In 1998, President Nannerl Keohane and Provost John Strobehn appointed Cathy Davidson as the first full-time Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University (and the first in the nation). The mission, defined broadly, was to underline Duke’s commitment to increasing academic and administrative effectiveness in interdisciplinary teaching and research and create new cost, administrative, leadership, and peer-review structures across the schools of the University in order maximize the most innovative interdisciplinary research and teaching. Davidson served as Vice Provost until 2006.
In that role, she developed a structure for evaluating, closing, and creating viable interdisciplinary programs, in the end helping to lead development of over seventy collaborative programs, including the Program in Information Science + Information Studies and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the Program in Environmental Solutions, the Global Health Initiative, the Genome Sciences initiative, the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine, and Applied Science, the Nasher Museum of Art, the expansion of the Perkins Library and creation of the Link technology space, the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. She worked directly with Duke almna and Trustee Melinda French Gates on several of these programs, including in the design of a novel scholarship program for undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students, the University Scholars Program.
In an effort to design new telecommunications infrastructures to foster interactive learning, distance education, and the translation of specialized scholarship to a general audience, she helped launch Duke’s famous “iPod experiment,” in which incoming students in 2004 were given free iPods in exchange for designing an array of new learning applications for what, at the time, was billed as a “music listening device.” In this program, Duke students held the world’s first academic “podcasting” conference and beta-developed bi-directional broadcasting (what would become iTunes U) and video capacities. She has written about this experiment in the “Project Classroom Makeover” chapter of her influential Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century (Viking-Penguin, 2011). Now You See It was named a “top 10 science book” of the year by Publisher’s Weekly and has been the occasion for over eighty invited lectures in the U.S. and internationally, including in Canada, Australia, Denmark, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand.