Hiring to address research questions, not departmental vacancies

Before Dean Paul D'Anieri hired a chemistry professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for a medical research dream team the University of Florida is assembling, he needed buy-in from deans at the colleges of medicine, dentistry, agriculture, public health and pharmacy.

Preeminence Hiring He, in turn, got a say in their hires as well. A $15 million state allowance annually to boost UF's national stature has prompted the university to try cluster hiring for the first time. It disrupts the academic fiefdoms in which departments usually choose new faculty without having to consider how they fit into the bigger picture at the university. It means letting research questions, not departmental vacancies, guide hiring.

"We have always worked collaboratively here at UF, but this initiative requires sharing control over our most cherished goods - new faculty hires. We are building and institutionalizing the cross-disciplinary teamwork that is so essential to tackling the kind of problems we want to solve, like harnessing big data, feeding the world, and checking the spread of disease," D'Anieri said.

The jobs are even posted by human resources as openings in the "preeminence department." The mass hiring is at the core of UF's Preeminence Plan, its roadmap to becoming one of the nation's top 10 public research universities.

Provost Joseph Glover explained that he's arranging the shotgun marriages in the name of good science.

"The increasingly complex problems we face in society usually can't be solved with a single kind of expertise," Glover said. "Throwing more minds at a question won't necessarily accelerate discovery if they all attack the problem using the same toolbox."

Collaboration across disciplines is good business, too. Federal grants are the lifeblood of public university research, and funding agencies increasingly look for broad and well-equipped interdisciplinary teams poised to tackle grand challenges. UF's cluster hiring is also a powerful tool to recruit the best and brightest because it offers candidates the opportunity to work with top-notch colleagues on projects with a huge potential impact.

Glover and President Bernie Machen have funded 26 of them with both the state money and a university contribution.

"Just the process of putting together proposals has catalyzed a burst of new collaboration," D'Anieri said.