Ten Months In

Last August, our new president, Don Birx, spoke to eager Plymouth State University employees about his vision for the campus to be reorganized around strategic clusters and open labs. Even though we are still at the beginning of implementing this vision, I think there are some lessons to be learned now that we are ten months into this process.

As a community, we have been figuring out what strategic clusters and open labs are. We have been working to implement these things even while we figure out what we mean by these terms. I think we might have moved more quickly to implementation if we had taken the time to really figure out what we mean by strategic cluster, open lab, and so on. In the rush to implementation, we actually floundered a bit last academic year in a way that I don’t think we necessarily needed to. So that’s my first lesson. The community needs to understand a bit about what we’re trying to implement before we actually start implementing it. Despite that early misstep, I think we’re coming to some concrete understandings of these terms.

As a cluster guide, someone charged with moving the initiative forward over the next academic year (including this summer), I have been fortunate to discuss and shape our understandings of these terms. We’re still working on them and will engage in discussions with faculty and staff when we all return to campus in August to really solidify the definitions. But here’s my current understanding of what we’re doing. A cluster is an affinity group comprised of programs and the resources, including people, attached to those programs. A cluster differs from a department or a college because of intention. We bring these resources together into a cluster with the intention of working across our individual disciplines in some way….through projects, through curriculum, through teaching and pedagogy, through open labs, through service. Open labs are spaces where this working together might happen. So a cluster can be thought of, broadly speaking, as “who” comes together and open labs as a place “where” the coming together happens, a space of potential since we won’t always know what will arise when we come together. Cluster projects and other cluster activities are “what” we are working on. The projects and other activities will focus on work that is useful beyond the class that a student is currently taking, giving the student “real world” experience. These definitions are maybe necessarily a little slippery. But I think we (the group of cluster guides) are beginning to have common understandings of the terms.

There are also lots of questions about why we are engaging in this change, what the benefits will be. The president has said that he sees seven drivers for doing this. The first is related to the increasing fragmentation of knowledge that he believes characterizes the higher education landscape. As society learns more and more about the world and how it works, individuals know less and less because of their areas of specialization, their fragmented disciplinary knowledge. Strategic clusters are a way of trying to organize the university so that we bring individuals (faculty, staff, students, and external partners) with different disciplinary knowledge and perspectives together to work on large problems that will not be able to be solved by a single disciplinary approach. Students then are exposed to a variety of ways of looking at the world while getting hands-on experience. They will understand how what they’re learning can be applied and integrated with what other people know. We already provide some such experiences for students. But the cluster initiative pushes us to provide multiple such experiences for a larger percentage (ideally, all) of our students.

The president hasn’t yet written the blog posts that lay out his six other drivers of the strategic cluster initiative so I can’t report on those yet. I hope he posts those sooner rather than later so that we can all think about them as we implement his vision.  But even without those, I think the new vision of the university is exciting and will provide each student with an excellent education that will serve them well as they move into an unknown future. Plymouth State University will become known for this innovative approach to education, drawing students to us because they want exactly this kind of experience. Strategic clusters and open labs will represent a unique identity for Plymouth State University, distinguishing us from other institutions. All of that is exciting to me.

Our process so far has not been perfect. As I said, I wish we had taken time to to discuss definitions before we tried to begin implementation of the vision. There are other issues with the specifics of the implementation structure (how guides were chosen and putting programs into clusters as a first step, to name two that come to my mind) that we’ve put in place that I wish had gone differently. But it feels like we are overcoming those issues. We need to make mistakes and then learn from and overcome them.

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned so far in this process, however, has to do with responsibility. Until late this Spring, I kept waiting for someone to tell me things–tell me the definition of a strategic cluster, tell me how we will implement open labs, etc. But then I realized that there is no one to tell me those things. We are doing something really different here. So I am responsible for figuring those things out. That responsibility doesn’t come because I am a cluster guide (although that fact adds some urgency to my sense of responsibility). I am responsible because I am a member of the Plymouth State University community. We all need to figure this stuff out together. We have to engage in this process with curiosity and skepticism and with a sense of trying to move the initiative forward. I know it sounds corny but I really believe that the survival of higher education is in our hands. We are responsible. All of us.

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