Speeches and Blog Archive


Monday, August 22, 2022

Welcome back everyone! I hope you all got some time this summer to take a break after two crazy years. It’s great to see you all as we begin Plymouth State’s 152nd year. A lot has taken place since last year’s University Days, and we’ve got a full slate of sessions ahead of us this week to fill you in and give you a chance to contribute ideas.

We’re joined by 20 new faculty and more than 50 staff since the last University Days. Can new members of our community please stand and be recognized? Let’s welcome our new colleagues everyone! I hope to see you later at the President’s House here on campus for a reception for all of you. 

You will find Plymouth State is friendly and supportive and we are so glad to have your talents, energies, and good ideas with us as we move forward.

Among the many key positions we’ve filled is that of our new provost and vice president of academic affairs, Nate Bowditch. Many of you participated in the extensive search process that brought Nate to Plymouth. His impressive talents have taken him from Berkeley to Baltimore, and to Cairo and New York, and now to Plymouth State. You’ll hear from him shortly about what motivates him and the path forward that he sees for PSU, but first let me emphasize how significant Cluster Learning was in attracting him here. Nate recognizes the flexibility and power of our model and is excited to advance it by working with all of you.

Validation of the work that we do and the directions we’re taking is all around us. Another important indicator of our appeal is the strong support we’re receiving from those who know us best, including friends, neighbors, and alumni. Financial support among this group has increased markedly thanks to our great University Advancement Team.

Despite a historically unsteady economic climate, our advancement colleagues secured almost $4 million overall in a banner year. More than half of this was raised in cash in one of the best years in PSU history. We bested our unrestricted funds target, surpassed the total gift goal by more than 19 percent, and increased the number of total gifts by a superb 38 percent!

More than 1,000 commemorative fundraising bricks will soon be gracing our main campus walkway, and our 150th Anniversary Campaign for Students total is now more than halfway toward its $15 million goal.

I want to thank those who have joined the campaign to transform what was once known as the “fieldhouse” into what is becoming an unparalleled regional facility for health and human performance. You’re all invited to attend the formal dedication of the Morgridge Strength & Performance Lab component this September.  

We had many academic accomplishments last year, including the third year of our Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community. The faculty established the Habits of Mind Experience, or “HoME,” for faculty focused on the General Education program. This group will ensure that our innovative pedagogies are more widely disseminated among faculty, will help with assessment to meet accreditation requirements, with a NECHE review next year, and improve the student experience to help increase retention and persistence. Moreover, the faculty and Provost’s Office initiated three new Cluster majors —Climate Studies, Forensic Science, and Game Design—and a successful Rebalance Program to retain students with academic challenges.

We’re continuing to forge new partnerships to make it easier to complete bachelor’s programs here, including working to establish a hub with Lakes Region and White Mountains community colleges and New Hampshire Institute of Technology in Concord. We’re also working to grow and support skilled trades and progression to a four-year degree as well as pathways for students that struggle their first and second year.

Last year we proudly launched our new Center for Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice. The center is a great asset as we strive to be ever-more inclusive and supportive for students, faculty, and staff, building diversity in all ways, including in thinking and civil engagement, and by supporting recruitment and retention, especially of underrepresented students. Alberto tells me this year’s entering class is 15% diverse—a significant increase over last year.

Advanced degrees are increasingly important for career success, so we expanded our bachelor’s to master’s pathways. PSU increasingly offers accelerated and affordable options that enable students to move directly into graduate programs after earning their bachelor’s degrees through “4+1” and “3+2” programs in business, athletic training, applied exercise physiology and human performance, marriage and family therapy, and special education.  

We’re a Cluster campus with a great, distinctive, innovative story to tell and the integration of arts, humanities, and technologies is a key focus area. The technology component is one we need to grow, so, we introduced a bachelor’s degree program in robotics—the first in New Hampshire to do so. We received a $1 million federal grant this year to construct a cutting-edge robotics lab. Thanks to Senator Shaheen, for helping to secure this funding! The new robotics lab is taking shape in the top floor of the Draper and Maynard Building, complementing the high-tech makerspace on the ground level.  

Today’s competitive marketplace requires better integration between our programs and marketplace demands, so we’ve responded by combining two key offices into a new Academic and Career Advising Center to help students find their personal paths, not only here on campus but throughout their working lives.

We finished last year with a return to Commencement traditions. The graduate ceremony featured former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court John Broderick, a powerful advocate for mental health and awareness, and an area we are increasingly focused on in our partnership with the JED Foundation. The undergraduate ceremony had students and faculty again processing from campus, through town, and to ALLWell North, where Gennet Zewide, class of 1973, delivered an inspirational address. Her story about being a political prisoner was incredibly moving as it was surprising.  Gennet previously served as Ethiopia’s minister to education and ambassador to India, and she credits lessons learned here for her lifelong commitment to social justice. Overall, we’ve heard from many that these were among the best Commencement ceremonies we’ve ever hosted and with record attendance. Thank you to all who contributed.

And perhaps most importantly, we created a safe learning community amidst the trials and tribulations of a global pandemic. COVID is still with us and we’re beginning the year with optional masking, testing at critical intervals, and continued watchfulness as we see how things develop. But we are also moving on to a time when COVID does not dominate everything we do.

Now to the year ahead. We know a large percentage of our students come from Lakes Region through the North Country. We also know that our students vary across the economic and academic spectrum, more so than our sister schools. COVID has had significant impacts on those students and their families. Since the economy has improved there has been a lot of construction work and many area resorts couldn’t bring in enough foreign workers at a time when our potential students needed to work to support their families. All this is taking place at a time when entry-level salaries are, for the time being, the highest in years. So is inflation.

We’re all being impacted by this. Enrollment is down and expenses are way up. Our utility costs this year alone are up over $1 million. But I believe we have a good path forward and am confident in our future. That said, the goals this year are simple, and they involve each one of us. Enrollment, Retention, and Support

We’re in a tight budget situation and we’re doing what we can to address it. Admissions redoubled its efforts this summer, bringing in the biggest class possible in current conditions, and is employing new strategies in this recruitment cycle. There will be a limited hiring freeze, hiring for only the most critical or high return opportunities. There may be a very limited incentive retirement program in a continuing effort to reshape the campus for the challenges we face.

This slide summarizes our strategic asks to the system and many investments we are making without explicit trustee approval to make sure we do what is required to boost recruitment and retention. This we are doing despite our hiring freeze because it is critical and a necessary investment. We are in the midst of a search for a retention coordinator and a managing director of enrollment to focus our energy and resources where they can have the greatest impact. Academics represents the core of all that PSU has to offer and we really appreciate the shared approach to governance and involvement by faculty and staff—reaching out to students through the summer supporting recruitment and retention. It’s also a reason we made it a priority to hire 20 faculty in key places that were affected by retirements and where we see opportunities for the future.

Our residential and student life components are tremendously important as well. PSU is a residential campus, and some of our halls need upgrading. We need to expand our housing options for students, faculty, and staff, and also for growing summer events, such as the summer arts and music festival. It’s not a question of if, but when. Thanks to the Facilities Team for managing apartments, buildings, and campus grounds with limited personnel and resources, and to the Student Life and Res Life teams for really pushing the envelope to support our students.

Hyde Hall is a major renovation project that’s already begun. Hyde was a major step forward for Plymouth State when it opened almost 50 years ago, and we’re transforming it to meet the demands of the next half century. There will be significant investments from the state and university over the next few years.

Today’s college students have weathered the pandemic, economic downturn, national and international polarization and strife, and much more, and their mental health needs far surpass previous generations.

We’ve responded with programs like Fresh Check Day, an event focused on mental health in an uplifting and empowering environment on the first day of classes; with the interactive self-help WellTrack therapy app; and with our relationship with the JED Foundation, and we will become only the second JED-certified New Hampshire campus this fall. We are also pushing to form a wellness hub in Highland Hall bringing together resources for mental and physical health. And the counseling center is doing an amazing job stretching to meet our student needs.

We know that we need additional funding for faculty and staff support and professional development. We’ve just hired a new grant writer, Della Kapocious who will be working on researching funding proposals, with positive spillovers not only in terms of the bottom line but regarding enrollment and retention too. She will enable us to open up grant opportunities across the spectrum from foundation to federal agencies that have previously been out of reach. We are hiring a new HR director and we are emphasizing the need for professional development. We are as well working to increase salaries (most recently 2% for staff) and making equity salary adjustments as resources and funding are available. I know it’s not enough, but it’s all we have for right now.

We will continue to reshape PSU for the future and to emphasize what makes PSU unique. This is where we can really shine because we are, truly unique, not only within the USNH system but among colleges and universities nationwide. Our Cluster Learning distinguishes us in the eyes of prospective students and their families, and when funders and businesses consider partnerships, collaborations, and synergies.

Regarding state and system support, one of the many great things about New Hampshire is that you can bump into your state rep at the grocery store, transfer station, or community picnic. Let them know how much Plymouth State means to our communities and more importantly, how much it means to students, many of whom are first-generation, below the poverty line, or otherwise highly deserving of a break in life.

We are striving for the first time to have a unified message from the system to the state about the importance and value of Plymouth State and Keene. The message we have proposed and hope to have adopted is: “Complete and sustain the transformation of Plymouth State University and Keene State College to 21st century workforce and economic development engines for their respective regions and the state.”

I share this because, whether it’s your local legislature or family, friends, and peers, we have so much wonderful news to share. Let them know about the music, theatre, and dance program students who earned top awards in regional competition, and about the finance and sales students who placed highly among thousands of peers from around the globe. Tell them about Josh Chandler, a senior, who was just named the 2021 Rising Stars College Student of the Year, about Business NH choosing PSU as education “Business of the Year,” and about our Fulbright award-winning faculty. Tell them about all the many ways we help communities through our Office of Community Impact, and about History Day and our student research, the great new programming planned by our Outdoor Center, about the new eSports club, and about the impressive academic and athletic prowess of our student athletes.

Truly, there is much good news to share and be proud of. Though there will surely be rocky obstacles requiring careful navigation, let’s also be mindful of all the wind at our backs, with all that has been accomplished.

A colleague recently pointed out to me the words of Viennese author, philosopher, and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, who reminds us that among the greatest of human freedoms is the ability “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We are a mission driven organization that forms student’s lives and with this wisdom in mind, I encourage you to seek new ways this year to advance Plymouth State University and our admirable mission of service to students and the state, and to join together in collegial teamwork. Go out with our Admissions Team to visit high schools, and spend time in our Res Halls, making students feel at home. We are Plymouth State—all of us—and more so than any external forces, we are the ones who will determine our destiny.

This was captured well in a message I received from a new college president to her campus: “As an institution, we can position ourselves on the leading edge of change if we are brave enough to ask: What’s next? We are not to be complacent, but always stretching, being bold, prudently accepting risk, while always grounded in our students’ best interest. This mindset must permeate at all levels.”

Here at Plymouth State University, we have shown we are both brave and bold enough, we have accepted risk, we have changed to meet the needs of the 21st century. We are on the leading edge and most importantly our focus is on our students and their future success.

This isn’t a “one and done” conversation, and I welcome your insights and ideas throughout the year. For today, I hope you can join me at the President’s House for a welcome gathering from 3:30 to 5. All staff and faculty are invited.

We have a lot to be proud of and a lot to be excited about in this very consequential year. Thank you all for everything you’re doing for one another, for our students, and for this great university. Thank you, and here’s to a great year!

And now it’s my pleasure to welcome Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Bowditch to the podium.

August 23, 2021

Good morning everyone and welcome back! It really is great to see all of you and to those of you who are catching this virtually, welcome back as well. We’re celebrating our 150th anniversary this year, and our highlights and accomplishments are on display in the fascinating exhibit here in the Silver Center. Take a look! Plymouth State is truly resting on the shoulders of giants and we have so much to be proud of.

Thanks for your support, dedication, and versatility that enabled us to get through last year—from faculty to facilities, to the COVID-19 teams, to res-life, student and academic affairs and admin, finance and IT staff, to advancement and athletics. A special thanks goes to building service and physical plant staff, whose vital efforts could not be done remotely. It was a challenging year with a lot of exhausting work, but we did it and so did our students. So thank you all. I really mean it—thank you!
Before we get too far along, I want to recognize the new people with us today. Will everyone who has joined since the last in-person University Days please stand.

