University of Vermont

UVM Spires of Excellence

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


  • If my department does not have a graduate program, am I eligible for membership on a working group?
    Yes. The Transdisciplinary Research Initiative is a call for the engagement of all faculty who are active in research, scholarship, and creative endeavors — whether or not their appointments are in units that currently offer graduate programs.

  • If my working group proposal is not selected, can it be resubmitted later?
    In FY 11 we will begin the initial round of investment in a limited number of spires of excellence. We anticipate that there will be the further rounds of investment but that will depend, in part, on the time it takes to establish the initial spires, how successful they are, and our future resources.

  • How are you going to fund the spires of excellence?
    As noted in the October 2, 2009 memo from Provost Knodell and Vice President Grasso: "[T]here is no doubt that this undertaking would be eased by an infusion of new resources to support its implementation. The economic realities of the foreseeable future preclude this, yet we are not excused from our responsibility to pursue a strategic vision that best utilizes our extant resources. In fact, the challenges we face are further calls for clear programmatic focus and the thoughtful and disciplined allocation of resources. We will all benefit from the greater competitiveness and stability our institution will achieve as a result."

    Practically speaking, we will be redeploying existing resources as they become available. This will include the critical assessment of faculty lines that become vacant to make certain that we maximize their use, allowing for contributions to undergraduate and graduate education as well as research. In some ways this Transdisciplinary Research Initiative is a very new way of doing business, but remember, we are supporting a substantial research enterprise right now with our current resources, this includes: start-up packages to renovate and equip labs, cost-shares on grants, GTA's, and the infrastructure necessary to support research administration. The spires of excellence approach will simply bring more focus to this investment.

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  • What will happen to existing graduate programs?
    The assessment of graduate programs is governed by the Academic Program Review process under the direction of the Faculty Senate. The Transdicsiplinary Research Initiative does not call for detailed graduate education plans from the working groups, nor do we have plans of our own for changes at this time. It is likely that some of our 56 Master's Degree programs and 23 Doctoral and Professional programs will undergo change as a result of this initiative. Any changes will be subject to existing governance processes.

  • Who will select the spires of excellence?
    Review panels will include both internal and external advisory groups that will provide advice to the Provost and Vice President for Research. The Provost and Vice President for Research will recommend the spires of excellence to the President who will approve them for presentation to the Board of Trustees.

  • How will the external advisory panel be chosen?
    The panel will be recommended by the Provost and Vice President for Research and approved and appointed by the President. Membership may include highly distinguished faculty and administrators from institutions that have implemented similar initiatives.

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  • How were the eight transdisciplinary topic areas chosen?
    This summer, our academic Deans were asked to identify current faculty and programmatic strengths, as well as their collaborative potential. The topic areas were initially identified at a Council of Deans retreat on August 28, 2009. They were then shared informally with College faculties, Faculty Senate leadership, RSGE and others for input and comment. They were further discussed and refined at the September 10th and 24th meetings of the Council of Deans.

  • Will we be able to see all of the proposals?
    Yes, they'll be posted on the website in January, 2010.

  • Will this initiative erode resources that support undergraduate teaching?
    No. Delivering the highest quality education to both undergraduate and graduate students is — and always will be — paramount in any decision-making process at the University of Vermont. The allocation of resources — for faculty hires, program support, facilities, and other expenditures — has always included research activities. This initiative will more effectively focus our research expenditures. It will emphasize our continuing efforts to attract, develop, and retain the highest-quality teacher-scholars.

  • Will this initiative result in two "tiers" of faculty, some "excellent" and some not?
    No. The University has always had faculty members engaged in excellent research and scholarly activity with varying levels of investment from the institution. To the extent possible, we will continue to cultivate and support excellent research, scholarship and creative activity across the institution. The spires refer to, and will build distinction in, particular research and graduate programs. They are not markers of the excellence of our individual faculty members.

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  • I have reservations about the University's possible expansion in one of the transdisciplinary topic areas. Should I join the working group and argue against it? How can I share my reservations otherwise?
    First, we urge faculty members to suspend judgment. The transdisciplinary topic areas have been broadly constructed. The possibilities within these areas are vast, and may be surprising.

    Ideally, your membership on a working group should be motivated by your current research interests and strengths. If you believe your scholarly activity can only support one topic area, and you are not in favor of a spire in that area, you might still consider membership to explore the many possibilities within the topic area. At some point in the working group process, your initial conclusion might be supported, and you would then honestly express your reservations to the group, and perhaps offer the role of "critical eye" as the proposal is developed. If, however, you are certain that your role on a working group would be limited to actively campaigning against any possible spire in that area, we ask that you not seek membership in that group.

    There will be opportunities for faculty members who are not members of working groups to express their support and/or reservations. We expect that the working groups will seek input and feedback from the University community as part of their work. You can also share your feedback through the Faculty Senate, and the RSGE committee in particular. Additionally, the proposals will be available for review and comment in January 2010.

