Published: Oct. 11, 2017

Editor's note: As part of Phase I of the Academic Futures process, Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Affairs Jeff Cox and Emily CoBabe-Ammann, director of strategic projects for the Office of Research and Innovation, are, respectively, convening and facilitating a series of themed campus discussions focused on the community’s aspirations for learning, creative work, research and discovery. Each Wednesday in CU Boulder Today, the two will update the community on how the conversation is progressing and provide information on how to get involved.


Jeff Cox

Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Affairs and convener of the Academic Futures campus conversation Jeff Cox

From AVC Jeff Cox

As we crisscross the campus, talking to all sorts of colleagues, we hear comments that range from the local (“Can Academic Futures find more money for my project?”) to the global (“Given the state of the world, do we even have a future?). While it is easy for such conversations either to bog down in nuts-and-bolts requests or abstract pronouncements, I have been impressed with the willingness of faculty, staff and students to think big, to imagine freely. 

One participant, for example, suggested we follow the University of Wisconsin in contemplating a “Counterfactual University”:  a university that, rather than reflecting on endless future scenarios, instead sets aside concerns and constraints and imagines what it wants to be, considering myriad possibilities.

Here are some of those imaginings as we’ve heard them from our own CU Boulder community:

  • “What would the university look like if we allowed students to customize their education in all of its dimensions?”
  • “What if all students designed their own degrees?”
  • “Can we create a university where faculty are freed from structures that limit their teaching and research?” 
  • “Might faculty easily move their affiliations as their interests and expertise grow?”
  • “What if we created a university committed to tenderness, to attending to one another and tending carefully the communities in which we live?”

What if? . . . Can we? . . . Might we? It’s been refreshing and invigorating for all of us to focus on possibilities and future directions for CU Boulder, buoyed by the spirit of open and purposeful questioning that spurred most of us to become educators in the first place.


From Emily CoBabe-Ammann

Emily CoBabe Ammann

Director of Strategic Projects for the Research and Innovation Office and facilitator of the Academic Futures campus conversation Emily CoBabe-Ammann

The most surprising conversation I was a part of this week started as a dialogue about interdisciplinary education but turned into something greater. 

We began by discussing what we meant by interdisciplinary education, which is hard to do without defining the strengths of our disciplines. We talked about complexity, real-world problem solving and giving students agency to take ownership of their education. 

Then someone asked the key question, “What are we really after?”

It changed the conversation. 

One group, in their deliberations, identified that what we really wanted was to develop a “growth mindset.” Using an idea put forward by Carol Dweck at Stanford University, students with a growth mindset understand their abilities can be developed through hard work and practice, creating a love of learning and an ability to persist that lead to accomplishment. That mindset equips students with the skills and resiliency they need to go forward in life, able to take on new challenges or move intellectually into new areas.

The final step of the conversation was a recognition that interdisciplinary education is part of a continuum, ranging from deep, focused discipline-centered training to highly transdisciplinary education. And that’s part of the reason we are so focused on interdisciplinary education—we already do the disciplinary education very well. To meet the goal of cultivating students with a growth mindset, we’ll need to have the flexibility to teach across the entire continuum, guided by our individual communities of practice.


Jeff and Emily invite you to join the conversation. A constantly updating schedule of the themed conversations, notes from those conversations and other opportunities to contribute to the Academic Futures process can be found on the initiative website. Meeting schedules are also updated weekly in the Monday and Thursday email editions of CU Boulder Today.