To some extent we all have to get reacquainted, so please everyone take a moment to see who’s on board as we list our new colleagues on-screen.
I want everyone to be able to get a sense of our Plymouth State community today, since some people have just joined us and others have been mostly virtual since the pandemic hit. We’re also reaching out to our new faculty and staff to create short video introductions, and when these are ready we’ll put them on a SharePoint site, providing another opportunity for us to get to know one another. But welcome everyone!

After last year, I think we all have to take a breath. The pace we needed to maintain since March 2020 was exhausting at times, and burnout has been a real concern. This year will be challenging as well, although we have learned many important lessons and have new tools that allow us to better address health, safety, and teaching and learning issues. Still, we need to be watchful of one another, and be there to support those who are stressed.

We have come through a pandemic, cost cutting, reshuffling of personnel, retirements, an accelerated and changing higher ed. environment, virtual environments, and demographic change. And before that, five years of preparation. It’s been hard! Let’s all take a moment and acknowledge this. For those of you who just joined us, you probably faced similar issues elsewhere.

Each one of us is unique, as are the ways in which we handle adversity. Some accept changes more readily and are ready to move on, while for others it’s more difficult. That’s understandable, but we must be careful not to get bogged down with negativity. PSU has services and people ready to help if you’re struggling with recent events. We can’t control everything that’s happening to us but we can control how we respond and help each other.

Even here, in our quiet town on the Pemi, there were signs of a changing world around us. Slowly but surely, a tsunami grew until it was supercharged by the pandemic and crested over us. We no longer have any illusions that the future will be like the past, so here we are today in a place of new beginnings.

Fortunately, in charting our course ahead we have a rich history to draw upon and the work of the last five years. It hasn’t always been easy at PSU. Last week I had the privilege of visiting with Richard Jones, whose father, Howard Jones, became Plymouth State’s president in 1946. Richard is 84 years old, and he told me about some of his dad’s experiences as the nation reestablished normal life after so many years of Depression and war. When they lived in the President’s House it still had an ice box and a woodstove. They didn’t have enough funding to get a new refrigerator so they got an old used one with, as he described it, a big open motor on top. It wasn’t long till the motor burned up and set the whole kitchen on fire. It was only then that the President’s House got a new refrigerator and stove.

His perspective reminded me that all of what we’re going through now is really just a moment in time, and that Plymouth State has shown again and again that it knows how to reinvent, regroup, and keep moving ahead. There have been times of growth and times of great challenge, both for us and our students, but we have always pulled together and evolved into the great university we are today.

So, what do we do at times like this? We start with why we are here— to give our incredible students a future for not only themselves but for their kids and grandkids. We are motivated by a real purpose of service, modeling Ut Prosim rather than strictly personal financial gains. Many years ago, a national company sought me out for a position with likely 2-3 times what I was making and with stock options, but I turned it down. I came to think I was committed and could make more of a difference in academia. And that’s why so many of us are here, to both make a difference in students’ lives as well as a living that can pay the bills. This second part is something that we haven’t forgotten and will continue to address as best we can.

Being in academia right now in New Hampshire is tough, but our students need us and the unique education we offer more than ever, as do our state and divided nation. We have answers and have been willing to evolve to create the best education we can offer along with smaller project-based classes and close supportive relationships between our faculty, staff, and students.

So here we are today, in a place of new beginnings. COVID-19 has been a bear to live with and at the same time we are challenged by realignments. Purchasing, IT, and Finance have been redesigned. These areas are among a number of USNH projects that involve PSU and the other system schools.

It often seems like we are looking at the tangled back of a tapestry that is a work in progress, but we’re looking forward to realizing the benefits and beauty of the final product. We have a new learning management system—Canvas—and it is hard for some of us to make the change, but it is a better system to grow with. Operationalizing Clusters is proceeding unevenly, and some have evolved more fully than others in terms of their structures and concepts. But these are strong integrative approaches for the future of education and our students.

In the university system to which we belong, Granite State College is being split in two and absorbed into UNH, and no doubt some of you think Keene and Plymouth are next. None of us know the answer to this, but if we can do some hard things on our own to cement our unique purpose, we will be that much more likely to chart our own, independent course. That is why we have closed some programs, are reinventing others, and expanding a cluster curriculum based around solving wicked problems of our time.

Change is all around us, and as it settles, we need to take a look around, meet our neighbors, see new faces, see our students coming, and realize the loss of what we knew is also a time of opportunity. This is a time of new beginnings. Let’s look ahead to think of the possibilities and build a new future together.

But first, I want to ask what can we do to help you this year in whatever role you have. We acknowledge that the many changes have affected us unevenly, and for some, the costs have been substantial. We need to recognize that while at the same time, we move forward. Though the storm has changed much of what we knew, it has also opened up new vistas, and students are arriving full of hope. People and work have changed, and it is an understatement to say that we still have some kinks to work out. Our governance system and structures weren’t set up for where we’re going or how we need to work together to adapt and evolve.

So, I want to take some time to just listen and get your input on how we can help each other (within the current constraints but also the opportunities we have) to share with each other—to continue to create this new PSU and how you see your role. That starts this week with the session on Wednesday morning. I have some ideas to share then but that’s just a starting point. I want to hear your constructive thoughts and ideas on moving forward together.

This year is one of many “firsts.” In May we had our first dual commencements, with the classes of 2020 and 2021 both receiving their degrees in inspiring combined ceremonies. Some colleges dispensed with commencement altogether but we knew how much this closure and celebration meant, so we stretched and planned and reinvented and made it happen on Mary Lyon Lawn. It was a beautiful example of creating something new by tapping our deep reservoirs of warmth, flexibility, and history.

Now we have another big “first,” because in many ways we’re welcoming two freshman classes. This year’s first-year students are joining those who were freshmen last year but never experienced Plymouth State fully up and running. Together they total over 2,000 students. Roughly half of this year’s student body will not have had the on-campus experiences we are known for.

Student Life programming and other social options that draw new students out of their rooms and into the whirl of campus activities, bonding and camaraderie afforded by our magnificent location, open doors of caring faculty and staff, stimulating athletics and arts events and scholarly presentations—these all distinguish PSU.

So, as we look ahead, what might our future look like? That is up to each of us. It will be different, that we know. But there is real promise in what we have accomplished and it is a clear route to sustainability. Most importantly, we’re providing a unique and leading edge 21st century education, where information is ubiquitous and where synthesizing and constructing new ideas across disciplines to solve complex problems in team-based and experiential environments is essential. This is the education we really need to provide our students.

We’re starting to update Strategic Goals for the Campus Community, which includes, “Building a flexible and creative academic environment that continues to evolve and enhance the student experience.”

I want us to build a university that is a living, flexible, evolutionary system with linked organizational and individual purpose characterized by a culture of purpose, wholeness and self-management—to be a leading edge, sustainable, integrative cluster-based university with a positive campus environment that is resilient to change. You have shown an incredible ability to adapt so I know we can do it.

We’ve been through a lot over the last six years to get to where we are today, and the benefits of our hard work are just ahead of us. For staff who have been involved in this system-wide reorganization, please continue to work to bring about that finished tapestry where things actually do work better in spite of feeling the concerns we’ve all experienced. It will get better.

For those of you who have just joined us, you have come at a time of great opportunity. We need your energy and enthusiasm, and the possibilities are limitless. We really are ahead of the pack. While there are lots of service and teaching activities, try to direct your efforts to where your expertise and creativity can have the most impact.

For returning faculty, I hope you continue to develop cluster majors and families, 4+1 and 3+2 programs, evolve your cluster pedagogy, and reinvent and reposition programs in new creative ways. For all of us and those in student affairs and enrollment, let’s work together to increase retention and enrollment rates and enhance student life outside the classroom and its connections with their fields of study.

Whatever your role, let’s not set the bar too high for making a difference in students’ lives. Athletics, arts, and other events are again open to the public this year, so let’s fill those seats and stands with cheers for Panther players and performers!

We’ve got so many great initiatives in process and are taking the lead in equipping students for the world that awaits them. Today’s digital technologies are combining business and music in powerful ways, and business and music colleagues are rethinking PSU pedagogy to better connect their fields.

We’re looking at how we can bring our arts and technologies together in a new cluster major. It would join other new programs, such as our new BS degree in climate studies, which is the only one of its kind in New Hampshire and one of very few in the entire nation.

As the pandemic has stretched on, the need for mental health support has never been greater. To help meet that need in New Hampshire, our Counselor Education and School Psychology program was awarded a $1.92 million four-year grant to grow the behavioral health workforce in rural and medically underserved areas. Mental illness, substance use, intimate partner violence and suicide, and the opioid crisis are among the focus areas. Our biggest awards this past year were the multimillion dollar FEMA grants that came to the USNH system through the efforts of a PSU grant submission. Thank you to those responsible in finance and administration for your hard work in securing this vital funding.

A delegation from PSU and the town of Plymouth joined First Lady Valerie Sununu in Concord this summer, and discussed participation in a movement that emphasizes love, empathy, and understanding. We’re recognized as being uniquely qualified to serve as a statewide model because of our longstanding reputation as a home for supportive culture and programs. We need to build on these strengths by moving forward this year with the in-person campus experiences that bring out the best in our community.

We’ve made some great strides in powering toward carbon net neutrality. The new solar array atop the PE Center is offsetting more than 90 percent of that vintage building’s annual electricity consumption, and electric vehicle owners can charge up at no charge at one of our new EV chargers.

An evolving institution like ours is always in motion, and that includes using buildings efficiently. Plans call for the EcoHouse to become our new Center for Diversity and for the HUB to incorporate a new e-sports lounge. We’re also planning to bring PSU Health and Counseling centers together under one roof in a combined Highland Hall wellness center with our services available at the Frost House.

And there are lots of new vistas to explore. I believe we should expand our business, applied, and technical undergraduate degrees and professional masters and doctoral programs. After all, that was the core of Plymouth from its very founding and must be a key part of our future. The liberal arts should be the basis for our general education and the integration of our key disciplines. That is what clusters are about, drawing upon the historical concept of seven pillars (or seven clusters in our case) that create an integrated knowledge framework for students to be successful and contributing citizens for the 21st century. This is more important now than ever.

Majors have come and gone over the last 50+ years, and some might say, proliferated to the point that we were building more silos than wholistic understanding, but there is a bright future here for the liberal arts along with all of our more applied and professional programs in the integrative, interdisciplinary, digital-savvy education we are pursuing. We need to have thoughtful creative solutions if we are to reach the full potential of our leading-edge education.

We have several reaccreditations coming up, including one with NECHE that will look closely at what we are doing in general education, assessment, enrollment, and sustainability. We have to be open to new ideas like partnerships with the community colleges, and even an on-campus component for those who have struggled to make it through their first year and have run out of options, and to build on our TRIO and Ascent programs.

Let’s become even more effective this year by tackling problems with structure and processes. We have to update our governance structure to meet new needs, so we’ll have more time to be creative while forging stronger partnerships among our faculty, staff, and administrators.

We are somewhat reduced in numbers this year, which points to the importance of collaboration, not just in governance, but across the board. Let’s eliminate unnecessary boundaries between faculty, staff, and administration, because there can be no us versus them—there is only us.

The Diversity, Equity and Social Justice initiative is an area in which many have shown interest and it can mean so much to our students in so many ways. We’ve resumed the search but need to work to establish the Center even before we have a leader. It is just too important.

So, let’s get started on all of these important tasks! The Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (or “CPLC” for our new colleagues) and Academic Affairs have planned a great week of discussions around topics of interest to both staff and faculty. Thank you to all who have contributed to University Days programming.

And for those who want to get together and talk with me about their vision, ideas, and needs, please join me for a discussion at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Since my class at 8 a.m., I’ve thought a lot about how to engage everyone so early in the morning.

Thank you, and let’s have a great year!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Good Morning and welcome everyone to the first online University Days in our history! It’s great to know you’re there even if I can’t see any of you. I know University Days and everything else looks a little different this year, but irrespective of how you feel about reopening campus to students it’s still great to see the campus come to life again and see students who are so eager to be here. This week we are kicking off the year ahead (our 150th year), with lively sessions, new ideas, and strategies to consider, and camaraderie. But, the important thing is that we are here whether in person or virtually, working together, pooling all of our talents to serve our students and to provide for them and us the best future possible.

