Last week I visited Cal State Northridge, a half hour northwest of Los Angeles and one of our largest campuses. Provost Harry Hellenbrand is encouraging the university to think beyond traditional disciplines and departments, and explore ways that institutional organization might better reflect the lives our students face.
I find this irresistible, and was happy to lend moral support. I arrived early enough to talk with my fellow presenter, former Carnegie Mellon CIO Joel Smith. Joel’s trajectory into academic computing was inadvertent; his PhD is in History and Philosophy of Science. As we waited for the meeting to start we chatted about current events and health care, and from there to the misfires of the government’s affordable care web site. Interestingly, Joel said that from what IT colleagues tell him, the site was doomed from inception. The misstep was familiar to me from government work: overestimating administrative control.
Joel compared it to the problem with planned cities. Periodically municipal leadership decides it would be best to start from scratch, so you get cities like Brasilia, or Irvine: sterile and uninviting. By contrast, decisions in unplanned cities are local and ad hoc, made within just a handful of natural constraints like geography, or trade routes. Hit the right combination of control and disorder, and you get magic.
Joel said big software projects can learn from that. The hard part isn’t knowing how to plan them, but in knowing how much to plan them. How many ground rules are enough? What are the project’s ideal givens, its counterparts to a Silk Road or a mountain range, after which the lead architect needs to let go?
Tellingly, the more high-profile and high-stakes the project, the likelier it is for leadership to get too nervous, or too ambitious: they lose faith, over-orchestrate, and micromanage.
By coincidence, the opening image to the slideshow I used a couple of hours later is from an artist’s rendering of a future downtown Northridge and its pedestrian area. (If you’re familiar with the San Fernando Valley, then you may trip over words like “downtown” and “pedestrian.”)
But in my case, I wasn’t citing this as a warning so much as a source of inspiration for good interdisciplinary problems the university might chew on. In other words, as we think about the physical site of the university, we want to resist regulating every last detail, but can also find a new way into interdisciplinarity.
My points were influenced by my recent visit to the University of Nebraska Lincoln, where provost Ellen Weissinger explained a “Grand Challenges” curriculum inspired in part by location.
She listed the three of them in my slide below, two based on the proximity not of places but people. Professor Will Thomas is an internationally renowned scholar of digital humanities, and his work is featured in the university’s report on research and creative activity. UNL’s anchor for work on early childhood development – cutting across the sciences, public policy, and social sciences – isn’t a scholar but a donor, Susie Buffett, heir to the investing fortune and a serious force in the region’s intellectual life.
But for me the most vivid example was her third one, coming back to the university’s physical location in the heart of the American Farm Belt. Lincoln, Nebraska is engulfed in cornfields and practically floats on one of the world’s largest water tables, the Ogallala Aquifer. Around half of the people we met felt a pressing need to develop sustainable irrigation, compelled by the world’s accelerating economic development and population growth.
As the head of Nebraska’s state universities told us, they see India’s “green revolution” of the 1970s as a warning: they fed Asia but drained their aquifer. Nebraska wants – in another phrase we heard repeatedly – more crops per drop, and counts on its land-grant university to figure it out.
This “grand challenges” approach to curriculum has some obvious benefits.
First, it’s work we need. This is scholarship with real consequences, and a shot at living up to the moral imperatives of community engagement. On its own that makes this worth chasing, but the other reasons are also pretty good.
By cutting across disciplinary lines, it involves the whole university. Years of obsessing over CSU educational effectiveness and student success have tuned me in to the benefits of institutional integration: you just do better when everyone is in step. And all the people we talked to could see themselves somewhere in this curriculum, and referred to it consistently, even using the same phrases.
Third, by framing interdisciplinary curriculum as questions instead of answers, Nebraska’s approach avoids the pitfalls of the planned city. This is concerted scholarship that lays out only the broad parameters and then steps back, respecting local and disciplinary expertise.
Fourth, it exploits the face-to-face relationships and physical location of the university – critical at a time when the competition is increasingly virtual.
And finally – a benefit I know from California rather than Nebraska – you can use location and interdisciplinarity to organize learning across local institutions, for the sake of a better transfer education, and from there to higher grad rates. A few different projects around the state reflect this, some under the auspices of “Give Students a Compass,” led by Debra David.
My favorite current example: a collaboration between Modesto Junior College and CSU Stanislaus, side by side in the state’s agricultural Central Valley. MJC humanities professors Flora Carter and Chad Redwing teamed up with CSU and the nearby Steinbeck Center to organize a cooperative curricular program around “The Grapes of Wrath,” including coursework, a screening in the restored State Theatre, and a culminating essay contest. At the region’s CSU, philosophy professor and dean James Tuedio reports that the same interdisciplinary focus is now in three freshman courses and an upper division writing class.
The provocative, double-entendre theme for the essay contest: “Know Your Place.”