Aerial view of central campus in autumn 2013. Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison.

When I accepted the deanship, many of our academic departments had recently celebrated centennials and the college as a whole was on the verge of its quasquicentennial. A number of our departments were trailblazers in their fields, and many of you told me how proud you were to be part of a department that was the first of its kind in the country. That innovation and foresight is a great historical strength of this university and our college in particular.

The state, the nation and the world were experiencing major changes at the time the college and our departments were born. Our predecessors addressed those changes by bringing new tools and new approaches to develop applied solutions to societal challenges.

We are once again undergoing significant change that has implications for higher education and academic science. We have the opportunity to lead and innovate just as our predecessors did more than a century ago, and we are uniquely positioned to advance basic and applied science in this changing world.

So many things are different than when our first departments were created. Most of the buildings in which we teach, learn and discover did not exist then. Those built early in our history have been adapted, for example, to add new communication and teaching technologies.

Our physical campus has changed, but in many ways our organizational structures remain the same as they were 100 years ago. The time has come to change our organizational and support structures to match the innovations occurring in our classrooms and laboratories and meet new demands.

We have the raw materials we need – including great faculty and staff at all stages of their careers, and students and prospective students who are curious and driven to gain knowledge transcending disciplines about the functions and uses of the natural world. New technologies, from advanced genetics to data analytics, have altered the borders of our fields by introducing commonalities. CALS personnel excel in dealing with complex problems that require integrative approaches.

Despite these great raw materials, there have also been shifts in higher education’s approach to finances and human resources that create demands on our time. Every day I hear about increasing burdens and new processes needed to do our work. We may not be able to change all of those requirements, but we can think about how we approach our work to lessen the administrative overhead whenever possible. I believe that new collaborations and partnerships are key to sharing that workload. For example, a department with a larger faculty has more people to fulfill committee responsibilities, while smaller departments have the same responsibilities shared among fewer faculty, such that service commitments increasingly compete for their vital teaching and research time.

As educators, we know that our students are facing a very different future than we were when we were in their shoes. Experts tell us that today’s students will likely work in a long series of short-term professional roles. This is far different than prior generations of graduates who looked forward to many decades working for a single corporation. To lead in this professional landscape, our students need to learn flexibility and collaboration, so they can continue to successfully adapt over the span of their careers. We need collaborative academic programs drawing on many perspectives, including biology and social sciences, in order to deliver this training to them.

Finally, new partnerships also provide opportunities to elevate common foci and shared priorities. They foster strategic thinking, bring together collective interests and enable collaborations that will attract new faculty, more students, additional grant funding and private philanthropy.

I understand that change is never easy, but I know that if we increase and expand our collaborations, we elevate our common priorities and amplify the reach of our work. Our faculty and staff will have more time to focus on what is most important to them, because there are more team members available to assist. Now is the time to design a new structure that will foster a successful future for CALS, and we need to be the architects.