I want to extend a special welcome to our new colleagues, including 10 new faculty and 7 staff members. It was great meeting some of you Monday and to hear why you’re excited to be here. I want you to know we’re just as excited that you have joined us. And, I want to welcome back those who were on furlough. It really is good to have you back.  Furloughs were the best option open to us to preserve both our future and university jobs, but I know it was hard on many of you. Thank you for coming back and helping prepare us for reopening.

I also want to take a moment to recognize the dozen task force teams made up of dedicated faculty, staff and students who met all summer and made this opening possible. They considered every aspect of reopening from health, safety, and testing to logistics, academics, programming, and more. These task force members worked very hard to reboot PSU knowing we are at the center of students’ lives today and of their hopes for the future, and that they’re here at PSU as much for the place and the people as for the programs we offer. Through all the planning the teams have tried to be as responsive as possible to our community concerns. Thanks to all the task force members, we are as well prepared as humanly possible for the semester ahead. We have not been like those who have just hoped for a safe opening, we have done everything possible to make it safe and keep it that way. 

Over the last year, we have demonstrated how capable we are in rising to the occasion and meeting urgent challenges. Thinking back on my notes and reports to campus from last winter, COVID-19 came upon us with such shocking speed. True, we had discussions about restricting travel from China soon after the virus was discovered there, but even as recently as Ski Day in mid-February we really couldn’t comprehend what was coming. Things changed quickly and dramatically in March, and we responded to the pandemic with a quick transition. Faculty made amazing adjustments in just a few days and had comparable and sometimes better results than those campuses that had a delayed spring break and significantly more time to prepare. You are incredible.

We have a lot to be proud of. Senior nursing students graduated a month early this spring to be the first in New Hampshire to join the frontlines, allowing them to begin working in the state’s hospitals and other health care settings. This group effort involved students, staff, faculty, Government Relations, and the Registrar’s Office. The transition to remote learning posed a unique accreditation challenge and our nursing program found a creative solution through virtual simulations. 

Faculty across the campus switched gears in days – all delivering their classes remotely in many different forms. Our digital tools, institutional knowledge, and flexible culture that has historically embraced adaption and innovation were key to our transition to a fully remote modality. Information Technology, the Lamson Library, the Writing Center, and the Open CoLab all offered immediate help to faculty, staff, and students at most hours of the day. Student Success coaches advised remotely on academic programs; and Career Services on internship policies and employment opportunities. These and other offices, including Campus Accessibility Services, PASS, and TRIO, continued to meet critical needs.

Members of MAPS, our student marketing group, have been making masks throughout the summer. They’ve been building inventory to have thousands to hand out to students, faculty, and staff at no charge. MAPS students are also assisting the University in distributing hand sanitizer.

We’ve been modifying campus practically nonstop since March in response to the pandemic, thanks to our dedicated Physical Plant staff. The punch list has included prepping quarantine spaces, moving and removing furniture, setting up the ice arena surge center, upgrading technology, assisting move-ins and move-outs, and coordinating cleaning, PPE, and health and sanitation measures across campus. Building service workers have worked long hours to meet campus needs, including fabricating and installing crucial signage. Our friends at Chartwells have also been busy preparing for students’ return, and Facility Services Manager Corey Grogan brightened the Holderness campus with her beautiful painting.

Helping one another and serving our community are fundamental to PSU, and as a community we’ve stepped forward in many ways. The Office of Community Impact spearheaded a PPE collection, and the new Draper & Maynard Makerspace manufactured PPE right here on campus for frontline workers.

For the first time since the Doctor of Education program began, we had 24 and still counting students defend their dissertations successfully in one year. Despite the impact of COVID-19 on many students’ research, our doctoral faculty, chairs, and committee members from all over the world supported these students and helped them achieve lifelong dreams. And our Doctor of Physical Therapy program ran in-person classes throughout the summer.

Our collective generosity resulted in a record number of emergency grants to students awarded by the Student Support Foundation. Thank you to everyone who has donated to the Plymouth Emergency Fund or who has helped in other ways. We are all in this together.

I know that among our University community, there is tremendous uncertainty, anxiety, and fear about reopening campus. I’ve said more than once that there are real risks in reopening, but they are highly managed ones in which the best practices have been put in place after consulting with state and national experts. Yes, non-peer reviewed studies suggest all manner of things and there is much still unknown about this virus, but we have built a multilayered system to account for those unknowns.

We recently had a tabletop exercise in Concord with other system schools and were given various mock scenarios that we may face this fall. The depth of our summer planning served us well, as PSU had already thought through how to handle every posed scenario.

We often speak of COVID-19 as if it was the only risk, but we all know that there is a competing family of risks involving students and the future of universities such as ours, and their impact on the surrounding community. We offer hope for the future for our students and our community, and I have always believed that hopelessness remains, even in this pandemic, the greatest risk that young adults face. That is why I am so committed to higher education, the critical socialization that comes with it and the hope we bring, inside and outside of the classroom. I also believe PSU is a unique place and a home for our students.

We are fortunate to be in a region of low COVID-19 incidence, with processes to control spread should the virus break out. We have bought large amounts of PPE, masks, face shields, and plexiglass, improved air circulation and fixed windows, mapped classrooms for social distancing, cleaned buildings, tested students, faculty, and staff, set up our own scanning facility, equipped classrooms for multimode delivery, developed quarantine processes, set up isolation facilities, and developed a campaign to address risky student behaviors. Finally, we have plans for a staged shut down, if necessary, after doing all we can to sustain campus learning through a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote classes.

Looking to the year ahead, the grand experiment that COVID has prompted in higher education will continue this fall. Our Slipper Camp training in May was followed this summer by over 100 faculty members participating in professional development centered around online and hybrid teaching, and many are being certified for best practices in online teaching. Thank you to all who have made acquiring new skills a priority, and to those throughout the University who facilitated these activities. For although PSU is built on in-person instruction, we are ready to pivot anytime to online delivery and do it better than ever.

Some have compared COVID-19 to an x-ray of society, revealing and bringing to the surface all of the cracks and fissures that were there all along much like the issues brought forward by the Black Lives Matter movement. This certainly has been the case in higher education. We’ve felt the pressures building for a long time and have known that unfavorable regional demographics and changing marketplace demands were forcing us to reimagine learning for the twenty-first century. PSU has had a head start over many peer institutions in grappling with these difficulties, but today they are an unavoidable discussion at every college and university.

We are at a historic turning point in higher education, which will be forever changed by the pandemic. Trends that were already occurring have been heightened and the speed of change has accelerated. Institutions that were already on the edge—and there were many—will likely be consolidated or closed before too long.

Consolidation across campuses will become more prevalent, and this includes both academics and administration. You’ve seen that in the case of our IT, and there are on-going discussions with Huron regarding Finance and back-office operations. The COVID-19-inspired enhanced retirement and separation programs show the seriousness of discussions. There have never been such generous plans offered before, nor are there likely to be again. What comes next depends on how we respond. I for one would like ours to be the loudest voice in determining our future but that will only happen if we speak in harmony and work as a team.   

It’s clear that too many students and families can no longer afford higher education in its present form and the state doesn’t have the resources to provide the support we have traditionally received. So, we really have to think about what we want to be and move boldly in that direction, because otherwise our choices could become more and more limited and be made for us, rather than by us.

Colleges and universities that survive will have classrooms equipped for simultaneous hybrid delivery, as we are doing, which allow institutions to share courses. Pedagogical gaps at one institution will be filled by another, allowing individual campuses to focus on differentiating strengths in which they both excel and which support the communities around them.

Remote learning is getting a powerful boost from the pandemic, and campuses must make even stronger cases for the value of their on-campus experiences. Colleges will need to move beyond housing, dining, and student social programs. These traditional services will continue in importance, but the added value of residential campuses will be scrutinized and compared like never before. Team-based experiential learning and problem solving across disciplines linked with strong ties to faculty will be critically important as will be the blending of in-classroom, out-of-classroom and community experiences. Fortunately, the discussions and brainstorming that we’ve had in recent years launching Clusters have strengthened our ability to successfully navigate this future. We know what we have to do, now we must all do it!

At PSU, enrollment remained strong throughout the summer and we haven’t experienced the typical summer melt. We have a large class eager to begin its studies and participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities, and our residence halls are filled. Clearly, we are doing some things right, which should give us courage as we begin an uncertain year. We are in a good and safe place for students to learn and grow.  

At the same time that we are working on new ways to make this semester a success, we can no longer delay making hard decisions about what programs to close or consolidate. Provost Ann McClellan and Associate Provost Pat Cantor are leading these discussions, some of which are already underway. PSU is fortunate in that we have tools at our disposal that can give us options beyond ‘all or nothing’ for these programs – more like reinvention. Possibilities can include Cluster majors and tracks, core modules, and 4+1 or 3+2 approaches. Chemistry and Criminal Justice creating a Forensics cluster major is just one example of how we can build related programs if we are creative and open to change. We can bring together disciplines in ways that establish and grow our unique strengths at national and international levels.

The Huron initiative and the strategic planning that the trustees reviewed this spring both stress greater operational sustainability, and retention remains a key challenge that we must solve. I am excited about the Ascent Program, the Retention efforts spanning academic affairs and student affairs, and the team-based approach to advising that links offices across campus together in united purpose – that all of our students graduate and are well prepared for the future. We must make a substantial adjustment in our annual budget through a combination of reduced costs or increased revenue, and to help address this we will be making key investments that lift the campus as whole. 

These imperatives will require our best efforts and no small amount of courage. Some of what we’re undertaking may be unsettling, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep moving forward together.

FDR famously declared in 1933, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Despite the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, the militarism in Asia, the dust bowl in the Midwest, industry and finance leaders jumping out of their windows in cities, soup kitchens with long lines around the block, and war on the horizon, he made this incredible statement. It must have seemed like the world was coming to an end, but a dozen years later we emerged the strongest, most successful nation in the world.

Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” He said that because fear as with complacency can paralyze. You can draw whatever parallels you wish between the 1930s and today, but as a university we too have many possibilities for a bright future; and to get there we need to get on the same page and see them together. We need to deal with reality, as Panthers of the past have done.

Let’s continue to debate and have vibrant, respectful discussions, as critical examination helps us to develop the best approaches. But when a path is chosen, we must unite. We are truly all in this together, and by moving forward together, we will be successful.

To one degree or another, we all have questions that may not have ready answers. I share these questions and the emotions they engender but I encourage you to join me in looking to the future as we consider the challenges we face, both as individuals and collectively as a community – to keep our eyes focused on the opportunities ahead while dealing with the realities of the present.

Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Let’s work together this year to address our fears and strengthen our university community. Together, we can be there for each other as brothers and sisters of humanity, for our students (no matter what their color), and for the community that looks to us for expertise, guidance, and leadership.

Thank you for your participation in University Days, and thanks again to all of you and to our talented colleagues who have done such a great job on this year’s programming and preparations. I look forward to joining you in the upcoming sessions this week and throughout the year. Finally, congratulations to our awardees and please stay tuned for the celebration and recognition coming up next.

As Tiny Tim said: God Bless Everyone.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Hanaway Theatre

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our third University Days where together we kick off the New Year. It is great to see all of you. I am glad so many could make it. I hope you all had a chance to take a break during summer and are ready to get started on a New Year. I had the opportunity for some mountain climbing and time at the beach in Fenwick island in Delaware; that and my early sailing days are probably the source of my many nautical motifs, so bear with me.

Before I go any further I would like everyone who was not here last year or who is in a new position to stand up. Let’s welcome everyone to our incredible community of learning and to their new positions. Thank you for joining us. One thing I can assure you – it won’t be boring!

The summer has been eventful in many ways, from the many events on campus to the summer programs and renovations, to signing the AAUP union contract, demonstrating again that we can work as a team. Some events of the summer, I admit, I’d rather forget, but these are opportunities for discussion about important issues from which we will grow. Those discussions will start this week and hopefully carry on throughout the year. Although there will not be time for questions now, we have set aside some time on Friday at noon.

