2024 William R. Schowalter Lecture | AIChE
This lecture honors the distinguished career of William R. Schowalter, whose accomplishments span seminal research in fluid mechanics, visionary academic leadership as department chair at Princeton and dean of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and high-level international engagement as senior adviser to three presidents at the National University of Singapore and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
Reflecting Bill’s broad contributions to chemical engineering, the lecture’s focus will alternate on a yearly basis between fluid mechanics research, broadly understood to include complex fluids and soft condensed matter, and typically delivered by an academic speaker, and topics of general interest to our profession, the latter typically delivered by an industrial speaker.

The William R. Schowalter Lecture will be given by Robert A. Brown, President Emeritus, Professor of Engineering, and Professor of Computing & Data Sciences, Boston University.

Organizing Universities in the Century of Convergent Research

Robert A. Brown, President Emeritus, Professor of Engineering, and Professor of Computing & Data Sciences, Boston University

The concept of the American research university was born in the second half of the 20th century with the government’s acknowledgement of the roles of science and technology in defense and the growing demand for higher education. Their support expanded in the 1970’s to encompass human health. Chemical engineering flourished as a discipline during the age of research universities, and I am a product of this success, spending my career in several of the very best departments. I’ve served as a teaching assistant for John McKetta at the University of Texas, took classes with Neal Amundson and Gus Aris at Minnesota, and was mentored by Skip Scriven there. I have experienced and led the work of great academic departments, which complicates what I will say in my lecture.  

It is a special honor to make these remarks in a lecture named in Bill Schowalter’s honor, one of the truly great chemical engineers of this era.  Bill had an important influence on my career, as I will describe in my lecture.

    During almost forty years as department head, dean, provost, and university president, I have thought a lot about the organization of research universities and its effect on their ability to address many of the most pressing problems facing mankind and to adapt to changes in our society.  Performing research with this impact and educating the next generation of leaders who drive the needed changes are fundamental to the case for continuing support from the public and the government. Since the late 1800’s we have relied on academic departments, formed around disciplines, to be the roots of university organization. The chemical engineering departments that I have been associated with — Texas, Minnesota, and MIT — are excellent examples, each doing well the three things that sociologists say they must; 1) be the academic home for students and faculty (the home of the tribe), 2) curate a body of knowledge that defines the discipline, while simultaneously serving as gatekeepers, and 3) anchor the labor market for doctoral graduates. Not surprisingly, the departments also are the advocacy groups within their institutions for resources, with the great ones being the most persuasive. 

    Departmental roles were traditionally performed independently, as disciplines were distinct, and, when the need arose for collaboration, universities created interdisciplinary centers and institutes to lure departmental faculty to work together. In this organizational structure, the departments — who hire and tenure faculty, and administer undergraduate and doctoral programs — are connected to interdisciplinary centers through their faculty members’ participation.


The question I will address is whether this classical organization is the way forward in a world where the boundaries between disciplines — especially in STEM — are more diffuse than ever and the challenges we face, whether decarbonizing economies or harnessing AI for the good of society, require new levels of creativity and collaboration. Today, there is a call for fostering “convergent research” that requires much deeper interconnections between disciplines than traditionally fostered through interdisciplinary centers.

    I believe that our historical academic structures are not tuned to optimize and sustain the needed levels of collaboration or to put the interconnections on the front burner of their planning and hiring. For the most part, departments still hire and tenure in relative isolation, making faculty allegiance to the academic tribe an essential commitment, an environment where convergent research collaborations are more difficult. I am concerned that present and future generations of young engineering scientists are less likely to want only these traditional affiliations and that the demand for talent also will drive rethinking our organization.

    In my presentation I will describe two organizational innovations from my time at Boston University that address organizational change to drive convergent research. Both are aimed at recognizing the convergence of disciplines and the need to hire faculty who form the connections. In the first example, the College of Engineering, under the leadership of Dean Kenneth Lutchen, reorganized the College into three large departments and two divisions. Most importantly, after an extensive planning process, the faculty agreed on five convergent research themes. New faculty are hired both on the basis of perceived disciplinary needs and on finding talent for the convergent themes. Special search committees with representatives from all the departments and appropriate research centers (and in some cases outside of engineering) lead the search for convergent faculty members who will have faculty homes in the departments and centers. Over the last four years a quarter of new hires have been made by this search mechanism. Imagine a college of a 150 faculty members eventually with 40 - 50 faculty explicitly hired to support convergent research areas, bringing approaches from different disciplines to their teaching and research as their joint appointments interconnect academic departments further blurring the knowledge boundaries. The result will give us the needed scale to make impact in the convergent themes and create a novel environment for collaborative research and education.

    The infusion of machine learning and AI across all of a university represents a much larger challenge requiring hiring faculty with deep expertise in rapidly evolving data science and computing who, in turn, will these methods to all the areas of application.  To do this we established the Faculty and Computing & Data Sciences (CDS) as an all-university academic unit composed of a core faculty and other members with multiple departmental affiliations.  The community of like-minded data scientists formed by CDS gives the initiative a scale that would be impossible with fragmented traditional academic hiring and prevents the inertia caused by embedding it in a traditional computer science department.  

    As I will emphasize in the lecture, the idea is not to destroy academic disciplines; they are and will continue to be the foundation of academic organization.  Our goal is to make the boundaries more diffuse and permeable allowing for the needed interconnections as domains of knowledge and application change and evolve.

        Finally, my experience has reenforced the reality that changing academic organization is perhaps the most difficult role of university leadership and can only be accomplished when the management and financial systems are strategically centered as well.  Which is the more difficult task is an open debate.  The difficulty of both challenges is not new: already in 1532 Machiavelli wrote:

“It must be considered that nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who profit by the new order.” [1]

Organization change is needed to be able to continually realign research universities with the societal demands on higher education. The question is whether we have the energy and will to move in that direction.

[1] Machiavelli, N. T. (2010). The Prince.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Originally published in 1532.

Supported by the AIChE Foundation