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June 27, 2001 - VOL. 28, NO. 08
UT Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program promotes social change via "synergy groups": Program educates students to be citizen-scholars through collaborative partnerships
Laura Grund, Office of Graduate Studies
|UT's Office of Graduate Studies (OGS) is introducing another groundbreaking element of its Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Program.
A natural extension of the work that has been done in the IE Program over the past four years, "synergy groups" offer students, faculty and the community a unique opportunity by bringing together people with different perspectives from different academic fields (including the sciences, humanities, social sciences, arts and professional schools) and from the public and private sectors.
Like all components of the IE Program, the synergy groups project aims to create seamless connections among the academic, public and private sectors. It will further enable students to be "citizen-scholars," allowing them to develop their expertise by working collaboratively with people from multiple academic disciplines and organizations.
Synergy groups will harness, integrate and productively use intellectual energy and talent wherever it is located to promote academic, cultural, political, social and economic change. In short, synergy groups represent one more innovative way the intellectual resources of the University can usefully engage and interact with the broader community.
The creators of the synergy groups project, Associate Dean Rick Cherwitz and Dr. Thomas Darwin, along with Intellectual Entrepreneurship team members Dr. Leslie Jarmon, Dr. Deborah Morrison, and doctoral candidate Sharan Daniel, have spent the past nine months meeting and planning with various professionals in the public, private and academic sectors in Austin.
These professionals include the Office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the Austin Idea Network (a group of high-tech entrepreneurs and community leaders that collaborates with existing organizations on ways to solve public problems), the Austin Technology Incubator (an organization that assists emerging high technology growth companies in Austin), and INTERACTIVES (a management consultancy group that offers an approach to organizational development based on business humanism).
"From its inception," said Cherwitz, "the IE Program has been about celebrating the enormous value of graduate expertise. But, more fundamentally, the goal of IE Program, and now the synergy groups project, is to foster greater collaboration, teamwork and collective ownership of issues and problems among those inside and outside of the academy who have the requisite expertise, experiences and motivation."
Cherwitz added, "Synergy groups are spaces where people from different sectors, academic perspectives and points of view can gather to discover knowledge, solve problems, create new and innovative ways of thinking, and act upon that which is discovered and created."
"Clearly, there are people at UT who are already engaged in such integrative and inter-disciplinary work within the greater community," said Darwin. "The IE Programs synergy groups project is simply putting a structure into place and opening a gate for people to maximize the Universitys resources. That is precisely what is meant by synergy: creating a whole that is stronger than the sum of the parts."
"The goal of synergy groups is to bring University and community people together to discuss common interests and objectives," said Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication. "For instance, in a community like Austin, there are many of us interested in finding ways to ensure that our community stays livable with affordable housing, good transportation and the best possible public education system. How can faculty with their various expertise work with interested citizens in the community as well as community leaders to resolve these issues?"
Synergy group participants might work in areas such as health, childcare, environment, race relations, education and literacy, and technology. These groups will have a variety of outcomes. While they will be clearly specified and progress toward their achievement closely monitored, outcomes will be flexible and negotiated to ensure that pre-determined ends do not inhibit creativity and the possibility of discovering fresh ideas.
Synergy group outcomes might range from public policy proposals; to corporate strategies and partnerships; funded and published research; cross-disciplinary, issue-oriented courses taught by a variety of teachers to interested parties on and off campus; new ways of discovering and communicating knowledge; and the spin-off of "communities of practice" (groups and structures for continuing the work).
Cherwitz and Darwin hope students will participate in all phases of a synergy group, including helping to define its objectives and methodology. Students will share responsibility for organizing the available talent and resources to accomplish synergy group objectives, for making day-to-day decisions affecting group progress and for developing the final products.
Synergy groups will permit students to develop and integrate their analytical knowledge and communication skills, experience the realities of the private and public sectors, and learn the requirements for effective oral and written communication with both academic and non-academic practitioners.