The changes going on in our facilities are especially exciting, and emblematic of what is to come. This summer we opened the one-stop shop for students in Speare which houses Student Account Services, Financial Aid, Registrar, PASS and TRIO and Res Life. The Smith Renovation is nearing completion with an interior redesign that features kitchen areas, common spaces and different sleeping arrangements. By the way, I am told that we are at 97% occupancy in housing. Congratulations to all of you who have been involved in this. The Health and Human Enrichment Cluster space in the PE center is well underway and should be completed this fall.   And across the campus there were facility upgrades in a number of academic buildings and spaces inside and outside. We have a new dining provider and the hope for more fresh cooked food. So try it out if you get a chance and don’t be too hard on them until they can to redesign their space—a different look as well as different dining services. I hope you are getting a sense of movement and excitement visually reflected in the changes going on around you. My thanks to all those who were involved throughout the busy summer.

This year’s theme for University Days is “Finding your why” and is organized somewhat differently than previous years. The focus this year is on your role in our transformation and change. It isn’t about whether we are going to transform ourselves (that is in our mission statement) it isn’t about the reality of the changing landscape of higher education or the increasingly limited resources available. It is about whether you share the excitement for the future or, as a question that was posed by the Chronicle of Higher Education—mourn the loss of a past that no longer exists. So, why are you excited, or how can you find excitement in this new reality? That was the gist of a question posed to me by the Chronicle of Higher Education, as the questioner noted that the world we now live in, and will live in, is nothing like the boom time of higher education of the last half century. My response to him was that one must have a vision for the future that holds the promise of a revitalization along with affordability and sustainability for our students. I believe we have such a vision and we are going to build it together. More of the questions asked and what we talked about in our transformation will be featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education webinar in two weeks.

These University Days are about how we are using this reality as an opportunity to recreate ourselves so that we and our students thrive in the 21st century—and each of us has a role to play in this.

Three years ago we began a journey. That journey was about giving students an integrated education spanning disciplines and providing project-based experiences and the tools (built around their major) so no matter what their passion, they could pursue it in a financially sustainable manner throughout a lifetime in which knowledge is readily available and easy to access. But synthesizing, validating, visualizing and using that knowledge to further explore, teach, create, and build ideas and concepts and realize them across disciplines within teams with a habits of mind perspective is rare. This is an exciting approach to academics, and making our education affordable is what we are about here at Plymouth. This will give our students the abilities, tools, and experiences they need to thrive, and it is what is of inestimable value for the future. Financial sustainability is also important for the institution and our new structure holds the potential for long-term sustainability in a higher ed environment that will continue to experience increasing upheaval and demographic shifts.

During the past three years, we discussed the four tools of building this education from First Year Seminars to Themed General Education (with stackable certificates), and Open Laboratories to Integrated Capstones. We piloted cluster projects and first year seminars, built open laboratories and organized ourselves into clusters with real impact on students (and this year our goal is to move beyond pilots to implementation of integrated cluster programs and other programs across the University). Our journey of discovery has been exhausting, chaotic, and confusing at times, but that is what the process of discovery and building something truly new is all about. There have been many doubters but we have persevered, survived the murky middle, and arrived at that distant shore we could barely picture when we began. We have ventured where no university has gone before. And that is incredibly exciting for our students and ourselves. We haven’t explored the land, built the communities, and figured out life in this new world. We are only on the beach, but we have made it through the deep waters, the storms at sea, and lost friends and colleagues. Now we must get out of the ship and embark beyond this new beachhead to explore and build our cluster-based communities doing it creatively, efficiently, sustainably and responsibly. So, I welcome you off the ship today, all of you, and into this new land. That is what this University Days is about. It is a celebration of our accomplishment and a new beginning. We’re not going to be sharing a bunch of new ideas, shifting people around or creating a new organizational structure as we have done over this last three years. This year is all about making it happen.

Now the question is: What are we going to do about it? We left behind a land where we and our students could not thrive… for one of opportunity and promise. But we have to make it, create it, and build it. We need to take apart our ship and use the materials to build what we have visualized in this new land. So, today, let it be decided that you will set out not rebuilding what we left behind, but together building something suited to this new land. It is our home and what we make of it is up to us, but make it is something we must do.

We are the first ones here, but other universities are searching for what we have found. So we will need to stake our claim and proceed with vigilance. We want to be a lighthouse to guide others and have them come alongside us, but we also don’t want our students and ourselves to be left out of this new 21st century academic world.

That is why discovering your why, what, and how is so important. If you don’t have answers to these questions it will be hard for you to build anything. In this quest I have asked the Transition Leadership Team, which has representation across campus, to work with each of our communities over the coming year to help them develop task forces around key concepts we need to evolve and implement—among them curricular change, process mapping, and training and sharing of ideas—and to not only ask task forces to make recommendations but to stay involved through implementation. Each of us also needs to find the time—a few hours a week—to really think about the future, to strategize individually and in groups—to think about what we are going to stop doing (as well as doing) to implement our ideas, and to participate fully in our transformation. That is really what agile process are all about.

That said, I want thank everyone for your incredibly hard work over the last three years. I’m especially grateful to our deans for going above and beyond in countless ways, in a thankless job, and for the team that worked on putting together University Days and events across campus. I also want to recognize those of you who have been leading the charge. Thank you.

We have not arrived on a barren landscape, but rather a verdant new home with many opportunities. It is familiar in some ways, because collaboration and community will continue to be valued and emphasized here. As we move forward, we’re launching original initiatives, like PSUNITE, to provide mentors for all students to boost success and retention. PSU has a great mentoring culture already but now our goal is to go beyond what other colleges and universities offer as well as integrate it into what I hope will be a new honors program.

We are implementing our Summer Ascent program for first year students and this fall, FYRE—the new First Year Residential Experience. FYRE’s special programs and increased access to faculty and services will help new students find their personal paths. Along with the spark of FYRE, we’ll be moving forward on the General Education front, led by Professor Cathie LeBlanc. Cathie is here today and excited to be back working on these changes to improve improve student outcomes. Congratulations to those who have been, and will be, involved in these changes.

And a positive community is returning to infuse the new PSU with service and pride. Fraternities and sororities are a small part of a huge effort to reimagine student success and retention programs. We believe that despite the challenges of Greek life, that it has a place in our future and we can do it right. Moreover, Greek life will build vital connections with alumni while reenergizing school spirit.

Between the building blocks that we brought along on our journey, and the rich landscape we can glimpse, things really do look promising. But these resources will remain mute and immobile if we don’t animate them. Each of us must give life to our new world of Integrated Clusters.

We are uniquely suited to this challenge. In a recent article, the Chronicle of Higher Education declared, and I quote, “Plymouth State is an unusually collegial place…” We excel at working together and considering the bigger picture. It’s in our DNA and our history, and therefore our destiny in the future.

The question is: What are you excited to explore and try?

To get us started, today and throughout the week, students, alumni, and colleagues will share their visions of why, what and how in a “TED Talk” format. I encourage you to participate in as many sessions as you can. I know because of the origin of university days in faculty days that there would appear to be more faculty than staff content. Part of this is because staff are extremely busy during these days. But over the year you will be increasingly engaged because what we are doing involves everyone.  But if you are staff, and you have some time available, I would ask you to take this opportunity to sit in on sessions that you might not have otherwise attended or get together in groups to begin discussions on finding your why.

As we share thoughts, keep our five challenges in mind:

  • Movement to a flatter, integrated, Cluster-based organizational structure and implementation of the Four Tools,
  • Retention and Persistence,
  • Sustainability/Thriving financially, academically, and reputationally,
  • Recruitment and Enrollment, and finally and most importantly
  • Equipping our students to lead and thrive in the twenty-first century global economy.

There is a clear pathway forward if we work together on these challenges.

Last year we began a process called the University Reinvention Initiative, often referred to as URI. Many of you told us and each other about what you are doing or would like to do in programs across the university. The deans did an initial review at the end of last year, but over the summer, we spent time going back through each of the proposals in detail and organized them into 14 categories. I thought you might want to see how many proposals fell into each grouping. I’m particularly excited about the ideas that fell into categories like “Modules of Courses that support various ‘cluster majors” (with elimination of redundancy (11); “Cluster/majors and cross cluster/Integration” (27) and “Graduate, 3+2, 4+1 programs” (27). We’ll talk more about these ideas over the coming year, but the provost’s office has started sending out letters to those that are ongoing or require minimal investments so that we can begin moving ahead with some of the best of these recommendations.

Now we are going to give you a taste of what is to come over the next few days with mini TED Talks from students, faculty, and staff about their why. We are going to begin with our new Provost. Here is someone who saw the journey we were undertaking and said, “Count me in.” Robin brings an international worldview and extensive background as an administrator, scholar, author, and leader of institutional change. Please welcome Robin Dorff.


I know we have been through a lot together and three years sometimes feels like six or seven but it is important that you know that what you do has value and purpose with an impact that is making a difference. Remember that 43% of our students are first generation, 36-37% are low income, and as you’ve heard today, quite a few of our students are homeless, foster kids, or struggling with numerous challenges. That is why our learning community is so important.

Thank you to all of you for these inspirational talks, and to all of you for joining us today. Enjoy these next few days as we kick off the new academic year. Remember, we’ll have a questions section on Friday at noon.

The President's University Blog Archive

Over the past two years, I’ve blogged as a method of sharing my thoughts that address various aspects of our Integrated Clusters learning model. These have included “Why Clusters,” “The Impact of Clusters,” “The Move to Clusters,” and “Shared Governance.” Now, as we leave the ‘murky middle’ and full implementation of Clusters is upon us, I find it important to share the benefits that we have seen for our students and Plymouth State University. The lists below summarize input we have received from numerous areas on campus during conversations, meetings, and discussions, and will surely grow and change as we continue our work together. Please share with me specific benefits you see in your everyday work.

Benefits to Students

Teamwork: Students learn to work in teams across disciplines—a critical skill set for life after the University.

Connections: Students learn how their major connects to other disciplines—finding increased relevance in all of their studies.

Experiential: Students experience relevant learning through project-based activities—resulting in greater potential to persist to graduation, proven increase in longterm retention, and better ability to apply knowledge.

Workforce Ready: Students build skill-sets around their majors that allow them to follow their passion and better apply their knowledge and abilities in an ongoing learning environment. They graduate ready to create and work with others in teams, through their engagement with students in other disciplines as well as external partners in Cluster projects and internships. This prepares students to meet the future expectations of employers and graduate programs.

Network: Students have learning experiences with community members, contributing to life outside of the University, and allowing them to build a network of experiences and connections. Students graduate with professional and community networks in New Hampshire, making them more likely to be able to stay and work in the state or elsewhere with the references they build.

Opportunity: Students are provided with opportunities to weave together theory and practice by applying their knowledge to real-life challenges and to finding solutions to future complex problems—graduating ready to tackle challenges with collaborative skill-sets such as problem-solving, communication skills, deeper critical thinking, and resilience. Residential Learning, Clusters Open Laboratories, and study spaces provide students the ability to better utilize out of classroom time for individual team and project-based learning.

Affordability: Clusters hold the promise of integrating subject matter in ways that provide a more affordable education.

Synergy: Clusters, integrated, and project-based learning afford opportunities for all students to excel. Traditional college-bound students learn the strength of teams and mentorship-based learning and the more hands-on students are part of a learning relationship in which all types of knowledge and ability are valued—resulting in increased success in and out of college.

Benefits to Plymouth State

Building Our Reputation: Plymouth State is emerging as a cutting-edge university known for its innovative Integrated Clusters learning model with relevant disciplines, programs, and majors.

Increasing Our Funding: Plymouth State is being acknowledged by the State, alumni, donors, and grantors who recognize, and are passionate about, our learning model, which prepares our students for a twenty-first century world while improving our communities.

Focusing Our Resources: Integrated Clusters focus us into specific areas of opportunity—allowing us to excel, operate efficiently, and resonate with our location while also sharing resources to create Cluster projects/ majors/ programs.

Enhancing Our Marketing: With outreach focused on our Integrated Cluster learning model and unique programs, which support recruitment and retention efforts that differentiate us in a competitive higher education landscape.

Recruiting Students: Utilizing the seven Integrated Clusters, we can reach today’s traditional college-bound population, “Generation Z” (iGEN) and their parents. Gen Z are technological natives who know how to access data but need to learn how to work with others to synthesize, validate, and build on it to create new ideas. They jump to join social causes; are entrepreneurial, future focused, and grew up in a health-conscious world; are concerned about the environment and the human impact on the planet; and demonstrate concern about security in online and offline environments. The Integrated Clusters learning model resonates as well with potential student-athletes who already have a passion to work in group-like, problem-solving situations.

