more, there has been a call for a new university. Although this university has yet to be designed and implemented, the process is underway. This series engages with that transformation.

The world is becoming a more complex place; certainly, the challenges, issues and threats that we face seem very much more complex than in the past. We see this complexity in regard to economy, ecology and education. In the case of higher education, the question is raised as to what is its role and appropriate structure for participating in the solutions to these problems. One international working group preparing for a 2010 meeting in Berlin, comprising ASU faculty and administrators along with their European counterparts, wrote:

…the university serves society in many ways, and yet perhaps not in enough ways. Is it structured to best serve the society of tomorrow? Is it a venue for the development of new and possibly as yet unformulated new disciplines? Is it a place where the students of tomorrow are prepared for the possibility of changing discipline, research area, or work place every ten years or so?

There is a growing recognition that universities need to be reconfigured, reconstructed to address these challenges. As we see, the questions are about how to make this happen.

One of the changes characterizing the 21st century is a reconceptualization of the relationship between the university and the rest of society, civic and corporate. Historically, the university has been thought of as standing alone or at least offering a sanctuary for independence of thought and study. In this sense, it was less influenced by the moment, the current crises, the current political persuasions and the power of the individuals and corporations that dominate the economy and the politics of the society.

In the United States, there has been a growing sense of leaving such things to business. The argument is that these institutions can deal with the problems that face us far more efficiently, cost effectively (even intelligently) than can political and public institutions. Consequently, more and more of those things that were predominantly the domain of civil society are being handed over to private industry or at least in partnership with private industry. The growing use of private security agencies by the State Department and military is one example. The deregulation of financial institutions, the establishment of for-profit prison systems, and the growth in for-profit higher education are examples of this growing trend. And, what we are seeing is that the building of stronger relationships between public universities and private industry is a key component to the development of “the new university.” The wealthy and powerful give grants for the construction of buildings, endowing chairs, supporting areas of research or even providing access to students who might otherwise not be able to attend. In this way, these powerful individuals and institutions help foster waves of change and development in the hallowed halls of the university. Very often, they leverage their relationship with the university to develop products and services that bring them handsome profits.

Transdisciplinarity strives for knowledge integration among disciplines within the academy and between this reconfigured boundary-less academe and society, again both civil and corporate. This shift means there is a place for legitimate engagement of the university with industry and civil society. Indeed, lest we too quickly jump to the conclusion that strengthening such corporate-academy relationships is compounding society’s problems, consider several initiatives within Arizona State University, with its focus on transdisciplinarity and higher education.

Arizona State University

One center of “new university” and transdisciplinary effort is the ASU Biodesign Institute. One of their projects is the development of a single dose pneumonia vaccine that can be produced cheaply from local plants around the world. This vaccine would mean a ready treatment of a disease that kills two million children every year. The vaccine is going into human trials. The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (a significant example of private industry-based wealth being applied to public problems) and includes the participation of these collaborators on the project:

  • International Vaccine Institute (Seoul, Korea)
  • Saint Louis University
  • University of Adelaide (South Australia)
  • Pusan National University (Pusan Republic of Korea)
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • University of Melbourne (Australia)
  • Tufts University
  • Duke University

Such international collaborations act as crucibles for the growth of “new university” strategies for addressing today’s complex, interrelated challenges. Can we call these collaborations transdisciplinary? Well, as we shall see, terms like interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross disciplinary and the like are used interchangeably with transdisciplinary at ASU. We take this as a sign of conceptual evolution and transition.

In more detail, although the term transdisciplinarity was coined at a 1972 OECD meeting, and has since been developed into a methodology in its own right, by Basarab Nicolescu and colleagues, ASU representatives interviewed for this article were not aware of the work of Nicolescu or CIRET, The International Center for Transdisciplinary Research, Interestingly, although the ASU higher education community members were not conversant with the theoretical and conceptual work around transdisciplinarity, they are engaged in initiatives reflecting the spirit of how Nicolescu understands TD: (a) knowledge as emergent and complex, dynamically and organically flowing from and among the academy, civil society and corporate society (epistemology); (b) a deep respect for multiple perspectives (multiple levels of reality shared through a flow of perceptions, consciousness and information – ontology); (c) inclusion and fusion of many perspectives (habits of the mind) generating a permanent possibility for the evolution of knowledge (logic of the included middle); and, (d) the integration of value constellations from many stakeholders or stakeshares (axiology).

The Evolution of Transdisciplinarity

Kathryn MohrmannThe goal of a transdisciplinary university is evolutionary in nature and one that requires institutions to move down a path, pass along a continuum from multi, through inter and cross to transdisciplinary. In the case of Arizona State University, we find a university that has moved further down the path than any other we could identify in the United States. Others can learn from their experiences by discovering the lessons for making such movements, which have a high potential for success. Kathryn Mohrmann is the Director of the University Design Consortium at ASU, and is a former college president (Colorado College). As Kathryn points out, university efforts at cross-disciplinary work have a history, such as the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She has worked extensively in Asia and is currently spearheading collaboration between ASU and Chinese universities, most notably Szechuan University.

Kathryn notes that the efforts at ASU are very much in keeping with the mission of land grant universities and colleges in the United States. Originally, “The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Hatch Act is to focus on the teaching of agriculture, science and engineering as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class rather than higher education’s historic core of classical studies.” (Wikipedia) Certainly, ASU’s emphasis on partnerships and programs has been in keeping with the original land grant intent reflected in ASU’s development of science and engineering in creating “the new university.” At the time of this writing, ASU’s mission statement web page was being updated. It is likely that this new mission will reflect these comments by Michael Crow at a Colloquium in Switzerland in 2009:

Research universities both in the United States and around the world are the primary source of totally new knowledge and innovation that drives the global economy and provides those of us in advanced nations with the standard of living that we have come to take for granted. The impetus to advance innovation distinguishes the research university from other institutional forms in higher education in the twenty-first century. Indeed the research university may be defined as a comprehensive knowledge enterprise committed to discovery, creativity, and innovation. If we do not embrace the imperative for what has been termed “perpetual innovation”–and by this I mean innovation in both products and process as well as the organizational design of institutions themselves–not only the outcomes of academic research but also our collective standard of living will decline, our ways of life will be threatened, and opportunities for the success of future generations will be diminished.
–Michael M. Crow, “The Research University as Comprehensive Knowledge Enterprise: The Reconceptualization of Arizona State University as a Prototype for a New American University,” Seventh Glion Colloquium: “The Role of the Research University in an Innovation-Driven Global Society,” Montreux, Switzerland (June 23, 2009).

Research and Innovation

The emphasis at ASU is on research and innovation, with an increasing attention to redrawing university structures and boundaries to accommodate that focus. The goal of “the new university” is to broaden the role of the research university to address the challenges of today’s world. The focus is less on “pure” research (although that is not being neglected) and more on applied research. Indeed, Sethuraman Panchanathan (“Panch”) from ASU (to be discussed shortly), clarifies that ASU uses the notion of applied science but defines applied as being able to fuse disciplinary knowledge in order to solve problems at the human interface. The educational commitment at ASU is in graduating students who have the potential to contribute to these efforts within the university and within the society, civil and corporate.

Panch explains that, at the front end of the transdisciplinary process, ASU employs two innovative ideas. First, ASU actively seeks and values people (future students) who have an innate interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary mode of thinking and then ASU scaffolds the students’ learning experiences to provide opportunities to work across disciplines. By engaging in joint learnings and project work, students receive repeated chances to understand an array of disciplinary perspectives and merge them together. To that end, secondly, ASU defines itself by what kind of student it graduates rather than what kind of student it takes in, often defined at other schools along socio-economic demographic terms rather than innate intellectual potential, as at ASU.

