What Makes the PSU Cluster Initiative Unique?

I was interviewed on Monday about the cluster initiative for a new podcast focused on higher education in general and Plymouth State University in particular. I think the interview went well but there was one question that kind of caught me by surprise. I think my answer was ok but in thinking about it afterward, I wish I had added some things. So that’s what this blog post is about, a clarification of that answer.

Ian Halter, the interviewer, asked me whether clusters are being initiated at other universities and, if yes, how does PSU’s initiative relate to those? My answer was that yes, there are other universities who are using a cluster idea to create opportunities for interdisciplinary work on difficult problems. I talked about Dartmouth College’s cluster initiative as an example. I said that other cluster initiatives, including Dartmouth’s, do not imagine the restructuring of the entire institution. Instead, they focus on groups of people coming together to work on particular wicked problems. And there is no intent for the clusters to encompass everyone on the campus. This is very different than PSU’s initiative in that we are changing the entire structure of the University so that everyone on campus will somehow support and engage with at least one cluster. As I said, this is an ok answer but I think it doesn’t quite highlight the major difference in what we’re doing compared to other institutions.

The focus of the cluster initiatives at other institutions begins with the faculty and their research interests. Here is how Dartmouth’s web site describes the clusters:

Through faculty collaboration and targeted hiring, clusters will provide the critical mass and spectrum of expertise necessary to shape and advance the understanding of complex problems, emerging issues, and future societal challenges. Faculty hiring will improve the diversity of the faculty and establish cohorts of scholars focused on new intellectual themes or questions that cut across disciplines, departments, and schools. Cluster themes will provide the basis for new courses and curricula as well as new research opportunities. Clusters will draw on existing strengths and emerging areas of discovery to establish points of distinction, invigorating intellectual engagement and enhancing Dartmouth’s impact in the world.

Note that the clusters start with faculty collaboration and hiring. There is a sentence about creating new courses and curricula but even that sentence ends with a focus on research. The cluster initiative at PSU starts with a focus on students. President Birx wrote a series of blog entries as we were beginning to envision what the cluster initiative is all about. According to the President, the major impetus for reorganizing the University around clusters is to improve the student educational experience. Our goal is for students to be able to integrate knowledge and to understand how what they have learned can impact the world. We want students to “own” their educational experience and be fully engaged in seeking and taking advantage of every opportunity. In other words, the cluster initiative is really about becoming more student-centered in everything we do.

I don’t think we’re emphasizing this focus on students enough yet. We should be examining everything we do and asking whether we can do it in a more student-centered way. I’ve given an example of what we mean by “student-centered” before but I think it’s worth repeating to make the point clearer. The typical student takes 1 or 2 courses in their major and 3 or 4 courses in the General Education program in their first semester at PSU. Because of the processes we have in place for making courses available each semester, there often are not a huge number of open seats in General Education courses by the time we are offering orientation sessions for incoming students. It can be really frustrating for students to try to create a full schedule of classes when there are not enough seats in the courses they want to take and that frustration can be detrimental to a student’s excitement about starting college. So in an effort to make the student experience of creating a full schedule less frustrating, we “hard schedule” the students into most of their first semester courses. That is, the University makes the choices about the courses that the student takes in their first semester. It probably makes sense for the University (we, the faculty) to hard schedule students into the correct courses for the major that they’ve chosen. But it makes less sense for us to hard schedule students into General Education courses, especially Directions courses. The student can, of course, change their schedule if they want to but we discourage them from doing so because of the frustration they will face when they can’t find open seats. Having been around when we didn’t hard schedule students into their first semester courses, I can report that there is now much less frustration in the orientation sessions. But I think we’re sending some unintended messages when we (the University) make choices about the students’ General Education courses. The first message is that the student’s interests don’t matter. For example, if you need a Creative Thought course, it doesn’t matter whether you’re more interested in writing than in creating art. We will choose to put you into Writing and the Creative Process or Creativity and the Visual World for the convenience that comes with you taking one or the other. The second message is that there is no need to think carefully about the courses you take to fulfill the requirements for General Education. The courses are interchangeable and you just need to take whatever is available. These two messages are exactly contradictory to what we want our students to get out of their time here at PSU. And so we should think about how we might be more student-centered in getting students registered for courses in their first semester.

It isn’t a simple task to figure out how to be more student-centered. We can’t just go back to the days when incoming students were not hard scheduled for anything because we’ll re-introduce that frustration I talked about earlier. Instead, we need to examine our processes for deciding which classes we should offer each semester and see if there are ways for us to change things so that we have enough seats in courses that students want to take so that there isn’t frustration. For example, right now, we start building our semester offerings by looking at faculty needs, interests, and desires. Can we start with the students’ needs, interests, and desires instead? How might that work?

Anyway, there are lots of examples of things we do that are faculty (or staff)-centered rather than student-centered. The cluster initiative at PSU is about trying to flip things around, do things in new ways, so that student experience is at the core of what we do. That focus on student experience is the most important difference between PSU’s cluster initiative and the cluster initiatives at other institutions.

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