Recruiting Faculty and Staff: Our engaging pedagogy, with real-world and résumé-building applications, face-to-face interactions in and out of the classroom, networking experience, and preparation to tackle whatever the future may bring, is attractive to ambitious higher ed professionals.

Improving Community Engagement and Economic Success: By providing opportunities for collaborations between students, alumni, faculty, and staff through active participation in Cluster projects, and by creating solutions to complex problems in an increasingly interdisciplinary world, we’re improving the area in which we thrive. Career development connections and affinity-based alumni chapters increase while helping to build the economy students will find jobs in within profit and nonprofit businesses.

Expanding: We’re growing to link to and establish relationships with K–12 schools that engage in project-based learning and community colleges that have more hands-on learners.

Sustainability: Clusters hold the promise of creating a more sustainable, integrated education and learning institution that does not spread limited resources over disconnected programs and subject matter.  It also enables us to better tap funding sources.

October 26, 2017

Given all the discussions recently about moving to Integrated Clusters, including the recent sessions involving key function breakouts and placement, I thought I might provide some thoughts to allow campus constituents the opportunity to step back and reflect on what we are building. The next few blogs suggest my larger, world-view of how our campus might evolve, and the steps we might take over the next few years. The goal is to present a few thoughts in response to the questions I have heard. To summarize my conceptual viewpoint, our first iteration of clusters would:

  • Be made up of discipline-based communities and a variety of associated programs, majors, and options. I understand that in some cases, discipline-based communities have been broken up due to the placement of programs associated with a discipline-based community being spread across clusters. I think, in some cases, that may be necessary but for the purposes of keeping a “home room” it might be better to keep a base in one cluster with faculty membership from the various communities also being associated with other clusters as needed. Remember, part of the move to Integrated Clusters is about a more efficient administrative structure and part is about a flexible and interacting academic structure.
  • Have a leadership team made up of faculty representatives from the various discipline-based communities that constitute it, key support staff from the cluster hub, and representatives from other clusters that have substantial joint activities with the cluster.
  • Be coordinated by, and information shared through, a University-wide council or steering team that will draw representation from the various clusters. This council/steering team would be empowered to evolve, coordinate, and communicate across clusters.
  • Be supported by a hub of service providers who provide support services to one or more clusters. Hub members, as the Deans have indicated could be specialized. And/or as I have indicated be more generalized and cross-trained, with distributed responsibilities so that they could fulfill some elements of the roles that administrative assistants currently fill. Whichever approach, we will need the collective input of administrative assistants, clusters, and faculty to find the best structure, as clusters will likely need a different support structure than departments. Currently, two pilots are in development with a support team to test the overall approach to a hub-like structure.

(To be continued)

As always, please understand these blog posts are mine and I present things as I see it. Others I am sure will see things differently, but I hope some of this provides clarification and resonates with you.

October 27, 2017

The Integrated Cluster models that are being developed today should be viewed as transitional with a focus on evolving to a true cluster-based structure over the next two years. The work being done right now is, in some significant ways, a hybrid and will likely need significant adjustments as we learn. The important point is to get started; forming leadership teams, and organizing operational structures. This is an evolving, interactive process that ultimately must result in a university structure that is flexible, fluid, flat, and lean.

*Some have suggested that Clusters, in theory, resemble big departments or colleges.  This is not the case, although in a transitional form there are elements of a traditional organization. In practice, Clusters operate very differently than departments because as they evolve and the interactions between disciplines grows, they become more than just disciplines-inside-a-department. What will emerge are initiatives and cross-disciplinary strategies and new programs including “cluster majors”, 4+1 plans, integrative graduate programs, and introductory cluster courses.

As always, please understand these blog posts are mine and I present things as I see it. Others I am sure will see things differently, but I hope some of this provides clarification and resonates with you.

*I will speak more to this in a later blog but “cluster majors” refer to programs that combine certain classes, tracks or modules, from 2 or more majors to create an integrated program of study. One or more of original majors may/may not remain, but the goal is to broaden interest in the area of study.

October 30, 2017

Shared leadership is extremely important to the success of the Integrated Cluster model as there must be significant dialog between the administrative units and the clusters in evolving a structure that can grow, change, and be sustainable. This is a challenging step and will require us to rethink shared leadership and governance in the context of re-envisioning the University and moving to clusters, addressing the challenges these changes bring, and making our educational model sustainable and affordable—all with the realization that the world of higher education is changing so quickly that we will need to move to “where the puck will be”—not where it is today. As a University, together, faculty, OS, and PATs should consider whether we have identified and established appropriate task forces and working groups that may be necessary to effectively address process change and work with administration to determine the charges.  We all will need to contribute to this process in whatever way we can.

  • One of the first tasks of Clusters’ leadership teams will be to analyze the marketing and financial data on programs within the cluster and come to some decisions on how all programs might be strengthened through attention to curricular integration and reinvention (4 tools, etc.). Ideally, programs would not be cut if they could reinvent themselves possibly through integrated links to other programs, broadening their appeal. While combinations are preferred to eliminations, it is possible that some programs may not exist in the new Clustered model; thus, it is essential that re-envisioning all programs occur, not simply so that currently strong programs may help weak/economically inefficient ones survive, but so that even the strongest programs flourish in the future as times change. Each Cluster may want to revisit the original URSA analysis and consider it in the context of our Cluster-based organization, as well as the marketing and financial data the Deans will provide in early November. In this process, we must be careful to hear the voice of smaller programs that can play a key role in growing the clusters and who desire to be part of new, vibrant cross-cluster initiatives.
  • To strengthen programs, clusters might consider developing a two to three course/General Education introductory sequence that would motivate students to pursue majors within the cluster, but also provide insight and pathways for students in majors outside their clusters. For example, Exploration & Discovery might develop a two course sequence. One course being the story behind great discoveries (History) and their impact and another great equations course in Physics (i.e. how these equations came about, what they mean, and how to use them). In fact, a recent PSU experimental course, Self & Society (SSDI) Curiosity, Ethics, and the Public Good, appears to fit these parameters.

As always, please understand these blog posts are mine and I present things as I see it. Others I am sure will see things differently, but I hope some of this provides clarification and resonates with you.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Hanaway Theatre

Good morning and welcome to University Days 2017. It is great to see all of you here. We wanted to begin with some dancing, highlights from last year and Jason’s cheerleading to get us off to the right start.

You are probably wondering what USNH location was being featured in the video that was playing when you all entered today. Well, many of those sights and sounds were captured not just in the Granite State but half-way around the world in Africa where PSU is surprisingly well known.

Over the summer I was invited to visit and be the guest of our sister institution in Benin, Africa. We got a chance to visit the Gate of No Return and the Tree of Forgetfulness – sights that I will never forget. What you saw were clips of the 4 hour graduation ceremony with roughly 150 students. Needless to say, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance both before and after the awarding of degrees. And we thought our graduation was long! Like us, they always have work to do on their campus but in spite of lots of rain and our historical buildings, the ground’s crew and building service workers have been doing great work all around this beautiful and vibrant campus. I think they deserve a big hand.

Speaking of graduation, I appreciate your feedback on some of the suggested changes in our ceremony. Overwhelmingly, the responses were positive but with some concern about Friday night. That said, who is up for giving a new format a try? More to come on this.

Now, let me ask, for whom is this their first University Days experience? Great. In some ways this will be new for all of us. For those of you for whom this is old hat you are probably expecting me to give a traditional State of the University speech this morning.  I know you’ll be disappointed, but I’m going to leave the typically exciting financial and other fascinating updates for our fall Town Hall Meeting which will be held in October.

Instead, today I’m going to kick-off what I expect will be an engaging multi-day launch to our new academic year in which we really move forward in transforming PSU.

There is reason to have a sense of urgency. There are changes happening on campuses across the country and at our sister institutions here in New Hampshire. Leadership is changing, new generations of students and their families are looking at higher education differently since the recession. In addition, traditional ways state and federal governments are supporting colleges and universities are in flux. We know we must change and transform to survive and thrive and for the sake of our students as we here at Plymouth have always done.

Ben Franklin said it well 3 centuries ago,  “When you are through changing you are through.” And he follows that with, “He that lives upon hope will die fasting." It is a reminder that complacency or a wistful view of the past will not make the positive difference required in the future lives of our students at a price they can afford.

By the way, Ben Franklin has a starring role in my speech today. As many of you know, Ben Franklin was the first Postmaster General, an inventor and a great communicator. Part of my niece’s summer wedding took place in a postal museum near Washington, D.C., the walls of which had many of his quotes. Some really hit home, and I want you to know that even at weddings, I see what we are doing at Plymouth.

Now back to our journey together.

Our theme for University Days this year is in the spirit of everything we’ve been doing here at PSU: Inspiring, Educating, and Positioning Students for Success but now with a focus on 21st century challenges and needsI want us to take a few minutes to reflect on where we’ve been and then spend the next few days focusing on where we are going in the academic year ahead.

Two years ago, we embarked on a journey together and now our first cluster class, the class of 2021, will arrive on campus and matriculate. On Friday, Panther Days will begin and we will be seeing the fruits of our labors take hold.

This year, we all need to play a key role in our transformation. We have made big promises (or rather Jason has, on behalf of the university, with his iphone talk) about their cluster experience and what it will be like from challenge-based first year seminars to open laboratories where students work on exciting multidisciplinary projects, from themed Gen-Ed pathways to integrative capstones, from living learning environments to cluster-based organization of residence halls based on the Cambridge model of colleges. From cluster-driven curricular and co-curricular experiences to the drive for 85. We must fulfill our promise to give them the leading edge integrative education they came for. We have made this promise not only to our students but also to NEASC which accredits our university and its programs. We have passed through our gate of no return, and we need to work together with urgency and excitement! For those of you who may still wonder why we are doing this, I refer you to my blogs, the last two University Day speeches and the reading list I will show you at the end of this talk.

This year is about implementing all our planning and piloting over the last two years. Yes, it has been a lot of work but we are seeing results!

During the first six months of my time here, we focused on developing a new mission and vision for PSU, planning a strategic and financial approach for long-term sustainability and conceptualizing a high-impact, leading-edge model of education (built on clusters). All of these elements went hand-in-hand in building the new PSU based on historical strengths and values, and with a view to the future needs of our students and the communities and nation we serve. Student success is at the core of our transformation. Two principles are guiding it: (One) that Frans Johansson brings out in his book the Medici Effect – the creative process that birthed the Renaissance where he notes, “When you step into the intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas….developing an epicenter of creative explosion” and principle two, again from Ben Franklin “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I learn” – one of the better summaries I have read of engagement via open laboratories and the intersection of fields through the construct of clusters.

I tell you this to encourage you for the year ahead. And what a year it will be.

We then began the process of discussing and implementing this vision and strategy. We pursued a concept of education (clusters) that is at the leading edge of higher education and that provided focus, interdisciplinary coherence, economic and civil relevance, and held the hope of yielding a PSU that was true to its roots, dynamic in its education, and impactful economically. It was a holistic, systematic approach to change, in which academic and administrative processes are integrated into seven clusters of discipline-based communities led by teams of faculty and staff, supported by co-located service centers and empowered to make decisions at the point of need. These clusters, Exploration & Discovery through to Innovation & Entrepreneurship and including Health & Human Enrichment; Tourism, Environment & Sustainable Development; Education, Democracy & Social Change; Justice & Security; and Arts & Technologies, resonated with community strengths and needs, and 21st century global challenges. We discussed why this approach will give our students a distinctive edge in transitioning seamlessly to an engaging and successful career in a global trans-disciplinary economy.

Once the design framework was developed, we met with the Trustees and described the plan. We told them it was a high impact strategy that would take at least three years to put in place. The plan was adopted and supported by a vote of the Trustees and was initiated over the summer of 2016. Over that summer, we worked to reorganize, developing our leadership teams and consolidating administrative units by location and function. Academically, we began the process of organizing all programs into these seven clusters, setting up cluster guides and laying out details for implementation of an integrated, permeable, fluid cluster-based academic and administrative structure. Over that summer I began a blog to convey direction, address concerns, and incorporate ideas and concepts from across the campus. These blogs became a type of informal and flexible blueprint for our future while fostering conversation.

