Arts essential to multidisciplinary research, teaching

L.A. Cicero Art talk panel

Kris Samuelson, Professor of Communication, spoke about arts and creativity on a panel with David Kelley, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Eavan Boland, professor of Humanities.

In his annual speech to the Academic Council last Thursday, President John Hennessy addressed the role of the arts at Stanford, including the opportunities presented by the expansion that is now under way and the goal of making the arts an integral component of the university's educational mission.

Meeting the challenges of this century will require generating novel ideas and fresh approaches, Hennessy said in a talk titled "A Cultured and Useful Citizenry: The Role of Creativity and the Arts in a 21st-Century Education." "Artists have always responded to the issues of the day, integrating the latest thinking and challenging our perceptions," he said.

"I believe the arts offer an expanded tool set for learning and understanding, which can enhance creative thinking skills," Hennessy said. "But this will also require facilitating more cross-disciplinary collaboration between the arts and other fields."

In his remarks, Hennessy presented a mixed picture of the current state of arts education at Stanford. Although the arts and humanities have been an essential part of the university since its founding, and many outstanding arts programs exist on campus, Hennessy repeated an earlier assertion that the quantity and depth of the university's offerings in the arts "are not up to the level of a great university like Stanford."

The fact that the arts have lagged behind is "not the primary reason for us to seek to build stronger programs," the president said. "The primary reason is what such programs can do to enhance the ability of our students to think creatively and to contribute in novel ways."

The hub: The Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts

Last spring, Hennessy announced the formation of an arts initiative that would serve as a catalyst for multidisciplinary collaborations centered on the arts. Earlier this year, the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SICA) was established to serve as the initiative's hub. Among the new programs inaugurated by SICA is "Creative Risks," which brings in contemporary artists to collaborate with students in multiple areas of the university, and initiatives to bring to campus diverse artists from around the globe.

"To encourage innovation, it is vital that students have opportunities to work with a wide range of artists," Hennessy said. In the future the university also will expand the arts curriculum, create new faculty billets and add student fellowships, Hennessy said.

The arts initiative also is moving into fields like engineering and the natural sciences, Hennessy said. One example is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which was launched last fall and brings together faculty from technical disciplines, business and the humanities to team-teach hands-on, project-oriented courses.

"Students love to learn this way," said David Kelley, the Donald W. Whittier Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the institute's founder. Kelley has proposed substituting the term "radical collaboration" for "multidisciplinary" work. Multidisciplinary teaching is harder to do than it looks but is as gratifying for faculty as it is for students, he added.

After Hennessy spoke, panelists including Kelley; Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities and the director of the Creative Writing Program; and Kris Samuelson, professor of communication and the director of the graduate Program in Documentary Film, spoke about the arts and creativity at Stanford.

In the Creative Writing Program, "we think of ourselves as part of the promissory note given to Stanford students," Boland said. "We are somehow part of the guarantee that they will not have to give up their freedom of expression, their hopes for excellence and their determination to put this life into language when they come into the structured life of the university."

The widening of the sense of creativity is one of the most exciting parts of the arts initiative, Boland said. "Ideally the new student at Stanford will seek fluid boundaries between language and music and the visual arts and the scientific community. They will not think of creativity as existing behind one set of doors and absent from another."

In the undergraduate Film and Media Studies Program, students are required to take one hands-on film production course, Samuelson said. The process of making a film is "far more elating and frustrating than most students can possibly imagine until they do it," Samuelson said.

The practice of art also allows students a rare kind of "white space" that allows room for the exploration of nonverbal, intuitive and emotional expression, she said.

It's important to remember that the practice of art requires a great deal of discipline and not just free expression, Samuelson added. There is something about making art that sounds as if it would be rather quick, she said. "It's not. It's slow. It's painstaking. And there will are great moments and there are difficult moments."

Hennessy also addressed the arts initiative's need for physical spaces. The Art and Art History Department, which is home to the Film and Media Studies Program, will move from the Cummings Art Building to the Old Anatomy Building, adjacent to the Cantor Arts Center, in order to facilitate collaboration among faculty, Hennessy said. The university plans to build a first-class performance venue on campus, although finding funding for the facility "may take longer than we had hoped," he said.

The year in review

Hennessy also reviewed achievements of the past year, including the conclusion of the five-year Campaign for Undergraduate Education (CUE). The largest campaign for undergraduate education undertaken by any university, CUE exceeded its $1 billion goal by $100 million. Hennessy also cited the continued success of multidisciplinary programs including Bio-X, which last summer held an interdisciplinary research symposium with faculty from seven departments.

Other highlights include:

The implementation of new policies, effective next year, that will eliminate financial contributions to the cost of tuition for families with incomes below $45,000 and reduce the contribution of middle-class families.

The completion of a report by the Commission of Graduate Education and the creation of a position of vice provost for graduate education.

A $30 million gift from philanthropists Anne T. and Robert M. Bass to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the single largest gift in the school's history.

A $50 million gift from alumni Bradford Freeman and Ronald Spogli for the international initiative; the renamed Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford awarded eight grants for collaborative research on international issues in February.

A $30 million gift from university trustee Ward W. Wood and his wife, Priscilla, for the Stanford Institute for the Environment—now the Ward W. and Pricilla B. Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford—to support innovative programs and collaborative research on critical environmental challenges.

Progress in attracting gifts for the Science, Engineering and Medicine Campus, for which the university now has pledges totaling over $140 million.

And, with the victories of the Stanford solar car team, which won first place in the North American Solar Car Challenge, and of "Stanley," the Stanford Racing Team's robotic car, which won the off-road, obstacle-filled DARPA Grand Challenge, "it was a remarkable year for Stanford in automotive racing—a claim I never thought I would be making," Hennessy said.