“Cluster Hire” at SJSU expected to lead to deeper focus on wildfire science

Dr. Mary A. Papazian 

One of the exciting things we are doing this year at San Jose State to build academic strength and expertise is what we call a Cluster Hire, or in this case, more specifically, a Cluster Hire in Wildfire Science. With the recent wildfires that have devastated our natural ecosystems and our local communities in California, this could not be a more timely and urgent intervention into our hiring process.

The goals of this process are not only to strengthen our teaching and research program in Wildfire Science, but also to develop a depth of expertise that can help the state and nation tackle the growing problem of wildfires.

Many readers may be aware of the tremendous success we have seen in our Fire Weather Research Laboratory. Once we began to recognize the very special level of expertise that we possess in this vitally important area, we decided to prioritize this research discipline and embark on a dedicated effort to hire even more great scholars and teachers with backgrounds in wildfire studies. 

The Cluster Hire effort in Wildfire Science currently underway will be interdisciplinary, it will have a strong research focus and it will connect our science, social science and engineering colleges.

For starters, we just recently announced the five new faculty positions for which we are now hiring: wildfire meteorology/modeling; wildfire remote sensing; fire ecology; wildfire combustion; and wildfire management. These new hires will be just one element—though obviously an important one—of our overall cluster hire strategy. 

Cluster Hires are not a new concept, and in fact, we have done one at least once before in the area of cybersecurity. But our new provost, Vincent Del Casino, has some clear ideas about how San Jose State can enhance the “cluster” model and perhaps make it one that campuses nationwide want to follow.

An effective cluster hire is not just about hiring new people. Where cluster hires go wrong—we have seen both at SJSU and elsewhere—is when universities are not intentional about what the goal is, and how all of the new expertise and faculty members will be organized. It is the view of our provost and I that those who we bring to SJSU under the auspices of our cluster hire should be aligned not only with their new departments and specific areas of interest and expertise, but also with our institution’s larger set of values.

As I explained in a blog post earlier this year, those values include a willingness to set aside personal ambition in favor of a greater good. I wrote that I wish to “hire colleagues who understand that their individual success is not as vital as the success of the enterprise as a whole.”

With wildfire research and our need to contribute to such an urgent and dire problem, the need for team-oriented researchers and faculty is as important as it has ever been.

When alignment with our values takes hold and diverse faculty members from across disciplines and departments start to connect on teams and working groups, we then will see the collaboration that we believe is necessary for true institutional impact. In tangible terms, that might mean that we develop a fire research institute of some sort, or some other formal mechanism. But however it develops, we firmly believe that the right organizational structure will put our researchers in a position where they can be successful and have broad impact.

I should add that Vin, our new provost, has an ambitious agenda, and this is part of it. He wants to get to the place where we have multiple “Cluster Hires” each year in a variety of topics and research disciplines. So the Cluster Hire in Wildfire Science is merely the beginning.

In some ways, hiring people is the easy part. The challenge will be developing the collaboration that makes the impact of a cluster hire process long-lasting, both for our students and the development of the specific area of expertise. 

We think we can be a national leader in this space, a model for how it can work effectively and in a variety of disciplines. And we will be.