Michael CrowAs ASU President, Crow has a vision of how the 21st century “new university” should design itself. He refers to this idea as “eight design aspirations,” a new paradigm for higher education. Through his keen sense of innovation, he inspires people to apply these design elements to research, education, and the preparation of future world citizens:

There are many ways to parse the concept of the New American University, but, in brief, its objectives are inherent in the following “design aspirations” that, reduced to their essential terms, enjoin academic communities to

  1. embrace the cultural, socioeconomic, and physical setting of their institutions;
  2. become a force for societal transformation;
  3. pursue a culture of academic enterprise and knowledge entrepreneurship;
  4. conduct use-inspired research;
  5. focus on the individual in a milieu of intellectual and cultural diversity;
  6. transcend disciplinary limitations in pursuit of intellectual fusion;
  7. socially embed the university, thereby advancing social enterprise development through direct engagement; and
  8. advance global engagement.

Taken together, these comprise a new paradigm for academic institutions, both public and private, that I advocate without reservation.

–Michael M. Crow, “The Research University as Comprehensive Knowledge Enterprise: The Reconceptualization of Arizona State University as a Prototype for a New American University,” Seventh Glion Colloquium: “The Role of the Research University in an Innovation-Driven Global Society,” Montreux, Switzerland (June 23, 2009)

In more detail, when Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, takes the stage to talk about changes that have taken place at the University since his arrival in 2002, his audience is immediately struck by the intelligence and passion of his delivery, the extraordinary changes both within the University and its relationship to private industry (seeing research grants go from under $100 million to over $300 million per year), as well as increases in undergraduate degrees (all degrees up 38%) and growing numbers of minority students (African-American up 38%, Native American up 27%, Hispanic up 65% successfully completing those degrees. All of this and more was supported by a 7 million sq. ft. increase in office, classroom and laboratory space, some of which includes extending ASU’s presence into new areas more accessible to minority students and to industry. The fabric of a university has to reflect the fabric of society. In the case of the United States, diversity is a key component of society and ASU feels that it must not be of out synch with this reality.

Innovation and Transdisciplinarity

Diversity manifests itself in several ways at ASU aside from a social value, including efforts to achieve innovation and creativity. The partnership with industry is, unabashedly, a key element in the ASU approach to transdisciplinarity. A significant accomplishment is the establishment of an entrepreneurial incubation center, SkySong:


ASU SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, is a robust platform that supports firms entering or expanding within the United States. ASU SkySong is an innovation center designed to help companies grow by providing business services and programs offered or facilitated by Arizona State University. These services include access to new technologies, capital networks, business education and a skilled workforce.

SkySong is a partnership among (a) the ASU Foundation, (b) the City of Scottsdale (which gave $41.5-million, 42-acre parcel of land in Scottsdale and added $45 million in infrastructure improvements), and (c) business developers, with a growing list of international and domestic participants, Already large, the venture is expected to grow to become an almost self-contained live-shop-and-work center.

While the partnership with industry is a key element in the ASU approach to transdisciplinarity–which includes bi-directional interaction with the civil society as one of its elements–there are significant interactions with health and community service organizations as well, like the Mayo Clinic, institutions of public education, community clinics and affordable housing programs. Accomplishments such as these earned Crow a place among the top ten university presidents in the United States according to Time Magazine and a US News and World Report recognition as having leading programs in business, engineering and fine arts.

When Michael Crow gave a presentation to the ASU Foundation in the spring of 2010, about these successes and more, a delegation of scientists from China was seated in the audience with Foundation members and others. This audience-mix reflects many ASU partnerships with foreign universities and businesses. Those in attendance watched a flashy video must-watch, mentioned earlier, (, extolling ASU’s move to transdisciplinarity, including the establishment of 11 new transdisciplinary schools, And, enrollment numbers seem to continue to grow in an economic climate that is seeing cutbacks at many top universities in the US.

