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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Grand Challenges Leadership and the CLA Roadmap

When the University chose “grand challenges” as the organizing theme for the strategic plan, it called on all collegiate units to draw on their strengths in order to engage society’s most pressing issues in more meaningful ways. For CLA, this presented a great opportunity not only to showcase our existing areas of excellence, but also to consider new and creative ways to apply our unique talents for the greater good of our state, our nation, and our world.

The depth and breadth of our research and curricular strength make CLA particularly well-positioned to respond to the University’s call, most notably around the challenge of building vibrant communities that enhance human potential and collective well-being in a diverse and changing society.

We also have much to contribute to the grand challenges on sustainable, healthy, secure food; as well as environmental protection and economic development. Moreover, CLA can and should be active participants in defining additional grand challenges around which the university can focus sustained research and curricular attention. CLA will participate enthusiastically whenever and wherever the college can make a significant contribution to these efforts.

Why identify participation in the grand challenges agenda as one of the five goals of the CLA Roadmap?
First, we must advocate for the liberal arts with our constituencies on and off campus. We in CLA must argue strongly against a narrative that suggests that the liberal arts are “out there” and “over there somewhere” while the important business of the university happens elsewhere. The liberal arts are at the heart of this great institution and at the heart of the land grant mission. Our work is at the center of the University’s mission, not “over there somewhere.”

Second, in many of my conversations prior to and since arriving on campus, I heard concerns that the College seems disconnected with the University’s strategic direction. Or, in a related vein, that the University is uninterested in the project of the liberal arts. These concerns must not become self-fulfilling prophecies. Strong commitment to participation in the grand challenges agenda addresses both of the concerns head on. CLA must be engaged and active in grand challenges research and curriculum, and in the University’s strategic plan generally. Such engagement does not mean contorting ourselves or diverting our attention from the questions and activities that animate our research, creative work, and teaching. Rather, CLA will fully participate where it can make significant contributions.

Third, and most important, CLA indeed has much to offer and contribute substantively in addressing and defining grand challenges. Our research and teaching are directly connected to defining and asking the questions underlying grand challenges, and offering answers to help address those challenges facing the polity, economy, and society. Our research contributes mightily to understanding the questions and defining the answers.

Within the three grand challenges initially identified in the University’s strategic plan, it is around the theme of vibrant communities that the liberal arts can make a singular, lasting, and leading contribution. At the core, most every question in the liberal arts wrestles with community. The University has prioritized an area in which CLA is a leader. We must embrace that leadership role.

CLA scholars study how communities are defined, how they change, how they prosper, weaken, conflict, and unite. We study how plural communities may be embedded within a larger community, and whether this happens by choice or coercion. We aim to understand how being embedded in multiple communities affects the individual. We examine how institutions build and bolster, or diminish and demolish, community. We explore through the arts the multiple meanings of community, and we give life to communities through artistic and creative performance. We interpret how the spread of social media has revolutionized concepts of community around the world. We analyze where community allows individuals to flourish, but also where it hampers individual freedom.

The identity and interaction of communities, and the relationship of the individual to the community, is one of the central, most persistent issues and themes of the early 21st century. And put simply, that is what we do.

We, in CLA, study community. In the grand challenges process, we can identify questions central to the challenge of vibrant communities where the College can make major contributions. How do we best identify these questions? We await recommendations from our Grand Challenges Roadmap Goal Team, but certainly CLA departments, programs, and initiatives should consider ways in which their existing activities fit into this grand challenge. Many units across the College already have research, curriculum, and engagement projects that speak directly to the vibrant communities challenge in significant ways.

The Roadmap Goal Team we have convened for Grand Challenges Leadership will be posting updates to this blog as they make progress on identifying opportunities and recommendations for CLA growth and investment around this theme. These recommendations will cover both the grand challenges curriculum and research as discussed in the University’s strategic plan. Please continue to check here for updates, and consider providing feedback via the Dean’s Suggestion Box or at clasuggest@umn.edu.