Georgetown’s First VP for Interdisciplinary Initiatives To Promote Collaboration for the Common Good
Georgetown has appointed Soyica Colbert, former interim dean of the Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences and Idol Family Professor of Performing Arts and African American Studies, to be vice president for interdisciplinary initiatives reporting to the provost. She began her new role on January 3.
The V.P. for interdisciplinary initiatives will build on the success of recent cross-campus efforts like the Tech & Society Initiative and the Emergent Ethics Network to foster collaboration across units and help progress faculty research, according to Colbert.
“Part of my work will be to support and continue to move forward centers, initiatives and institutes that have already been seeded and are in different phases of development,” says Colbert. “And some of my work will be cultivating new areas of research that have yet to be seeded or are just burgeoning now.”
Colbert, who first joined the university in 2013, also previously served in administrative roles as vice dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, chair of the Gender Equity Task Force, chair of the Department of Performing Arts and director of the Theater and Performance Studies Program.
“As an accomplished campus leader and interdisciplinary scholar herself, Soyica is the perfect person to further build Georgetown’s capacity to tackle the world’s most pressing problems across schools, campuses and disciplines,” says Georgetown Provost Robert M. Groves.
The V.P. for interdisciplinary initiatives will work alongside other university leaders to build cross-school and cross-campus activities. In addition to her half-time administrative role, Colbert will focus on her own interdisciplinary research this spring. Among other projects, she is working on a book about institutions that help cultivate Black genius as well as curating an exhibit at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that coincides with its production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Colbert’s recent biography of Hansberry — the author most well-known for her work A Raisin in the Sun — landed on Oprah Magazine’s must-read list.
“Being in Washington, DC, has given me the opportunity to work with amazing institutions that give a public-facing voice to my work and expand its impact,” says Colbert.
In a recent interview, Colbert shared more about her goals for her new role and what makes Georgetown the perfect place for interdisciplinary collaboration.
“I’m hopeful in my role that I will be able to not only support the brilliance of our individual faculty members, but by bringing groups together, it will help to channel that brilliance towards the common good.”Soyica Colbert
What are your goals as the first V.P. of interdisciplinary initiatives?
I hope to try to decrease the barriers that prevent collaboration across schools and campuses. Sometimes bureaucracy can get in the way of great ideas, so trying to identify and limit those barriers is one goal.
One of the things universities always do is define and create new fields, new areas of thought, new ways of answering problems. As a university, things are always burgeoning, so I want to tap into those areas at Georgetown and in the world more broadly and help to nurture them here.
[I’ll think] about what it will take structurally in terms of the institution to maintain these new areas of thought, research, teaching, collaborative work and how to put the pieces in place, whether it’s policy-wise, supporting them with peoplepower — whatever the gaps are, trying to figure out how to better support those areas.
Why is it important to approach problems with an interdisciplinary lens?
I think that the pandemic showed us how important it is for our scientists to be in conversations with our public policy folks, with our ethicists, with our economists. I mean, we’re still dealing with the supply chain issues that emerged during the pandemic. So in terms of making the case for interdisciplinarity, the pandemic was the perfect exemplar of that.
But certainly the climate crisis is another example of this. There are economic consequences of the climate crisis that also have a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the Global South, so there’s an equity issue that brings in the humanities and questions about ethics. So again, to tackle this issue, clearly our scientists need to be at the table, but in order to get our arms around it, it’s also going to require other areas of thought to form solutions.
Why is Georgetown well suited for investment in interdisciplinary initiatives?
One of the things that Georgetown has invested in as a place, and one of the reasons the mission resonates with me, is our work is meant to be towards making society better. We’re not just creating knowledge for its own sake, which is a noble enough goal in itself, but in our case, we’re invested in doing it to make a better society.
This job gives me the opportunity to really think about how bringing groups of scholars together can help to actualize Georgetown’s investment in creating knowledge for the common good. The questions that we’re trying to answer as a society require bringing multiple people to the table. I’m hopeful in my role that I will be able to not only support the brilliance of our individual faculty members, but by bringing groups together, it will help to channel that brilliance towards the common good.
“It was essential to my development as a scholar, as an administrator, as a professor, teacher, person in the world to have really dedicated mentors, so I try to embody the same grace and generosity that I have received in my interactions.”Soyica Colbert
How will students benefit from this emphasis on interdisciplinary work?
Embedded in our liberal arts education at Georgetown is an understanding that students need to be able to make connections across fields of knowledge and apply what they’ve learned in one area to another area. So hopefully the interdisciplinary work will allow them more opportunities to do that in a hands-on way.
When I am engaging with students, particularly undergrads, they are not burdened by the expectation of how you answer a question or what the protocols are for conducting work. Often they will think of things or ask questions that I may never think of or ask because I’ve been trained to think and ask them in a certain way. While on the one hand students are learning and developing, on the other hand, they’re able to offer insight that might not otherwise come into the room because of the training that we have. So there’s the gift of having different points of entry and another reason why having clusters of scholars thinking together can be really exciting and productive.
How will past experiences of collaboration and mentorship inform your approach to your newest leadership role?
I’m really grateful for all the mentoring that I’ve received throughout my career and at Georgetown because I certainly would have not had the opportunity to serve the university and to serve the university as a leader without wonderful mentors. All of the leadership opportunities I’ve had at Georgetown have been because someone saw something in me and encouraged me or supported me in doing that work.
I think it’s really important to note that opportunities also require support from others, and that nothing is done by ourselves. It was essential to my development as a scholar, as an administrator, as a professor, teacher, person in the world to have really dedicated mentors, so I try to embody the same grace and generosity that I have received in my interactions.
This article was originally published by Georgetown University. Please follow the link to read the full story.