Our sense was that Crow no longer depends solely on Arizona taxpayer money for the shift to transdisciplinarity, but also turns to financial support from industry involvement and stimulus grants from the federal government. Transdisciplinary theorists would see this mix as a natural reflection of the boundary crossing between the academy and society, civic and corporate. And, ASU seems to engage in this financial mix with integrity because its intent is to identify pressing societal needs, assemble teams of great minds and solve complex world problems affecting society and the biosphere. The 2008-2009 Annual Report recognizes that “ASU continues to focus on use-inspired and translational research aimed at solving the pressing challenges facing our world.” Translational research is a way of thinking about and conducting research to make the results of the research applicable to the population under study. With its focus on removing barriers to multi-disciplinary collaboration, the intent of translational research is to translate the findings more quickly and efficiently into practice and problem solving. ASU believes that “universities should be a critical supplier of innovation, intellect and creativity.”

All of this information and insights led us to want to know more about how transdisciplinarity was evolving at ASU. With a great deal of help from Cheryl Carr of the ASU Foundation, Russ was able to interview some of the primary leaders of this emerging transdisciplinary program. For, after all, complex change such as this requires leaders to emerge in many parts of the system, leaders who have the knowledge and wherewithal to leverage small parts of the system to effect far-reaching, systemic change.

youngDavid A. Young was appointed Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Arizona State University (ASU) December 22, 2006. He also is a tenured professor of plant biology in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Previously, Young served as ASU Vice President and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He is credited with a redesign and transformation of the college resulting in the creation of eight new transdisciplinary schools, more than 20 new or refocused research centers, several major institutes to promote transdisciplinary research and an expansive Learning Communities Institute to provide enhanced learning experiences for undergraduate students.

Under his leadership, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is now organized around five themes in addition to some traditional disciplines. These themes comprise: sustainability, complexity, origins, health and quality of life, and global engagement, see Young’s role was to encourage, motivate and direct others in the University, particularly in the early efforts of the development of a School of Life Sciences (SOLS), which combined the faculties of several biology disciplines.

Science and Transdisciplinarity

Young arranged for Robert Page, an entomologist, to be brought in from the University of California, Davis to head up the new SOLS program. When we asked Page about the challenges of bringing faculty from traditional departments into such an innovation in organization and philosophy of research and education, he offered some good news and a winning strategy. The good news relates to a challenge that has been an historic inhibitor of cross-disciplinary research and publishing. Traditionally, each discipline has its own “status” journal(s). These are the journals that are referenced, refereed and relied upon for assurance of quality. Examples range from journals associated with professions, The New England Journal of Medicine, or with disciplines like political science, American Political Science Review, psychology, APA Journal, and sciences, Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science or the Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology. Now, there are increasing numbers of transdisciplinary journals available online. Examples include Integrative Studies and The Journal of Transdisciplinary Environmental Studies. The implication is that faculty can enter into inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary research activities and still be assured of building a credible set of publications for career advancement, especially when fellow scholars can be re-socialized to recognize these venues.

Such shifts in opportunities for publishing and cross-disciplinary collaboration are attracting a growing number of young PhDs who have interdisciplinary doctorates. This situation made it possible for Page, in the shift from separate biology disciplines to a transdisciplinary School of Life Sciences, to hire 30 new faculty members to augment the existing discipline-experienced faculty and to break down traditional resistance to what some must have viewed as the death of institutions within which they have known and thrived. This tactic or strategy was instrumental in integration of personalities and research paradigms. Page explains that, at ASU, with its transdisciplinary focus, he and other administrators are not hampered when building faculty complements because they no longer have to protect the disciplinary core. He concedes that it took time for this perception to become entrenched at ASU, respecting initial pushback to such an innovative approach to what constitutes a university. The new faculty hold split appointments, working both in SOLS and another unit. In fact, in a recent request to build a School of Sustainability, Page has been asked to flesh out the faculty complement using existing faculty instead of new hires, because the existing faculty are already inter- and trans-disciplinary in their thinking.

