With Grand Challenges come great responsibility, warns Weiss

September 3, 2019

Grand Challenges are a growing trend at public research universities, but faculty are faced with increased demands on their research efforts with these new initiatives. The quantity and structure of these larger-than-life initiatives can be overwhelming, warns Janet Weiss, professor of public policy at the Ford School, and Anne Khademian of Virginia Tech in “What Universities Get Right – And Wrong – About Grand Challenges,” an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed published September 3.

In the last 10 years, 25 research universities have announced initiatives that are branded to reach new heights and solve far-reaching challenges. For example the University of Texas recently announced three Grand Challenges. Weiss and Khadermian warn that the expectations placed on faculty may be too large and complicated to execute, commenting “While the announcement and launch of such initiatives may drum up attention, the concrete steps required to execute them don’t coexist comfortably with the existing institutional structures, resources and incentives of large research universities.”  

Faculty already face remarkable pressure to excel in individualized, published research in order to be granted promotions and tenure. The Grand Challenges’ focus on collaborative research approaches may be unrealistic, argue the writers. “Faculty members feel caught in cross-pressures that discourage investment in multidisciplinary teams working across disciplines with industry, government and foundation partners.”

Weiss and Khademian state that resources for long-term investment will be instrumental in effectively executing the Grand Challenges, along with implementing effective measures of progress.  Weiss reasserts “It’s right to think that vivid, inspirational language will help people to appreciate how universities can serve society. But it’s wrong to think it can be done only with rhetoric and goodwill -- and without new capacity and flexibility at the core of long-standing institutional practices.”

Read the full op-ed on Inside Higher Ed

Janet Weiss is the Mary C. Bromage Collegiate Professor at the Ross School of Business and a professor of public policy at the Ford School. She does research on policies to improve the leadership and management of public and nonprofit agencies. Weiss founded the Nonprofit and Public Management Center, and is currently the faculty director of the Nonprofit Board Fellowship program. She is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.