This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

UB’s "strengths" will spur excellence

Faculty discusses strategic strengths: what they mean, how they were identified

Published: February 3, 2005

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The university has completed the first phase of its UB 2020 institutional planning effort, identifying 10 areas, or "strategic strengths," in which UB has the opportunity to build a foundation for academic excellence.


But just what is meant by a "strategic strength?" How were they determined? Where does the average faculty member fit into the process?

Several faculty members who sit on the Academic Planning Committee or the Executive Committee spoke with the Reporter about these strategic strengths and where the planning process is going, now that the strengths have been identified. The strengths, listed in alphabetical order:

  • Aging and chronic disease

  • Artistic expression and performing arts

  • Bio-defense and response to catastrophic events

  • Bioinformatics and health sciences

  • Civic engagement and public policy

  • Clinical sciences and experimental medicine

  • Information and computing technology

  • Literary, cultural and textual studies

  • Molecular understanding of biological systems

  • Nanomaterials

Huw Davies, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Academic Planning Committee, defined strategic strengths as those areas that the university feels are among its best chances for achieving significant academic prominence. They are, he said, based on the work that already is going on at the university.

"They grow out of established strengths," Davies said, calling this a "paradigm shift from the way things have been done in the past."

Kenneth Blumenthal, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and a member of the APC, noted that the areas of strength are broadly defined because, he said, the thrust of most academic research has been moving more and more toward a multidisciplinary approach.

"You now have to be able to approach a problem from three different ways. That often involves going outside your own discipline to engage other people," he said.

"It's the way many fields of research are now—interdisciplinary. The question can't be answered by one discipline," added Davies.

Blumenthal pointed out that it's difficult to predict where any given field is going to be five years from now—10 years is next to impossible. "So this gives the opportunity to grow in directions that become apparent only next year, or five years from now. This is supposed to be a plan for the next 15 years," he said.

The APC began its work in September, evaluating 91 initial "foci of excellence" reports submitted by the deans and 30 second-round proposals. The committee whittled that number down to 30 proposals that were considered to be "outstanding," Davies said.

"In analyzing those (30) proposals, we saw themes in them. So we built strategic strengths around those themes and buttressed those proposals by analyzing the strengths of the departments that might contribute to them."

The strategic strengths were determined "inductively," added Robert Granfield, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, CAS, and a member of the APC. "The vision did not emerge top down, but emerged rather from the bottom up by making a number of observations of various characteristics of the university based on the various proposals, based on the strengths of the departments, based on interviews with people. It came from the faculty—they just didn't know it. We (Academic Planning Committee) assembled and characterized all this information, but the information came from the faculty."

Tamara Thornton, professor and chair of the Department of History, CAS, and a member of the Executive Committee, stressed that it's important for faculty to realize that the administration acknowledges that there cannot be only 10 areas in which a university excels.

"There is excellence all over this university," Thornton noted. "A truly excellent university cannot just pick out a few areas (of excellence) and let everything else atrophy."

It's understandable that some faculty members may be apprehensive about what might be in the forthcoming plan, she said. "So many years of scarcity have conditioned us to be very protective about what resources we do have," she said. "We very much endorse the priority placed on academic excellence and the changes that will come with that."

But, there is no "budget axe" in the interim report, she emphasized.

Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English, CAS, and a member of the APC, urged faculty members to use the planning process as an opportunity to re-evaluate their work.

"We're hoping this will be give a ferment to make people think about what they do, not in old, disciplinary kinds of ways—those are very important, that's our training—but in ways that might be new and fresh and potentiate one another by dealing with other kinds of people. That's one of the reasons we looked at departmental strengths," Christian said.

"What's important for faculty is to really see this as something that's enormously responsive to faculty, and as a chance to really think freshly and newly and in a lively way about what we're doing and contribute to the planning process. It's not set in stone—but it's alive, so people should get with it."

Blumenthal pointed out that the areas of strategic strength will be evaluated on an ongoing basis.

"If things aren't working out right, or if people come together subsequently, that could be a strategic strength, there will have to be some changes made. This is not down from the mountain set in stone," he said.

Added Christian: "It's not meant to be prescripted—you have to fit yourself into this little box. It's meant to be kind of welcoming, liberating. In a way, it's a real examination of what a university should be."

The APC has tried to recognize the areas of real strength within the university, Davies said, while also allowing the vast majority of the university to be able to contribute if it wishes and to develop within these strategic strengths.

"That's why the next stage is very important—to build on that," he said.

Davies said that the next stage of the planning process will involve a series of single-day retreats for each of the 10 "strength" areas. All faculty members who feel they can contribute to that particular strength will meet to begin to develop a plan on how to effectively implement and develop that strategic strength.

"We have made a hypothesis: These to us appear to be 10 strategic strengths of the university. Now it's up to these groups to develop a coherent plan that will allow that strategic strength to really develop," Davies said. "If that's not possible, it may not become a fully developed concept. They (the faculty) need to really vet it through their coming together to develop a coherent plan that can be effective to going forward.

"We hope this will galvanize the way people will be thinking about how to develop for the future and finding new opportunities rather than just focusing on their narrow area and be more global in the university setting," he said.

The forthcoming UB 2020 Interim Report, which offers details on the 10 strategic strengths, will be available at ub2020.