The Role of Partnerships

Partnering of new faculty with established faculty and with those in industry has helped to break down traditional barriers. The latter also is seen in ASU’s approach to engaging society in the research and education processes. As in the case of SkySong, the formation of partnerships and structures to integrate these relationships between ASU and industry have been key to the development and progress of the University’s transdisciplinary efforts. Page acknowledges that this type of integration requires finesse, making everyone feel valued, and creating a culture where everyone feels that they are listened to and respected–that decisions are made pursuant to their input. When asked if he has observed a culture shift towards TD, he responds that he sees eddies, currents and diffusion–a powerful water metaphor (metaphors are a hallmark of the TD approach).

ASU values innovative partnerships between higher education and industry; the risks associated with these relationships are not new. They are endemic to an education enterprise that not only is dependent on the largess and interests of private industry, but also producers of innovations that can be leveraged for greater wealth by those industries. Industry gets lower costs associated with research because a significant portion is borne by taxpayers in their support of the university. The university gains access to even more resources to hire faculty, build classrooms and laboratories and the like. Ideally, society benefits from creative solutions to complex, emergent problems of humanity. From a transdisciplinary perspective, these partnerships make all the sense in the world.

Page indicates that at ASU there is a distinction between the academic units and the centers and institutes that work with industry and civil society, and that they both play a role in achieving Crow’s vision of the “new university.” The transdisciplinary work happens in the research centers and institutes, populated by TD-minded faculty from various schools and departments. He sees the research centers and institutes as the interface between the academy and civil society and the lens through which the public accesses the president’s vision and initiatives. Page often uses the phrase ‘working at the seams’ when he references the TD-related, translational work undertaken at ASU.

Still examining ASU’s explicit partnership with the corporate sector, we turn to Donald E. Hanna’s work Educause Review in 2003, about eleven strategic challenges for higher education. Strategic Challenge #7 pertains to building strategic alliances with industry that comprise permeable boundaries (Page’s working at the seams):

Strategic Challenge #7: Building Strategic Alliances with Others. Over the past decade, higher education institutions of all types have built expanded alliances with each other and with the corporate sector. These alliances are essential business strategies, and all colleges and universities will seek to expand their web of alliances with others in the future. Whereas demand for learning is growing and access to higher education is improving, competition is also increasing. This competition will cause campuses and corporations alike to focus on their unique programmatic and delivery advantages. Cooperate to compete, identified by William Graves as a strategy of “collaboration,” will increasingly be a critical strategy for colleges and universities in the future. Hague has suggested that for higher education institutions, the key is permeability, and that with respect to the question of whether or not to form alliances, the choice for many will be “alliance or annihilation.”

Such collaborations are essential to the move toward transdisciplinary approaches at ASU. In fact, they serve one of the propositions of transdisciplinarity regarding the importance of opening the boundaries of the university to civil society so there is a two-way engagement process in the work of the university and benefits sought by society. When we asked about the risks associated with such collaborations, for example, private industry rather than civil society setting the research agenda and supporting particular approaches or individuals in leading and managing these efforts, we were told that these have always been the risks in the marriage of higher education with other institutions that provide funding.

Another risk is the ownership of the products of the research. Transdisciplinarity embraces the concept of copyleft instead of copyright, but this term was not mentioned in our interviews. The academic model at ASU supports making information widely available to foster scholarship and development; they consciously characterize their approach as translational research (2008-2009 Annual Report). The traditional industry model is to guard information closely (copyright, patents, intellectual property, trademarks). In a non-transdisciplinary mode, it is assumed that this information can make the difference in not only the profits of a company, but its very future existence. ASU seems to have found a way to make these corporate partnerships work. Finally, we turn to another ASU community member and his experiences with transdisciplinarity.

