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University-wide Engagement and the Transdisciplinary University


Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University

Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University

Blah blah ‘…..disciplinary’ - what’s the difference?  Each is quintessential in their power to produce knowledge.  It is not a matter of which type of academic inquiry is better than the others.  But one of these, a single author writing within the narrow foci of a single sub-discipline tends to be the classic exemplar of scholarship among university professional reward systems.

There sometimes is less clarity on the difference between inter/multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary. Let’s try this.  Collaboration between a forester and a sociologist is inter/multidisciplinary.  Whereas, collaboration among foresters, sociologists, economists, soil scientists, atmospheric scientists, and communications studies folks working with community and citizen scientists on climate change is transdisciplinary.

An empirical threshold from one to the other may be as simple as expanding to three disciplines, which often makes professional attribution difficult and for an individual scholar less valued.  In addition, we are adding community voices and citizen science, among other public collaborations.

It is scientifically myopic to claim any one academic discipline intellectually superior to others.  Each disciplinary, inter/multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary inquiry provides different research foci given the limits or expansiveness of its scope.  Each is functional and fundamental for a comprehensive and engaged public university.  Each is important.  When integrated as inter- and transdisciplinary analyses, it is possible for the ‘integration’ of analyses to provide a broader contextual understanding than for each disciplinary inquiry on its own.

We are convinced that transdisciplinary engagement, when coupled with transdisciplinary education and research, offers paths for significantly enhancing positive perceptions of universities and rethinking how perceived ivory towers can become highly valued community partners.  This broad scope mode of inquiry brings together the knowledge gained through disciplinary and multidisciplinary academic engagement, teaching and research.  To engage in transdisciplinary initiatives, it is useful to bring a disciplinary or transdisciplinary tap root of expertise – academic or locally ground knowledge.

We are equally mindful that transdisciplinary pedagogies necessarily wade into the deepest structural and cultural contradictions of local and national societies.  There are political risks associated with inclusive transdisciplinary initiatives. But their outcomes can be far more beneficial to society as well as for the university.

Comprehensive universities should cultivate each of these ‘--disciplinary’ models as they pursue their teaching, research and engagement missions.

Transdisciplinary initiatives are the least practiced and therefore the least understood.  For centuries, universities have been driven by disciplinary objective, characterized by discipline centric and publication centric priorities.

So, what distinguishes transdisciplinary from disciplinary and multi-/interdisciplinary work?  This is a reasonable question. The University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science identifies seven principles defining transdisciplinary literacy (

In an important sense, transdisciplinary inquiry is about everything – well maybe not everything, but it is about getting one’s arms around big societal topics – embracing and flexibly taking on big picture issues.  It is inclusive of disciplinary and multidisciplinary work can take on more complex and public centered issues.  Transdisciplinary initiatives address the big challenges of our societies.

Big pictures capitalize on the best social and natural science available and take on fundamental cultural and humanities literatures.  These initiatives directly generate demand for disciplinary and interdisciplinary engagement, research and teaching.  They draw on the sharp focus of disciplinary studies and the first steps toward interdisciplinary knowledge.

Transdisciplinary university initiatives seek to seamlessly integrate existing knowledge and create new knowledge in collaboration with society.  It incorporates non-science-based knowledge that frame public understanding of nature and society.

Big picture academic initiatives expand into society’s many diverse cultures for creating and interpreting knowledge.  The creation of knowledge is not the exclusive domain of scientific inquiry, or of universities.

Adapting transdisciplinary initiatives to university talent and meaningfully connecting with society is a path for public universities to regain recognition as People’s Universities is simple enough – collaboratively sharing comprehensive university talent with the people.

An innovative and maybe even a new step is for comprehensive universities to embrace transdisciplinary education, research and engagement on global challenges often expressing severe negative local consequences.

University-wide engagement by itself, is not enough for universities to become functionally embedded and useful to their states and nations.  The great threats to global and local sustainability transcend disciplinary silos and even interdisciplinary (multi-disciplinary) research.

These worldwide societal challenges are transdisciplinary, and they challenge higher education institutions to develop transdisciplinary integration of their teaching/learning, research/discovery and outreach/engagement missions.  This is no longer a stretch goal for university strategic plans, this is an immediate and imperative necessary step.

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The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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