The University of the Future
Q. Social work grapples with some of the most difficult issues imaginable—for example, Salem Professor in Global Practice Theresa Betancourt works with former African child soldiers trying to reenter their communities. How do you approach such complicated problems?
At BCSSW, we are fundamentally interested in improving the lives of the most vulnerable. This requires a nuanced understanding of very complex social challenges—and that understanding opens the pathway to designing better interventions that will alleviate these problems.
We also need to include the perspectives of individuals, families, and communities embedded in these problems to inform our under¬standing and the design of our interventions. For example, in my own work on energy and poverty, we start with examining the community and its needs. Then we look at the renewable energy solutions from engineering that are viable in the social, behavioral, livelihood, and resource conditions of that community.
Then we have to ensure that the intervention works in the context of lives people live. And that gets us to the cusp of another challenge: once you know that an intervention is right, how do you scale it for societal benefit? Therein lies the complexity and the art of intervening. Therein lies our mission.
Universities are set up along disciplines—disciplines bound us. But social problems do not come in neat packages. They are messy. Societal issues involve complex human behavior, and when you dig deep, we are forced to transcend disciplines that we have kept segregated in the university for centuries. If we focus only through our disciplinary lens on a problem, we might be overlooking an opportunity to find an innovative solution. Instead, the problem persists, and there is a minimal social impact.
I am arguing that new understandings and solutions to seemingly intractable social problems are located at the intersections of disciplines. Working across these disciplines is not easy. It requires respect and a commitment on the part of the university and faculty to engage in healthy debate when differences in disciplinary orientations arise. It takes courage to abandon insular thinking to educate and train the next generation to build better societies.
Q.How do you see the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society contributing to these efforts?
The opportunity for the School of Social Work to be a partner in the Schiller Institute is one of the reasons I came to BC in 2016. Through the institute, the University will have the resources and an opportunity to pursue trans¬disciplinary education and research to address complex societal challenges.
The institute’s collaborative spaces, emphasis on team science, and problem-solving across disciplines with people and communities will bring us new and innovative solutions. We in the University will be relevant to affecting the human condition.
If we as universities are to matter for our societies, then we must develop knowledge that matters to the real world. This is the mission of the Schiller Institute: integrating different disciplines to improve societal well-being. Integrating the sciences without a focus on the societal impact is a cul-de-sac. With the Schiller Institute as a force multiplier for collaboration with social work and other disciplines, Boston College is building the university of the future.