By fall 2016, thanks to all of you, we were able to run a hybrid structure that consisted of both new and old elements, to shift our culture, to begin piloting projects, and to allow the needed time for our faculty, staff and students to adjust to this new paradigm. We also rolled out a new media campaign, website, and recruiting approach built around clusters. We started laying out the four-year sequence of studies that would support the clustering process (First Year Seminars, Themed Gen Ed, Open Laboratories, and Integrative Capstones –the “four tools”), built three open laboratory collaborative spaces, and began a concerted effort to develop partnerships with community and business organizations.

We began integrating the graduate school into a broader University vision which provides a clearer pathway from undergraduate to graduate school and will be a key element in our 4+1 cluster model. We also began discussion and evaluation of an alternate scheduling approach that will allow us to incorporate classes with the new open laboratories, providing a common set of building blocks of time for working across disciplines and better utilization of Fridays for academic classes. To show our pride, we installed two statues of our panther mascot: one on Alumni Green and another at the entrance way to our athletic facilities. (Both were gifted by the students from four classes – 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019). We implemented a new staff performance evaluation process that focused on what each of us had accomplished and what our goals were for the coming year as aligned with our mission and vision and the move to clusters. By the end of the semester, we closed campus between Christmas and the New Year as we were all mentally and physically exhausted, and to give each of us time to regroup and reflect on next steps.

We continued apace this summer as we have begun the process of moving Student Success and Residential Life into Speare to form a one-stop shop for students in everything from registration to career planning. We finished the new Residence Hall, Conference Center and living learning space – Merrill Place, which all of you will have a chance to tour on Friday. We began the process of organizing residence hall space by clusters and placing students by cluster, following the Cambridge College model I shared with you last year. As we looked ahead we realized that some our facilities were in need of renovation and the clusters gave us an approach to better utilize space, to bring coherence and to increase efficiencies, communication, and collaboration for academic programs that were spread across campus. This presented the opportunity to accomplish two goals at once – renovation, as well as, reorganization of our space to accommodate clusters and open laboratories.

We have just begun planning this process, with a particular focus on spaces for four of the clusters; Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Hyde), Arts and Technologies (D&M), Health and Human Enrichment (PE Center for which we received $3 million from the state), and Exploration and Discovery (Boyd). Finally, faculty and staff met in a variety of sessions and teams to move the clustering process forward, including the newly formed and elected Transition Leadership Team (which we now refer to as TLT) who are advisory to the president, and whose responsibilities are to partner, coordinate, recommend and communicate across the University. They have met with the Deans, and Cabinet, and they have asked me tough, challenging, but appropriately probing questions. In the process, the TLT has come to a consensus regarding the sense of urgency surrounding the promise we have made to incoming students and recruited students of future incoming classes: our first ‘cluster class’ arrives next week. They urge you, as you move forward in University Days and especially Cluster Day activities and conversations, to keep curriculum and cluster-related student experiences at the forefront of your mind and your work.

You’ll be hearing more from the TLT. One reason for their sense of urgency and a desire to move forward with an aggressive transition strategy, based on the timeline laid out by the Deans, is that NEASC, our accrediting agency accepted and was even enthused about our cluster plan and its role of integrating and assessing education through the “four tools” and they are expecting to hear about our progress in 2018. Another reason is that the students walking in the door next week are our first cluster class and many will expect that we will give them what was promised inside and outside the classroom and beyond. All this is to say that we all need to engage with those that are leading this effort across campus to make it happen.

Looking forward to this year, we need to realize the vision we are communicating. We must start building the cluster team structure, form and pilot discipline-based communities, develop themed General Education modules and associated assessment plans, implement mentoring, search for key administrative positions, and develop an integrated approach to academic and social experience in the residence halls. While doing this, we need to align our curriculum across clusters to match the experience we have promised our students – as we continue to explore academic programs that are synergistic with our vision and meet student interest and workforce needs. One example is the Doctor of Physical Therapy program which achieved candidacy status and the inaugural class of 27 started this summer. Over the next five years I am hopeful we can develop a family of programs (what I sometimes call cluster programs), minors and/or certificates that span the sciences, the arts, and technologies. And now that we have revamped our nursing program to better meet the needs of our students, I am hopeful about expanding the whole area of Health and Human Enrichment.

I am also encouraged by the combination of Arts and Technologies and the opportunity to develop the technology area in a way that draws a larger student population across the board. Examples of this are the Electromechanical Technology, Visualization, Fabrication and Robotics; and Cyber Security program proposals which provide key ties with Criminal Justice, Arts and Humanities, Computer Science, and the Sciences. But beyond this, technologies are important in every field and I see growing opportunities across all clusters.

These are just some of the highlights from our online timeline, which appears on the Integrated Clusters website on MyPlymouth.

I hear from many of you and I often ask myself how do I focus on everything I have to do but still have time to concentrate on what’s really important to the future of PSU? Perhaps the question is not what we should be focusing on but actually rethinking the definition of the word focus.

Steve Jobs said, and I quote, “People think focus means saying only yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” End of quote.

We’re often good at saying yes to the same old things and saying no to anything new, different, or uncomfortable.

As we move forward, I want to encourage all of us to pick carefully what we focus on. Together we must sometimes say no to things we have been doing so we can concentrate on what matters most; student success, not only in retention and graduation but in successful careers in a global and highly interconnected world going through amazing changes.

One area we all must focus on is retention. Just increasing the retention rate to 85% (a focus through our theme: The Drive for 85) would save students debt and give students the unique education they need to be leaders in the 21st century.

Each of you can have impact on retention, support for the cluster endeavors, engaging with alumni and presenting positive stories to the community, joining a team, mentoring students and focusing on what is important that has to be done and doing it creatively.

Many of you in this room have been actively engaged in both moving the clusters model forward and focusing on student retention and persistence.

In fact, want to do a quick exercise:

I’d like everyone in the room to stand up if you have participated in a Cluster Project. Great stay standing please.

Now, stand up if you participated in cluster planning groups or work over the summer or if you supported those groups through your staff work. Stay standing.

Now, stand up if you had any interactions over the past several months with incoming or current students or their families in which you told our PSU story. Stay standing.

Finally, please stand if you plan to be a part of our transition to Cluster based learning in the coming year.

Ok, anyone not standing needs to see me after the session! You can sit down now unless you want to dance.

My point is that we’re all working together in ways we might not even understand to move us toward a model that delivers education to students in a new way while also working together to give each student everything they need to be able to persist and succeed, not just while they are at PSU, but for the rest of their lives.

Being here today is also a testament to your commitment. Please take part in University Days and learn how you can be involved. But beyond all that, I want you to share the excitement of what we are doing and the impact it will have on our students…and that it has already had.

Change is hard and it has been tough at times, but it’s crucial. We need to build a Plymouth that creates opportunities for the future, for our students, for our community and beyond, and for ourselves and for those who would like to be here. Be hopeful for the future and revel in the fact that we will be successful, that the State and the Trustees have invested in our strategy, and that we are at the leading edge of a large and growing movement that will change opportunities for our students and generations of future students.

The next 3 days are about coming together as a community to learn together and from one another. To get the curriculum, teams and support in place to create the PSU we have promised our students. Together, we can look at things differently.

This is what we have set out to do and our community, our students and our state are counting on us. We are not alone but we are showing the way, creating a path for the future.

When we talk about community, we must mention and acknowledge the events in Charlottesville, VA and across the country this year. For decades, University campuses have been havens of free speech and discussion and that cannot change. In fact, we should be proud that we’ve been rated “Green” by FIRE the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for free speech on our campus, the only campus in the system to be so designated. Even so we must say publicly that we do not support or condone, and in fact we condemn any form of discrimination and the violent actions in Charlottesville and other places over the summer and last year. If we err, let it be on the side of continuing to be a safe place for all.

The new year for our community has begun. I mentioned Panther Days earlier and I want to talk for just a minute about how important those four days are to not just our incoming students but to Plymouth State as a whole. It’s our chance to show that at PSU, students are not just faces but actual individuals that we want to build personal relationships with.

Please join me in participating in Panther Days. Help with move-in. Sign up to host a table at the banquet on Friday evening. Take an hour or two to be on campus in the dining hall to interact with our new community members. Come to the first home games of the season. By doing any of these things you are showing that we are a family, a community that cares deeply about the future of these students who have been entrusted to us for some of the most important years of their young lives.

Finally, I wanted to leave you with some books that have been my summer reading and that give you some background of why we are doing what we are doing here at Plymouth State. I think you will find them interesting. This list will be shared on my blog at a later date should you be interested in learning more.

In respect for time, we aren’t taking questions now but please feel free to catch me at the Panther Picnic beginning at 4:30 p.m. today on Mary Lyon Lawn.

Now I’m going to turn this over to Dean Robyn Parker, who will give you some of the highlights of the University Days schedule and talk about the exciting sessions that begin after we leave Hanaway Theater. And let me thank you all for all you are doing and will be doing this academic year to make PSU a leader in higher education and a model of student success, affordability and sustainability.

  • The New Education by Cathy N. Davidson
  • Generous Thinking by Kathleen Fitzpatrick
  • Creating Wicked Students by Paul Hanstedt
  • Pivot: A Vision for the New University by Joanne Soliday
  • The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities by Stephen Jay Gould
  • The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most by Peter Felten et. al.
  • Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation by Frans Johansson
  • The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal by Parker J. Palmer
  • Beyond The Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work by Matthew T. Hora
  • Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux
  • An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberative Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and other authors
  • The Outward Mindset; seeing beyond ourselves by The Arbinger Institute (How to change lives and transform organizations)
  • Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century by Cathy N. Davidson
  • Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead by James A. Belasco
  • Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

Plymouth State University’s Integrated Clusters Approach

Plymouth Magazine

Fall 2016 Edition

December 20, 2016


“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future,” former President John F. Kennedy once commented. This trenchant observation could easily be the rallying cry for Plymouth State President Donald Birx, who is currently leading the University through a wholesale transformation that meets the future with open arms. Read More

A Conversation with PSU’s 15th President Donald Birx

Plymouth Magazine, Fall 2015 Slider

Cover Story

November 19, 2015

By Lori L. Ferguson


Walking into the third-floor office suite of Plymouth State University’s newly appointed President, the impression is immediate: this is a place of creativity and vision. Beautiful artwork by Plymouth State students occupies places of pride on virtually every surface—paintings and photographs adorn the walls and three-dimensional ceramic pieces rest on pedestals scattered about the space. There’s a relaxed rhythm here, underpinned by a quiet energy and a willingness to explore new connections. As it turns out, the setting is a remarkably apt reflection of the new man in the corner office: Dr. Donald Birx

Read More

As I see it there are four tools currently available that we could adapt to build the clusters:

  1. First-Year Seminar
  2. Open Laboratories
  3. Gen Ed Direction Courses (if themed and possibly with certificates)
  4. Integrated Capstone Experience (Junior or Senior Year)

Together, these tools would provide a pathway for students from introduction through conclusion of a cluster-based educational environment. When combined with or built around a major field of study this approach would provide integrated breadth as well as depth.

The concept behind these four tools posits that students would enter into a First-Year Seminar experience that introduces them to cluster learning including a challenge question, an interdisciplinary project experience, an overview and exploration of learning and research methodologies and an understanding to theirs and other clusters. Since we already have First Year Seminars, which are laid out in a very similar manner, interested faculty could use it as a tool to kick off our students’ cluster experiences.

Open laboratory environments with project-based learning experiences are a tool that facilitates engaged scholarship and brings together disciplines and individuals who want to create a multidimensional learning experience. This tool is not restricted to faculty, but is an opportunity for faculty, staff, alumni, retirees, and community members to work together on an integrated learning project/challenge. Requests for proposals for projects (and hopefully in the future, curricular design) go out regularly and with some version of block or adaptive scheduling hopefully coming on line in the future, there could be large periods of multiple “blocks” that could be used to explore this project-based learning approach and create opportunities for collaborative activities as well as field trips, etc. Later when graduate programs expand, hopefully there will be involvement of graduate students as well, but for now, more senior students could be involved in a mentoring and project lead capacity.