Students will engage in research on specific problems. They might design classes and training programs and then implement them, help craft policies, create artistic and aesthetic projects, and document local cultural practices. There are "any number of ways of dealing with the many compelling and engaging aspects of complex social problems," said Darwin. "They would be able to combine the best of being a scholar and the best of being engaged with issues they care about."
Perhaps most important, synergy groups will challenge students and all participants to devise methods of public deliberation that will allow alternative and competing views to be freely and rigorously exchanged, and then constructively acted upon.
The IE Program always has been uniquely inter- and cross-disciplinary. Like the 16 courses, eight doctoral portfolio programs and numerous workshops (that have involved more than 90 academic programs and more than 2,500 students) comprising the IE Program, Cherwitz and Darwin are striving to make the synergy groups project a "bottom up" process rather than a "top down" process so that all stakeholders can jointly own issues, collaboratively solve problems and collectively create possibilities. According to Cherwitz, "our mission is to get beyond the erroneous assumption that discovery and creation are the sole proprietary processes of educational institutions."
There are other significant ways in which UTs synergy groups project is distinct. For example, it involves potentially all of the intellectual assets of the University by bringing multiple fields of study and varied ways of thinking together, not just to showcase the vitality of each or to provide a public affairs opportunity, but to produce tangible outcomes greater than the sum of the parts.
One of the outlets for synergy groups mentioned above, INTERACTIVES, is a private management consultancy group located in both Austin and the United Kingdom. Its chief operating officer, Ian Richards, maintains that success in an organization is determined by the richness and reach of the relationships people have with each other. Similarly, he says, synergy groups will bring people together to talk about issues and solve substantial public problems.
Professionals in the public sector offer similar praise. "I think UT students have an amazing amount to offer the Central Texas community, whether it is bringing academic research methods to a complex problem or offering a fresh perspective and innovative ideas to finding a solution," said Kristi Willis, district director for Congressman Doggett.
"As a significant part of this community, UT students should be represented in finding solutions to community issues that affect them most, like affordable health care and housing. The synergy groups will allow UT students to work with non-profits or government entities outside of the UT campus on issues that affect our community as a whole, they would allow the community to understand the resources that UT has to offer, and they would provide a broader perspective of community issues to UT students."
Added Kristin Gossett, executive director of the Austin Idea Network, "The Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program has the potential to model a new method of problem-solving for communities and institutions. Through action-oriented learning, students will empower themselves and their communities to seek creative solutions."
Participants in synergy groups will represent more interests and perspectives than ever before.
"We are moving from a microscopic view of graduate study into a telescopic view," said Dean Roberta Shaffer of the Graduate School of Library and Informational Science. "We must be able to learn to think beyond the borders that we can see and move into entirely new universes of knowledge. What is so exciting to me as a dean about the IE Program is that it takes exactly this approach to doctoral education.
"This approach has enormous implications for an intellectually rich public university like UT to assume a critical role as a public servant and institutional citizen, Shaffer said. "The solutions to huge social issues do not fit neatly into one box (one discipline) in terms of solutions. These challenges require people who have been trained to think as intellectual entrepreneurs."
"The synergy group project resonates with one of the most commonly voiced refrains in Austin today that of building bridges between the University of Texas and the community," said Joel Wiggins, director of the Austin Technology Incubator. "Synergy groups provide a truly collaborative environment in which students, faculty, and members of the community explore ideas and concerns, integrate multiple expertise and perspectives, and generate informed action plans that address real problems.
"Too often, artificial distinctions are erected between disciplines, between public and private, between profit and non-profit, between university and community, between theory and practice, between old Austin and new Austin, and so forth. The values underlying synergy groups are to work across these divisions, to engage fresh ideas inside and outside the university, and to develop a forum where concerned citizen-scholars gather to make a difference."
Individuals interested in collaborating should visit: <http://www.utexas.edu/ogs/development.html> or contact Dr. Rick Cherwitz at (512) 471-4511 or at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or Dr. Thomas Darwin at (512) 232-1775 or at: <email@example.com>.
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