New Structures

panchanathanIn his role as (and this is a long one) University Chief Research Officer and Deputy Vice President in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, Sethuraman Panchanathan (“Panch”) is responsible for conceptualizing, promoting and implementing strategic research initiatives at ASU. Prior to this role, Panch was the founding director of ASU’s School of Computing and Informatics and was instrumental in founding the Biomedical Informatics Department at ASU. He was also the chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Department. The School of Computing and Informatics links computer sciences with other disciplines through shared faculty appointments, academic programs and research projects. Panch is particularly excited about this framework as a catalyst for birthing new transdisciplinary research and academic programs.

He has been highly inspired and motivated by the design aspirations for aNew American University envisioned by President Crow and the associated three axes of advancement: excellence, impact and access. As noted earlier, ASU does not define itself by the kind of student ASU takes in, but rather by the quality of the student it graduates–ideally students who can succeed, and realize their fullest potential. ASU provides the right environment for faculty and students to express their innate interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary skills.

Panch explains that students have ample opportunities to work together with students from other disciplines, including working on projects together. As a powerful example, ASU’s Innovation Space Program involves students from the College of Engineering, the College of Business and the College of Design all working together in team projects. Students learn about multiple perspectives that contribute to accomplishing a shared goal.

Another manifestation of this notion of excellence, impact and access is the formation of the transdisciplinary Schools through which new academic programs are created that enable people to learn across disciplines. One example is the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. This school comprises the previously separate Departments of Archaeology, Anthropology, and other related departments and brings together anthropologists, mathematicians and geographers, sociologists, economists and natural scientists. In another example, the biology departments have been merged into the School of Life Sciences, which also brings in ethicists, historians and faculty from the law school. Thus, students enrolled in these programs are educated much more broadly because of the diverse expertise and the inherent culture of transdisciplinarity.

In more detail, Panch explains that there is top-down and bottom-up agreement that a culture of transdisciplinarity is a key part of ASU. The making of this culture involves the President, Provost, Deans, Chairs and Directors as well as professors, students and staff. Most significantly, governance has been restructured such that people are encouraged to think in an agile manner so they can create programs that are university programs rather than programs that belong to a department or a unit. The culture is intended to ensure that new programs can be easily birthed and this culture is encouraged and scaffolded. We suggested that the movement from multi- through inter- to transdisciplinarity is a journey. Panch agrees, suggesting that ASU is paving the road for people to travel on this journey. This paving entails incentivizing TD-work as well as removing bottlenecks in thinking and barriers to functioning across disciplinary boundaries. ASU recognizes that any negative perceptions have to be addressed in positive and constructive ways.

Both in research and academic programs, ASU has a structure that supports innovation and the evolution of ideas and programs, so that they can be easily conceptualized and birthed. For example, new transdisciplinary academic programs at the graduate level can be housed through a construct called the Graduate Faculties in the graduate college. The Ph.D. program in neuroscience does not sit in any one department, because it is considered to be “a new university” degree; instead, it is housed in the graduate college, while drawing on the related expertise resident in multiple disciplines: Psychology, School of Life Sciences, Bioengineering and so on. There is broad ownership of the program and it is not held by a narrow discipline.

Another such incentivization approach is the reworking of tenure guidelines. At ASU, faculty members who engage in transdisciplinary work are not always subjected to disciplinary-based reappointment, tenure and promotion standards. Instead, their work is assessed either by a School Committee or even by special committees comprising members from across academic units. It is akin to a dissertation committee. ASU’s guidelines facilitate the promotion and advancement of people who have actively engaged in TD research programs and scientific endeavors. This approach has broad support ranging from the Provost to academic deans and program chairs.