We have already created a process for general education at Plymouth that has a great deal of flexibility and could be adapted as another cluster tool. If we themed General Education (Gen Ed) courses together we could create linked course combinations that would lead to a certificate granted upon completion of the sequence. It wouldn’t mean that students had to take the sequence or even that courses couldn’t be interchanged in the sequence, but students would have that option. Sequences that spanned a cluster such as Innovation and Entrepreneurship or Tourism, Environment and Sustainable Development could provide an integrated perspective along with a major while still meeting the existing guidelines of our Gen Ed program. In some cases an individual class can achieve that goal, but often that is not the case. Moreover, while individual Gen Ed courses have many elements that relate to a student’s major area of concentration, students often do not see the connections, context or relatedness and there is often not enough critical mass to establish that coherence in an individual course. On a related issue, we are not able currently to assess the outcomes of our Gen Ed program and we are required to do so by our mid-term review (2018). I’ll say more about how this approach could be part of an assessment mechanism below.

Finally, an integrative capstone course would be the last part of a student’s undergraduate education occurring in either the last part of the student’s junior or senior year. It would be the bookend for the First-Year Seminar and integrate the depth and breadth of learning over the last four years. It would provide a great opportunity for assessment, which as I noted earlier, is a real concern with the mid-term review of our General Education program. Currently, we cannot assess outcomes and my discussion with NECHE (formerly known as NEASC) indicates that this will be a problem for us in 2018 if not sooner. I really do believe I can get their approval on this pathway approach and the ability to make some analysis of outcomes with an entry-level assessment in First-Year seminar, open laboratory-based project experiences, themed Gen Ed with certificates and a concluding integrative assessment. I also think there is the potential to open a door to substantive change with this approach because as we start considering these courses in relation to each other it is likely to create constructive course changes and interesting collaborative teaching opportunities.

In summary, a student entering the university with an interest in art, might find their passion solving a First Year Seminar challenge, with an introduction to the various clusters, and learning opportunities, followed by a series of Gen Ed courses spanning, for example Arts & Technologies (such as writing, digital media, gaming, graphic arts, graphic design, etc.), or a course sequence in Innovation; Entrepreneurship and/or sustainability/resiliency (or other clusters) and would finish by completing a capstone project challenge utilizing the acquired multidisciplinary and collaborative skills.

I think these tools could help us move in a direction that builds on a curriculum with connected breadth, context, and relatedness as well as depth in a discipline. I have suggested these four tools built on what we mostly already have, because I believe if we can get started on this pathway to the future, we will better see the possibilities ahead – leading to awesome ideas and substantive and exciting changes. In this regard, I have no desire to take any prerogatives from faculty, but to create an environment, suggest some developmental tools, and sketch out an approach where really incredible things can happen that evolve from all of us working together. As always, these blogs are my thoughts, but derived from discussions and input from many of you.

University Days Remarks

Monday, August 22, 2016
Hanaway Theatre

Welcome to a new school year at Plymouth State, one that I am sure will be exciting, challenging and at times chaotic, but which starts us on our path to create an incredible and uniquely PSU future for ourselves, our region and most of all, our students. My question to you is: Are you ready?

A year ago I stood here with you for the first time as we embarked on our journey together. We laid out a vision for the future of Plymouth, a vision filled with possibilities. We were hopeful and excited, but little did we know then what we had gotten ourselves into, the challenges we would face or where that journey would lead us in the coming year.

But we have faced those challenges, we have openly discussed our future, we have made the decisions together we needed to make as painful as those decisions were (and they were painful for all of us), and we are moving forward to create the PSU that we envisioned. And if I was hopeful before, I am even more hopeful today. While before it was a vision, today we move to implementation, to creating form, to making our vision a reality. This morning many of you have already participated in the University Days’ workshops and over the next few days there will be sessions on each aspect of our planning for the coming year. Please try to attend as many sessions as you can. I say this particularly for those of you who are supervisors and staff. These are no longer just Faculty Days, but University Days and we need all of you to take part.

Whether it seems like it to us or not, we have already accomplished much and are well on the way to creating one of the most engaging and forward thinking universities in the nation. We truly are creating a 21st Century University built around the key principles of exploration and discovery and innovation and entrepreneurship. We have linked together these concepts in fluid clusters along with Arts and Technologies; Health and Human Enrichment; Justice and Security; Education, Democracy and Social Change; and Tourism, Environment and Sustainable Development – to create an educational experience that will be second to none and which builds and strengthens our PSU legacy of interdisciplinary study and experiential learning.

We have a new vision and mission statement based on transformation of our students, our community and ourselves and the reintegration of the liberal arts into these seven trans-disciplinary clusters. We have created three new open laboratories and allowed the addition of a fourth credit to some classes to give us the opportunity to work together in engaged scholarship with each other and our larger community. We are beginning the process of looking at how we can theme our general education in a way that creates families of courses that span the clusters. We are reconfiguring and streamlining our organization and processes to empower decision-making and enhance innovation and creative expression. We are doing the things that were laid out in University Day last year and I encourage each of you to re-read that speech which can be found on the PSU Vision web page. I think you will find that we have been resolute and consistent in our message and direction.

Remembering that last year we said we would begin to market our clusters to our incoming class of students, donors and community, we are launching a new marketing campaign this year to do just that – as well as working with the media to tell our story.  We are looking at First-Year seminars as a launching pad for all our students who will be joining clusters and we have started organizing ourselves and our programs into the broad framework of clusters.   For those of you who led and participated in the successful URSA process, we thank you and; as has been said, we have used the URSA process to inform many of our decisions with respect to programs and will continue to do so in the future.  This is a new PSU we are creating built on the unique roots of what Plymouth has always been: a place where students come first and where we do everything possible in small classes and with engaged scholarship to create generations of global scholars who can work across boundaries, disciplines and geography.

Some of you have had concerns. Is this the right path for PSU?  Does it fit into the changing landscape of higher education and impart important skills and knowledge needed to function in our modern global environment?   You only have to look at any of the challenges we face, whether it is the slowing process of discovery and innovation, sustainable development, nation formation and reformation, climate change that threatens our very existence, the timeless issues of disease and poverty, our aging population, or a world of turmoil with clashing ideologies to realize these are not discrete discipline based challenges, but challenges that require working across disciplines if we are to succeed in finding a solution.

On the national scene there was and still is an ongoing struggle and an outcry against higher education for sameness, high cost, lack of relevance and imagination and prescriptions that are, in my opinion, worse than our supposed disease. If you think this is just a temporary setback, please think again. It is the new reality.  Our economy is in trouble and that economy is what funds higher education directly and indirectly.  This is a time of contrasts. There is so much cash out there that investors are paying banks to keep their money, meanwhile there is rampant stagnation in the middle class with many college graduates unemployed or underemployed and all, in my view, because there is a lack of imagination and creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Moreover, the environment for Higher Ed is getting more competitive. With clusters, we can bring these challenges right into the classroom and open laboratories.

Clusters are a bridge to this new PSU where great and exciting adventures await us and our students.  The trustees saw this and that is why they have invested in us. But you have to trust the bridge, embrace the risk and keep an eye on the rails as we change the path of this train, because some rails may not have been laid yet and we are counting on you to point that out and get out of the train with the rest of us and lay them when needed.  I told you there is a bright future ahead for Plymouth and I promised we could get there, but we will only be able to do that together and if we keep moving forward.  Clusters and our transdisciplinary education with open laboratories, themed General Education modules, and knowledge and experience to work and link across disciplines, give our students a unique advantage upon graduation.

There are some hopeful signs. The new residence hall and conference center made good progress over the summer.  I know this because of all the banging and clanging that started early in the morning and the weekends we spent in the dark without any power…but it is all good.   This will provide room for our growing student population and living learning laboratories. In the summer, it can be used as a conference center with hotel like rooms for events.  Our goal this year is to fill the residence hall while consolidating and building our events planning program. This is important because student housing generates part of the margin that allows us to invest in a quality education for our students (Educational & General Budget).

Some have remarked that many things are changing at once and that is true.  I know that creates uncertainty and confusion.  We are following a path of overall organizational change that requires that we transform holistically in steps rather than taking one or two areas and working on them individually. This transformation will necessitate your patience and initiative.  So how can you function in such an environment?  In Physics, we have something called perturbation theory.  The idea is that you hold the fundamentals and vary the peripheral or second order items.  Now you are probably thinking we are changing some really fundamental things, but I would say in return, we really are not.  We want to deliver the best education possible – one that gives students the skills and knowledge to be successful contributors as they follow their passion.  We want students to feel involved outside and inside the classroom and to feel a closeness to each other and to faculty and staff that foments their development as adults and makes them feel like they are part of our family – a home away from home.  We want our students to be challenged and to use their time here effectively to grow in knowledge and wisdom as well as emotionally and in character development.  We want to train a generation of scholars and doers that change their world for the better and we need to do that at a cost that does not mortgage their future.    We also want to have impact on our community and to be a contributor to its success.  Aren’t those the fundamentals?  How we are organized and methodologies and policies we have generated over time…..do you really think they are fundamental?  Aren’t they there just to serve in achieving our fundamental goals and shouldn’t they change as our world and students change?  If you don’t agree with this, I encourage you to view the film Most Likely to Succeed which we plan to show on campus this Fall.

Likewise, and we all have this tendency, anything that starts with my, or mine or this is the way it has been, or I feel comfortable in doing this or that this way, or we have always done it this way, or this is my area of expertise, my research, or my job, and I say this with the greatest respect and care, is not fundamental.   Our focus is on the fundamentals – our students; and we are perturbing the framework, our methods and policies and organization, in a calculus of variation approach, where we feel the freedom to alter things that are not fundamental in an effort to improve the things that are.

Now, for those of you that think we are moving too fast or too slow, I say:

1) Stay focused on the fundamentals. They are the ground on which we are recreating this great institution.  2) Keep flexible and adaptable.  Don’t get stuck in past methods or approaches.   3) Don’t get overwhelmed with the scope of change occurring. We will not fully achieve our vision this year. The idea is to keep moving forward a little bit and sometimes in leaps at a time, making sure all the pieces fit together a little better – like a puzzle we are creating that takes time to fill in.  I don’t know about you, but the first thing I put together is the frame for the picture (that was this last year) and after that, piece by piece I put the pieces together all over the puzzle in little groupings and then I build the bridges between the groups until I finally have the whole picture filled in.   This year as we are doing the little groupings, the pieces we are each working on, and together we are looking over the whole puzzle to see where our pieces fit into the larger whole, knowing we might have to rearrange them a bit as everything comes together. 4) Contribute wherever you can and be patient and encouraging with each other and do not fear failure.  Use this as a learning opportunity. Take risks. 5) Revel in being a part of something that is revolutionary and seminal, yet harkens back to our roots – that will make a real difference in our student’s lives. 6) If you are involved in unionization talks this Fall for both the teaching lecturers and tenured and tenure track faculty, work with us to create a progressive path forward. 7) If you don’t like the changes that are going on, do what you feel comfortable doing and don’t stand in the way of others who are moving ahead.  That will only make what we are trying to do fail.   Contribute where you can and do the best job you can (focusing on the fundamentals) and when you feel more comfortable with the changes going on around you, join in where you think you can, be helpful and know that you are welcomed.  8) If you are ready to go, and have an idea of how to move forward, push ahead and welcome others that join you and contribute to the vision. And, 9) if you are ready to go and are not sure what to do, join those who have an idea of what to do, or form a group of others to brainstorm with, or ask your supervisor for some pointers.  Don’t complain about things not moving fast enough. And remember the cluster guides and process coaches are here to help us.

Now, to those who have asked, what do I tell others about what is happening at PSU?  I have suggested that each of you have a 30 second to one minute talk in your own words that excites and resonates with you.  To get you started, I have an example that is similar to what I have used, but which I tailor to my audience:

We are building a new kind of university, one that integrates the liberal arts in unique ways to give Plymouth State students the credentialed interdisciplinary skills, in small interactive classrooms that allow them to excel in their chosen field of study. Our students will work with other students, faculty, staff and community members from different disciplines in open laboratories to solve real world challenges, building connections with community partners and businesses, even as they develop links with other students who have complementary skills. They will refine their creative abilities in teams within seven cluster areas, from Exploration & Discovery through to Innovation & Entrepreneurship and including Health & Human Enrichment, Tourism, Environment & Sustainable Development, Education, Democracy & Social Change, Justice & Security and Arts & Technologies. These clusters resonate with community strengths and needs, and 21st century global challenges. We believe this approach will give our students a distinctive edge in transitioning seamlessly to an engaging and successful career in a global trans-disciplinary economy, the ability to found their own company (profit or non-profit) and the potential to continue on to a graduate school that builds on these concepts – hopefully at PSU in a 4+1 program. 

