Making connections, encouraging conversations, and collaborating are essential elements of entrepreneurship, and, increasingly, those activities have become critical to the work of a research university in addressing the grand challenges facing the world. The good news is that there is seldom a shortage of proposals for the establishment of a multidisciplinary center or some other configuration that will readjust the traditional disciplines. The bad news is that many of these proposals are incomplete at best and wrongheaded at worst, and more often than not lack a plan for sustainability. The challenge for the entrepreneurial thinker is to harness what is essentially a productive development in academia and channel it toward long-term, measurable results without creating more of the rigidity and myopia that such centers were established to address.
The impetus for a multidisciplinary center usually comes from one of two directions: from either the improvement of research, teaching, and knowledge or the solving of one or more important problems. The former, which might be called “interdisciplinarity for its own sake,” postulates that if departmental silos are eliminated and scholars with related interests are allowed to interact great things will happen. The latter, which might be referred to as problem driven, is often initiated by private donors or government programs.
The push for interdisciplinarity in the name of improving the traditional work of the university has taken several