Interdisciplinary Core Faculty Hiring Committee Embodies Mission of Schiller Institute

by Stephanie M. McPherson

The Schiller Institute began in 2020 with the goal of creating a permanent foundation of support for interdisciplinary research and education at BC. Now, Schiller has welcomed its first two Core faculty members—Hanqin Tian, Institute Professor of Global Sustainability, and Yi Ming, Institute Professor of Climate Science and Society—after a year-long search conducted by a unique committee involving 13 faculty spanning 12 departments and four colleges within Boston College.

“Real advances come at the boundaries of the disciplines. And we can’t make significant change when we pursue science separately from the rest of the human experience. We have a responsibility to teach students to see the connections,” says Laura J. Steinberg, Seidner Family Executive Director of the Schiller Institute. “We now have on campus two of the most prominent climate scientists in the world, who are dedicated to pursuing research beyond the traditional bounds of their disciplines. Students will have the opportunity to work with them, take classes from them and be part of the learning community they create.”

The hiring committee responsible for bringing these experts to campus reflected the interdisciplinary mission of the Schiller Institute, with scholars in disciplines ranging from physics to earth sciences to history to social work assessing the 127 candidates who applied for the senior-level positions.

“The whole aim of the new Schiller hires is that they will build bridges across campus and interact with a wide range of faculty and students,” says committee member Jeremy Shakun, Associate Professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences. (Both Ming and Tian have joint appointments between Schiller and EES.) “Our search committee was almost like a focus group, helpful for seeing how well a candidate could speak to and link together a diverse audience.”

Many experts, one goal

The committee was brought together by Steinberg, who pulled from contacts among BC’s many departments.

“The search committee embodied the collaborative spirit that we were asking the candidates to embrace. They are each inquisitive, passionate, out of the box thinkers who thoroughly enjoy the give and take of discussion. They actively demonstrated the BC community’s enthusiasm for exploring new ideas and new approaches with others,” says Steinberg.

Once assembled, the committee met regularly throughout the 2021 – 2022 school year to review applications, vet candidates, and interview the 22 long-listed applicants via Zoom. Productive conversations between a large group of people from very different backgrounds involved a steep learning curve, with natural scientists having to learn the language of social scientists and vice versa.

“An interdisciplinary search committee looking for folks who can cross traditional academic boundaries was new terrain for everyone, so it required flexibility, an open mind, and a lot of trust in each other,” says Shakun.

And as the professors who made up the committee settled into their roles, they learned to stand up for each other’s fields during the interview process. For example, a natural scientist being interviewed expressed a disregard for incorporating ideas from the social sciences into climate change solutions—something that the natural scientists in the interview session viewed as unacceptable, in defense of and in solidarity with their social science colleagues. These bonds only solidified throughout the process, with many faculty forming genuine connections and continuing their associations outside of the hiring committee.

“The work of the committee was not only about the promise of the future. During this process, we made a community among ourselves, made connections, sparked curiosity,” says committee member Conevery Bolton Valencius, Professor of History. “I now have colleagues across this campus who I can call about curriculum or even research that I would never have known if it were not for this Schiller committee.”

The diversity of expertise was also beneficial for assessing the candidates’ abilities to make clear sense of their work.

“Only maybe 30 percent of the committee members actually had expertise in climate change. I have zero,” says committee member Kirsten Davison, Donahue and DiFelice Endowed Chair and Associate Dean for Research in the School of Social Work. “It was a fascinating process because initially, you wonder if you deserve to be here evaluating this person. But after a while, you have things to say. I didn’t need a climate or sustainability background to assess if the candidates could clearly articulate their research vision and demonstrate a history of effective collaboration.”

In the end, everyone on the committee had one goal:

“We wanted the candidates to be able to answer: Why does your research matter to the world? How does it bring us closer to adapting to, mitigating, or solving the climate change problem?” says Steinberg.

Tian was struck by the unique size and make-up of the committee. “This is  probably the largest committee I have ever had for an interview,” he says. “And you look at it as the combination of the community you’re entering into, really trying to build natural science and social science together.”

 A public campus visit 

After narrowing the candidates down to the most impressive, the committee submitted those finalists to what would be the candidate’s home department to further vet their scientific credentials. Once a consensus was reached between Schiller and the home department, ten finalists were invited to campus to interview in person.

Each candidate met with their potential home department for traditional interviews and a scientifically focused lecture. But Schiller invited them to do something rather unusual: participate in a general-audience level symposium open to the entire university community both in person and streamed via Zoom. Each participant was given about 35 minutes to explain the impact of their work, how it addresses the ongoing climate crisis, and how interdisciplinary collaboration supported by the Schiller Institute would advance their goals. They then took 20 minutes of questions from the audience of experts and non-experts alike.

Titled “Climate Change and the Energy Transition Symposia,” the lectures were proof positive that the importance of the candidates’ research could translate across disciplines, across schools, and across expertise levels. Hiring committee members not only used this opportunity to assess the candidates but to also learn more about this important part of our interconnected world.

“We weren’t just sitting back to evaluate what these people were saying,” says Valencius. “Everybody in the room was learning tremendously. And having the extraordinary finalists on campus giving their talks raised a lot of attention to issues of climate change throughout the campus.”

Interviews and public lectures aside, the process also involved inviting the candidates to dinner to get a sense of how everyone would get along as colleagues.

“The formal search process does not occur only in the seminar room, in the conference room. It is also at the dinner table,” says Ming. “And that dinner was so memorable. Everyone was so warm, so open-minded. I just felt comfortable. It felt like Thanksgiving Day, a family dinner.”

The collegial atmosphere also stood out to Tian.

“In the interview process, they not only treated you as a professor, but they also treated you as a human,” he said.

Strengthening connections, strengthening BC

In the end, Ming and Tian were invited to join the Schiller Institute starting in the 2022-2023 school year. As Institute Core faculty with a focus on combatting climate change, they are expected to create interdisciplinary programs and classes accessible to anyone studying or researching in any department who wants to learn more about this world-changing challenge. They have already started laying the groundwork for upper-level climate change courses and environment-focused symposia within departments such as sociology and physics.

“In my previous work, most of my focus was on natural systems,” says Tian. “But if we really want to solve climate change and sustainability, we need to bring human components to the package. That’s something I wanted to do in my next phase of my career, and what brought me to the Schiller and to Boston College.”

“Boston College has been exceedingly strong in both arts and sciences,” agrees Ming. “I felt that by contributing to the building of the Schiller, I can make a positive impact on the university itself, to make it even stronger to better educate future leaders.”

The Schiller institute still has more Core faculty to hire in the other areas within energy, health, and the environment. Ming, Tian, and this interdisciplinary faculty committee will continue to do the work central to Schiller’s mission—both in the hiring arena, and by making good use of the connections the committee has afforded them.

“I’m really looking forward to discussing scientific and maybe even teaching collaborations,” says committee member Fazel Tafti, Assistant Professor of Physics. “Our job did not stop after we hired those faculty. It really has just started.”