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Doug Ernie.

Engineering professor Doug Ernie's new position will take advantage of his deep knowledge and experience in both graduate education and interdisciplinary work.

Assessing interdisciplinary success

New Graduate School associate dean will facilitate reviews of U-wide centers and institutes

By Gayla Marty

Brief, Dec. 12, 2007

On topics from food to ethics, the number of interdisciplinary centers and institutes at the University is growing. More than 320 that focus on research and education have been identified.

Such centers respond to urgent issues, help attract funding, and keep the University competitive and responsive. They help faculty who share intellectual concerns find each other across departments and even colleges and campuses. They give students a home for working on new interdisciplinary research.

Some are University-wide centers, a designation that indicates substantial central investment and alignment with the University's strategic priorities. Over the past two years, the U has established the Institute on the Environment, the Institute for the Advancement of Science and Engineering, and several other U-wide centers and institutes--many in response to needs identified by planning task forces from 2004 to 2006.

"It all comes down to generating and disseminating new knowledge in a collaborative environment," says Doug Ernie, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "That's what these centers are all about."

Ernie is the new associate dean in the Graduate School with a new responsibility: administering the review of academic interdisciplinary centers, institutes, and initiatives that are designated University-wide. The Office of the Vice President for Research will participate in reviews that involve research centers, and other appropriate administrators will be involved in reviews for institutes and initiatives that primarily advance education and training.


* Provost's Interdisciplinary Team
* Network of Interdisciplinary Initiatives (NII)
* Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives (OII)
* Consortium on Fostering Interdisciplinary Inquiry

New policies were approved in June for Creating and Evaluating Interdisciplinary Centers and Sharing Indirect Cost Recovery Among Collaborating Collegiate Units.

Learn more at the Graduate School OII.

Ernie's new half-time position, created by the Office of the Provost and the Provost's Interdisciplinary Team, is located in the Graduate School, which spans the Duluth, Twin Cities, and Rochester campuses. It's one of many initiatives under development to support interdisciplinary scholarship. (See box, right.)

The position was created to help answer questions like, "How does the U know a center is successful? When, and how, should centers be evaluated? By what criteria?"

Once designated as University-wide centers, reviews will be conducted at regular intervals, with Ernie facilitating and managing the reviews to ensure that they are rigorous and fair. External peer reviewers will provide insights into centers' and institutes' performance and direction. Internal members will contribute to quality assessment of their research, educational, and training functions.

The Provost's Interdisciplinary Team envisions assessment of U-wide centers and institutes approximately every five years. Evaluation criteria are currently being developed by the team, which includes Graduate School dean and vice provost Gail Dubrow; assistant vice provost for interdisciplinarity Jeanie Taylor; undergraduate dean and vice provost Craig Swan, to be succeeded by Robert McMaster in January; and vice president for research Tim Mulcahy.

"The collaborative approach in reviewing centers will help draw out important connections among research, education, and training that are needed to ensure outstanding returns on academic investments made by the president and provost in recent years," says Dubrow.

Building on experience

Ernie is no stranger to interdisciplinary issues. He was a co-principal investigator on the funded project that built the University's MAST lab, which opened in 2004. The lab allows scientists around the world to perform experiments that gauge the impact of large-scale forces on structures such as buildings and bridges, all within a collaborative environment. It's part of a national network of labs focused on earthquake engineering that involves researchers in fields from civil engineering to computer science.

He's also directed the UNITE distributed learning program for the past 11 years. Through UNITE, professionals have enrolled in distance courses in several Institute of Technology fields since 1971. Today, about 250 enroll in 50 to 60 mostly graduate-level courses each semester. Ernie has also served on the U's Technology-Enhanced Learning Council since 2001.

Dick Westerlund, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Rochester campus, has worked with Ernie on UNITE for more than a decade.

"Doug's a very strong communicator and has a good foundation inside as well as outside of academia," says Westerlund. "As director of UNITE, he's worked very closely with industry, employers, and students to understand their needs."

Because the new position is half-time, Ernie will continue to teach, do research, and direct UNITE. Meanwhile, as associate dean, he will not only facilitate reviews of U-wide centers but take major responsibility for expanding the Graduate School's capacity to conduct academic program reviews, which are conducted on a cyclical basis.

"His expertise in science and technology brings new skills to the leadership team in the Graduate School," Dubrow says, "and his experience on National Science Foundation and other review teams will serve all his new roles well."

"This is a real confluence of my interest and passion in graduate education and interdisciplinary work," says Ernie. "It's an opportunity to contribute significantly to both."

Contact Doug Ernie at or 612-625-0581.