  • I'm interested in the "policy" aspect of one of the transdisciplinary topic areas (i.e. environmental policy, health policy). Which working group is the best fit?
    There is some overlap in several of the Transdisciplinary Topic Areas, in part because we want to provide the working groups with as much flexibility as possible. If you are most interested in the policy aspect of a transdisciplinary area, apply for membership on the Policy Studies working group. The Provost's Office and the Office of the Vice President for Research will be tracking the progress of all of the working groups. If we see momentum (or redundancies) gathering in one place or another, we'll respond accordingly.

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  • I have heard discussions around campus that there might be a predetermined numbers of Spire proposals that will be accepted, ranging from "no more than three" to one from each Focus Area (so a total of eight). Is there a pre-determined number?
    No, there is no predetermined number of proposals that will become Spires of Excellence. All eight TRI Working Groups have been equally tasked with writing a competitive proposal. The proposals will all undergo rigorous internal and external panel review.

  • Who are the internal reviewers of the proposals and how will they be selected?
    As per the formal TRI Charge of 10/2/09, the internal review panel members will be recommended by the Provost and Vice President for Research and approved and appointed by the President. Initial plans for internal review include the RSGE Committee of the Faculty Senate, the Council of Deans, and the University Distinguished Professors.

  • If an existing research program is not explicitly part of a chosen Spire of Excellence, will it be effectively "starved" of UVM resources?
    No, as the Provost and Vice President for Research have noted, programs and faculty members not immediately connected to a spire will continue to be highly valued: UVM supports excellent scholars throughout the institution. The spire effort will define, however, a more focused investment strategy for future institutional resources.

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  • How were faculty Working Group members appointed?
    We were extremely pleased with UVM faculty response to our request for self-nominations to TRI Working Groups and were able to appoint 67 excellent faculty to the eight groups. To create the final groups, we sought input from the Deans individually, the Deans working collaboratively, members of the Faculty Senate Executive Council, including the Chair of the Senate Research, Scholarship, and Graduate Education Committee, and members of the senior academic leadership. Among the factors that were considered: academic accomplishment; experience; interdisciplinary nature of a faculty member's scholarship; balanced representation among the units; and a diversity of perspectives within each Working Group. It was not possible to achieve a perfect balance in all cases, but we believe our selections represent the necessary blend of talent, ingenuity, resourcefulness and ambition.

  • Is there a study of peer institutions who have undertaken similar restructurings of their research enterprise that show the benefits of this type of research model?
    It is very difficult to find peer institutions for UVM as we are a unique, small public state university with almost 75% of our students from out-of-state, only 7.1% of our annual funding from the state, and an integrated public-private membership on our Board of Trustees. UVM may well be a leader, therefore, in both its unique approach to the TRI strategic investment process (e.g., the focus on transdiscipinary research areas and the development of these areas by faculty-led Working Groups) as well as its launch of the TRI at the scale of a small public research university. With that said, we do have examples of strategic decision-making processes from other distinguished institutions, including the University of Arizona and University of Michigan (these links can also be found on the Working Group Resources page under "Background Data").

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  • Is there an estimate for the cost of implementing the Transdisciplinary Research Initiative by UVM? The announcement references an expected growth in the "revenue base" — can you provide details of this expected growth, including assumptions made in its forecast?
    The estimated cost of moving to this new research structure is directly dependent upon the content of proposals from the TRI Working Groups. Each of these groups is developing a proposal for competitive review that not only develops the idea of a Spire of Excellence in UVM research and creative scholarship, but also analyzes the needs and feasibility of such a Spire in terms of the strategic allocation of UVM resources. "Spires" can be developed within our current resource base devoted to research, meaning faculty time in existing tenure-track positions and investments in research facilities. There is also the potential for the Spire to bring in new resources and revenue, which would accelerate the possible pace of development. These include competitive grants, foundation grants, development funds, and private investments, among others. We believe that focused investment in nationally competitive Spires will bring to UVM research new and significant access to these always-limited funding resources. We are looking forward to the final proposal submissions from the TRI Working Groups and will assess overall resource allocations at that time.

  • Given the small size of UVM, is it possible that some TRI Working Group members will also be part of the internal review process?
    Yes, given the size of UVM, it is possible that select faculty with University-wide and national distinction (Deans, University Scholars, Faculty Senate leadership, Distinguished Professors) who have participated in TRI Working Groups may be asked to serve on internal review panels. These individuals will be asked to recuse themselves from any proposal on which they have had direct input, and to manage any additional conflict of interest with full disclosure and/or recusal, depending on the case (just as we would ask all internal and external reviewers to do). We feel that UVM faculty can fully manage this responsibility and are honored by contributions of time and service given by internal and external reviewers alike.

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