Third, in his Research Office role, Panch and his colleagues incentivize transdisciplinary programs by investing seed money to advance the research programs. Panch’s own research work is in the design of assistive devices and technologies to help individuals with disabilities and the elderly. His research center, CUbiC (acronym for the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing) brings together researchers from computer science, informatics, engineering, design, psychology, neurology, human factors and disability studies towards conceptualizing novel ideas and solving challenging research problems. The large strategic research initiatives at ASU, including The Biodesign Institute, The Global Institute of Sustainability and The Flexible Display Center, are all home to cutting-edge transdisciplinary research ideas and people who work across disciplines. In addition, there are several examples of individual and groups of faculty researchers who work on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research projects. It is no surprise that ASU is one of the leading institutions in winning a number of prestigious Interdisciplinary Graduate Education, Research and Training (IGERT) grants from the National Science Foundation. It is as though these exemplars and their work are happening in a buzzing hive of activity that reaches across disciplines, forms networks and reforms networks as the need arises.

When asked to distinguish among multi, inter and transdisciplinarity, Panch explains that transdisciplinary work entails a fused way of looking at problems leading to an amalgamation of concepts rather than an amalgamation of disciplinary units. Fusion is imperative if people are going to solve problems at the confluence of disciplinary-specific concepts that need to be melded together. For example, cognitive informatics is at the confluence of concepts embedded in the disciplines of psychology, computing and informatics. While leading the School of Computing and Informatics, Panch hired a faculty member jointly between psychology and computer science who is an expert in Cognitive Informatics. Many of the informaticians in the School are hired jointly with other departments. In fact, Panch purposely hired faculty and researchers who have the capacity to work on complex problems, and who do so by acting as bridges across disciplines and serving as exemplars helping others transcend boundaries. Individuals with this innate skill are exemplars of TD scholarship because of their ability to conceptually work across disciplines rather than seeing barriers. In other words, although cross-appointed in two or more academic homes, these exemplars are able to help pave the road for others to journey towards transdisciplinarity because they are able to successfully fuse perspectives.

Panch notes that the above are only a small subset of efforts and similar examples can be found across ASU where leaders of various units and initiatives conceptualize and implement various facets of the New American University vision of President Crow. Panch credits the success at ASU to a unique convergence of outstanding leadership of President Crow, Provost Elizabeth Capaldi, Senior Vice President of Knowledge Enterprise Development Rick Shangraw and other key leaders.

The process of engaging departments in inter- and transdisciplinary projects and innovations is deeply predicated on the leadership within the departments. An entire university cannot do this yet but the potential is there if change is facilitated, not only by leaders at the top of the university structure, but also at the school and departmental levels. That is something ASU seems to be doing right!

ASU does not intentionally “look” for students who can think in a transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary way. They assume that all students have an innate ability to do so and the University’s role is to create the environment where they can be comfortable, even excited, to go beyond what they are familiar with and move across other disciplinary boundaries. Students will express inter- and transdisciplinarity differently, but they all need the right environment within which to do so.

ASU Joins the World in TD-Oriented Higher Education

As we prepared this profile of ASU, those we interviewed made us aware of similar initiatives around the world; that have recognized that confronting the challenges we face in the world today has to be a high priority. As a key example, Andre Hurst, writing about the World Knowledge Dialogue (WKD) ( session, which took place in Switzerland in 2005 (another in 2008), commented “that the dialogue was very timidly attempted, and what one could actually witness was only a first step towards the goal: representatives of sciences and humanities accepting to make contact, to speak in the presence of colleagues of different fields about unfamiliar basic questions, sometimes unknowingly imitating each other…One thing, at least came undoubtedly out of this first session: we are not alone.” Hurst’s insight is an important message to all of those who see the need for extraordinary approaches to engaging the issues that face us, scientific and social, technical and political. Whether it is the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET),WKD, MetaNexus or a myriad of other efforts, it is clear that the time has come for extraordinary means to achieve extraordinary results.

