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Identification of Areas of Preeminence: A Critical Activity for WSU, CAHNRS, and Departments

Posted by | February 20, 2007

Over the past six months the university leadership has been engaged in an activity to identify WSU’s current “peaks” or “areas of preeminence.” You will be likely hearing more about this activity in the months to come. From this activity the following definition was developed:

Areas of preeminence are distinctive thematic, multi-disciplinary areas of preeminence that build on a strong foundation of excellence and/or have extraordinary potential to raise the university’s reputation for transformative societal impact and scholarly prominence at international and national levels.

An important point of emphasis is that these areas of preeminence, and hence, their selection criteria, are strictly focused on research and graduate program activities. Preeminence will be measured by objective indicators such as: (1) prestige within the academy funding agencies, etc, (nationally competitive extramural funds, prestigious faculty awards); (2) scholarly impact (seminal publications, creative works, citation impact, invited international presentations); (3) societal impact (influence on government policy, community and economic impact); and (4) educational impact (doctoral students, post-doctoral researchers).

Why is this important and what impact will this activity have on the future direction of WSU? I think the heart of the issue is reflected in a quote from a recently completed external assessment of WSU doctoral programs:

The single most important task the University now faces is to build a critical mass of world-class research faculty in a limited number of interdisciplinary areas chosen to capitalize on existing pockets of strength.

Clearly, if WSU is to progress in its quest for AAU status, it must focus its resources on its areas of preeminence and identify areas of emergent strength. In recently participating as a member of the Presidential Search Committee, I was struck by the universality of this message from every candidate interviewed. The impact of such a focus was again demonstrated by the recent announcement ranking WSU fifth in the nation in the area of plant sciences.

The University’s areas of preeminence have not yet been finalized, but the most recent draft identifies the following “peaks:”

  • Molecular Basis for Mammalian Reproduction
  • Advanced Materials Technologies
  • Molecular Plant Science and Genetics
  • Infectious Diseases at the Human-Animal Interface
  • Clean Energy Technologies
  • Linking the Brain to Behavior and Performance

In reviewing this list, a couple of observations stand out. First, CAHNRS is well represented in the list as we have faculty engaged in all six areas, and have large commitments of faculty and resources in three areas. Second, none of the areas identified are in the social sciences, arts or humanities. As someone who is serving on the committee charged with identifying these areas of preeminence, rest assured that this outcome is not the result of a lack of effort to identify such areas. An important characteristic of all of the proposed “peaks” is that they are comprised of 20+ faculty who are actively engaged in research and graduate education. A list of “emerging areas” is also being developed and does include programs in the social sciences and humanities.

At the college level, a similar exercise is being conducted in conjunction with our efforts to refresh the CAHNRS Strategic Plan. In addition, all departments have been charged with identifying their own areas of preeminence. These will inform the department’s hiring and resource-allocation decisions into the future. I was recently struck by the power of this process while discussing a hiring decision with the leadership of one of our departments. The department was perplexed over which of two high-quality candidates to offer their position to. After considerable discussion, I asked, “Which candidate, when placed in the department, will have the greatest impact on advancing the unit’s and the college’s identified areas of excellence?” The collective “lights came on,” and the decision became an obvious choice. The department’s hard work in identifying their strategic areas of focus was rewarded in its decision.

I do understand that this is not an easy issue to address, as not everyone or all programs will be included in a “peak.” The easy solution is to simply adopt a more egalitarian approach and make the “peaks” large enough such that everyone is included. However, the exercise then loses its value, as it provides no strategic direction to the university or a particular unit. Exclusion of an individual or unit from the set of “peaks” does not devalue that individual/unit or his/her/its contributions. We have many important programs which currently do not possess the critical mass of faculty or level of activity that constitute a peak, but are extremely successful and highly valued by the university and our stakeholders.