In addition, the call for efforts like ASU’s is shared by others in the United States (although we still maintain that ASU is furthest along the road to TD within the U.S.). Other institutes of higher education are taking the path to transdisciplinarity, and merit brief mention in this profile of ASU. The Claremont Colleges are on this path. In addition, a new research center at Montclair State University in New Jersey has been initiated by a group of Deans in the College of Arts and is under the direction of Neil Baldwin ( From their website:

The reason-for-being of the Creative Research Center…is to inspire discussion of shared commonalities of imagination and creativity across all fields of knowledge, including (but not exclusively) the expressive arts. [emphasis theirs] The environment of Montclair State as an aspirational public university, therefore, is the ideal place to incubate such a Center. The CRC has far-reaching curatorial, editorial and outreach intentions including breaking down “silos” which frequently exist among academic colleges, departments and programs. Outside our familiar academic culture lies a vast, fraught, and endangered world. Daily occurrences on the big stages of our overstressed society and natural environment effect–in ways writ large and small–the way men and women in the post-9/11 generation live their lives. It is imperative that academia (and humankind) use creativity to bridge communication wherever possible.…

The CRC encourages conversation about the permeable membrane between public, political and so-called private worlds and spheres; and explores the impact of large contexts upon the intimate content of our thoughts and character, no matter what intellectual and imaginative roads are pursued. Marshall McLuhan announced almost a half-century ago that “the medium is the message”.

The Graduate School at the University of North Carolina is promoting transdisciplinarity. Read their policy at New York University has a transdisciplinary program on trauma and violence, set out at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, is hosting a conference on transdisciplinarity as we are preparing this article. (


What we are documenting in this series of articles is far from a fad. This is an institution-changing, paradigm-changing shift in the ways we think about knowledge, knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and knowledge application. Clearly, this article has shown that ASU is on an extraordinary developmental path that has been accomplishing several things. First, it has been breaking down barriers to collaboration across disciplines and sub-disciplines. Second, it has broken barriers to building partnerships with other universities, companies, and community organizations in the service of addressing society’s needs. Third, these barriers have been broken internationally with broad ranging partnerships with multiple countries involved. It is not yet as well versed in taking down the barriers between the academy and civil society. Industry partnerships seem to be its forte at the moment. But, those interviewed agreed that transdisciplinarity is a journey. And ASU characterizes itself as a university that is becoming. There are many lessons to be learned from ASU’s higher education experiment–they call it a project-–and we intend to draw out these lessons in conjunction with those garnered from the remaining cases in this series, hopefully Germany, South Africa, India, Mexico and Brazil.

About the Authors

Sue L. T. McGregor, PhD, is a Canadian home economist and Full Professor in the Faculty of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the Director of Graduate Education and has been a home economics and consumer studies educator for 35 years. Her current work focuses on pushing the boundaries of consumer education and research and home economics thinking and practice toward transdisciplinary inquiry, transformative approaches (leadership and education), a moral imperative, and the new sciences approach. Other areas of scholarship include: paradigms and ideologies, consumer-citizenship education, patriarchy and home economics, and home economics philosophy and leadership for the 21st century.

She has delivered 18 keynotes in 11 countries, including several states and most Canadian provinces. She has over 100 peer-reviewed publications, seven book chapters, three monographs, and 50 book reviews. In 2006, she published her leadership book Transformative Practice. Dr. McGregor is Adjunct Professor at Iowa State University where she also sits on the Advisory Board of the Family and Consumer Sciences Education PhD Leadership Academy. She sits on the Board of nine home economics, peace and consumer focused journals (was Acting Editor for 8 months for one journal and is currently Associate Editor for two). For the past decade, she has been a Research Fellow for Kappa Omicron Nu (home economics leadership honor society). In this capacity, she published two leadership monographs, Leadership for the Human Family: Reflective Human Action for a Culture of Peace (2001) and Positioning the Profession Beyond Patriarchy(2007) (with Dr. Donna Pendergast, Australia).

She is the Principal Consultant for The McGregor Consulting Group (founded in 1991).

Russ Volckmann, PhD, is Publisher and Editor of Integral Leadership Review and Integral Publishers, LLC.

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