 We are developing world changers and giving our students the lifelong learning skills to make their dreams become a reality and turn their passion into high impact careers. Our goal is for our students in these cluster areas to be the most in demand graduates on the planet.

I’m sure you can do better than my example. I am way too wordy. But we have a lot to tell the world and I wanted to share as much as I could with you in 30 seconds.

I wanted to speak for a few moments about our clusters. Our seven clusters are built on concepts or ideas that have the power to revolutionize the education we are giving our students.  I know you may be thinking that is too strong of a word, but think about it.  Putting together Arts & Technologies is revolutionary.  Innovation is a crucial part of lifelong learning and doing something with it that has impact on the world is not only important but also critical to our future.

Exploration and discovery are key components in the advancement of knowledge and something we all do with ties to STEM and STEAM and is much broader than our traditional thinking.  But having these as key themes (exploration and discovery through to innovation and entrepreneurship) spread across the university beyond business and science colleges is unique.   These ideas still need a home, hence the cluster names, but now the concepts are set free to interact across the university and be part of all our clusters.

And please don’t get caught up in names and terminology.  The reality is that clusters are a moniker, a euphemism, a way of expressing and organizing what we are doing here at Plymouth.  It is the embodiment of a bold set of ideas.  In that light, entrepreneurship, from my point of view, just means an undertaking to change the world and that’s what we’re doing!

I know that the phasing out of departments concerns some, but moving away from departments does not mean moving away from disciplines. Discipline based communities will still have primary responsibility for major(s) to include curriculum, scholarship review, faculty hiring recommendations and P & T input, within the cluster environment.  And on the more positive side, moving away from departments relieves some of our most engaging faculty from administrative duties, freeing them to be involved more fully and synergistically in teaching, scholarship, and service without the distractions of personnel management, scheduling, and student complaints.  There is also the question of the expense of release time tied to chairs while moving them out of the classroom to do administrative duties that others can do and want to do as part of their career growth.  Clusters allow for a more team led, synergistic and systematic environment of integrated activities, facilitating the design of efficient processes to support them and for a stronger focus on content and coordination.  More details will be forthcoming, but much of this organizational structure will be developed jointly over the next year, by all of us – starting today.

Over the summer, with help from others, I have written seven blog posts that give further rationale to what we are doing and why.  Those posts, found on the Pioneering PSU webpages, highlight the (1) the Reintegration of the Liberal Arts, (2) Student Success, (3) Branding, Uniqueness, Identity and Reputation, (4) Exploration, Discovery, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, (5) Enhanced Opportunity for Partnerships, (6) A Streamlined and Empowered Administrative Structure , (7) and finally, A Holistic and Integrative education that links Research, Education, and Service in a way that builds a new PSU Culture and creates a lasting Legacy for our Children.  If you get a chance, check out the Yammer site and write a comment and share your thoughts.

Now for those of you who haven’t read my blog yet, but hopefully will, here is a short synopsis:

Reintegrating the Liberal Arts:

 Years ago (when the pillars of the liberal arts were first established) it was believed that if an individual studied seven (to nine) subject areas they would have the tools they needed to learn, succeed, grow, and interact with the world around them. In other words, they would be fully equipped with an integrated perspective.

However, it was during the last two centuries that the liberal arts became increasingly fragmented (following their scientific cousins). In an attempt to overcome the narrowness of perspective, the concept of general education was introduced.  Unfortunately, as good an idea as it was, it often did not yield an integrated perspective but became a smorgasbord of areas of study in which the student picked a course or two here or there with no understanding of how all these courses were relevant to their interests or core studies. With this approach, it is next to impossible to think critically, communicate effectively, and work together synergistically, hence the need to reintegrate the liberal arts. The clusters are a mechanism to accomplish this.

Another driver for clusters is Student Success: There are three parts to Student Success:  (1) recruiting of students who resonate with what we are teaching – who come here because of what we have to offer, (2) retaining those students because they are integrated into the community, engaged with each other, faculty, staff and the community in their pursuit of knowledge, (3) and graduating students who are prepared for a career of passion and impact with the requisite skills and experience to succeed.

We had previously defined and advertised ourselves as a regional comprehensive university. But why do that when students come here for the small classes, the beautiful region, the sense of community and programs of study that hold their particular interests?

Clusters focus on our unique strengths in areas that resonate with our community, our region and our people with holistically integrated programs that define us and fit together into a synergistic “cluster”.

Having students who come to Plymouth State because of what we have to offer is not only important for recruiting, but it is also the starting point for greatly improved retention.  These students will come with an idea of how they fit in. They will be engaged immediately with faculty and other students through thematic general education courses, First-Year seminars and open laboratories that create a sense of community that spans the disciplines and reintegrates the university. This also applies to their residential and social experience. Residence space can become theme based open laboratories, as well as using the HUB and Field House with similar goals. Some of you have seen how powerful this can be with the pilot that bridged art and environment. Our university is the perfect size to make this work.

As students go through their years at Plymouth State, they will build the relationships, skills and experience that will position them well to be global leaders in their fields of study.  They will have built connections with other students in a host of disciplines, garnered certificates in thematic areas that intersect their chosen field and they will have seen how their expertise can be teamed with others to successfully solve the challenges of our partner organizations and the world. Transition to an impactful career will then be just part of the overall process, not something separate that a student must figure out for themselves.  No one should get left out or leave this university without the tools to have a sustainable career while pursuing their passion.

Branding, Uniqueness, Identity and Reputation:

Plymouth State used to be known as a teachers college and somewhat later it also became known for training in business.  When we became a college, then a university, and finally a regional comprehensive university, we lost not only our focus but our uniqueness.

Clusters give us the focus and coherence that has been missing in our messaging and highlights a key long-term strength of Plymouth State – our interdisciplinary and integrated approach to education.   It also leverages our location and regional strengths. This is not something that came from me, it is something PSU has always had, but now clusters provide a way to highlight and message it.  So we have organized our marketing materials and our funding requests around our seven clusters.  How we market to students, businesses, governments, taxpayers, and donors is now being based on our uniqueness and national strengths not our sameness to everyone else.  How can that not be a better way to view this great university that we are so proud to be part of?

 Exploration, Discovery, Innovation and Entrepreneurship:

I receive the most comments and concerns about the Innovation and Entrepreneurship cluster.  It goes hand in hand with another of our clusters, Exploration and Discovery.  The history of the word entrepreneurship from the French and the Latin is the idea of one who undertakes. Qualities to be embraced in the spirit of entrepreneurship involve being comfortable with ambiguity, not being afraid to fail (afraid to the point of not taking any action), being willing to live with risk, and being willing to sometimes make it up as you go along (in the sense of learning as you are doing). Entrepreneurs innovate because they see problems as opportunities. By modeling entrepreneurship in our organizational structure and our integrative cluster engagements, we are teaching our students the art and science of entrepreneurship. I hope you can see that the idea of action and undertaking to make something come of what we are exploring and discovering, of innovation in both teaching and research – with a result that benefits the student and the world, and teaching others to do the same — is part of the essence of what we are about.

Enhancing Opportunities for Partnerships:

 Plymouth State has long been a university of partnerships.  It started at our very conception in education and teacher training and grew through the years as we added programs and became such an important driver of life and resource in and for the North Country.  But to help the North Country and our students, we need to broaden our sights and bring the strengths of Southern New England into partnership with the North. We need to build the links that will transform our region and bring the dynamisms and excitement of real world challenges into the classroom much the way it was done when public higher education was founded with the Morrill Act in 1862.

To do this we are creating open laboratories and we have formed the Center for Business and Community Partnerships.  But the idea of partnerships is broader than the idea of external partnerships and encompasses partnerships across the university as well.  So everyone is included in this idea of partnerships and it is a basic tenant of what we have been and will be as we move to clusters.

A Streamlined and Empowered Administrative Structure:

Our administrative structure grew over time in a somewhat haphazard fashion in response to our periods of growth and decline.  The unintended consequences of this included a system of multiplicative and duplicative structures that made decision making and resultant action complicated and confusing.  Concomitant with this were costs that were increasingly exceeding revenue, and growing layers of approval that were required to do anything.  The growing number of departments, majors and divisions fractured us into silos with little authority or relational understanding.  Adding colleges only exasperated the situation and tended to leave those in charge wondering their role, who really controlled the budget, and what they were empowered to do. Clusters put us back together again and facilitate trans-disciplinarity while streamlining our processes and empowering those who are closest to the point where decisions need to be made.  They are also highly efficient, allowing faculty to allocate more of their time to teaching, to enhancing the student experience, to expanding research projects and initiating service missions and less to administration. And clusters give staff a significant role in the education of our students, providing services in a connected and thoughtful way that increases opportunity for everyone and relates and builds on classroom studies.

A Holistic and Integrative Education that links Research, Education, and Service in a way that builds a new PSU Culture and Creates a lasting Legacy for our Children:

Clusters allow us to go back to that time when we really did believe we could change the world and create a holistic educational environment that links together research, education and service into engaged scholarship at a university level, where we all play a role and all roles are valued – one where the people closest to needing to take action are empowered to do what needs to be done for the betterment of our institution.

It is a cultural change in thinking that brings us together and makes each of us – faculty, staff, student, and community a part of something larger than ourselves – a team in which we can see and value the work each of us does in this much greater endeavor. This is an adventure – it is exciting, and it matters. We are pioneers, not traveling a well-worn path but opening new territory for ourselves, our community and most of all, our students.

Know that with this comes the most extensive restructuring of the administration, facilities, and curricula at PSU in many years and reflects not only our move to clusters and our response to financial challenges but an effort to empower all of you and remove barriers and redundancies.  Our focus has tended to be on the academic side of things as it should be, but administratively this includes the integration of offices like graduate and undergraduate admissions, a myriad of changes in Academic Affairs and the Registrar’s office, consolidations to create a one-stop experience for students where possible, success coaches for advising, regrouping in Student Affairs with a partial move to Mary Lyon and the Frost House, IT’s consolidation and partial move to the second floor of Highland Hall, the Office of Sponsored Programs’ move to Lamson Library, and Academic Support Services, including the PASS and disability offices’, move to Mary Lyon.  This is just part of the changes, as HR will be moving to Speare, with UPD potentially replacing them in their current location. We are considering the future of the Bagley House as a Greek and Student Life center should we bring back fraternities and sororities. And then there is the new peace garden that was created this summer alongside Hyde Hall and numerous renovation projects and open lab spaces in various stages of completion.

Change is everywhere, including the Cabinet, where almost everyone is new and there are quite a few additional members because we want to be as inclusive as possible of all parts of the university while reducing layers of administration where feasible.   We’ve had two new cabinet members join us from outside the university: Jason Moran as Dean of Enrollment Management and Tracy Claybaugh as Interim VP of Finance and Administration.

These new members join others you may already know well from their other roles at PSU and they will talk next about these transitions from their perspective.  These changes and others will or have been all be charted out and posted on the web, including the names of new contact points and their locations.

In addition, as we are moving to clusters, we have guides for clusters and coaches for oversight of administrative processes to assist in the launch and organization of this new PSU.  Guides have been meeting throughout the summer and are leading our discussions during University Days.  Paralleling these discussions are those focusing on building an administrative structure around the clusters.  Overseeing these activities will be coaches Marcia Schmidt Blaine, Tracy Claybaugh and Terri Dautcher.

Some of you have expressed concerns that with all these changes occurring you are being asked to do more with less and new activities as well.  As we first talked when I came here, our goal is not doing more with less but doing better with what we have. I encourage you to ask if there is another way that achieves what is needed by doing less of what we were doing before and doing new things in a different way.  This is something we will work through in the coming year and we will need each other to do it.  Again, I encourage you to submit your ideas to PSU-Great-Ideas@plymouth.edu, where your suggestions will be reviewed by Cabinet, cluster guides and process coaches.

I hope you sense my enthusiasm and hope. We have an incredibly exciting year ahead of us! – even as there is no more challenging period than the year that lies ahead.  It is now that we begin to convert vision into reality.  Yes, there have been and will be many changes and we must recreate and build, and not like we did in the past.  We must let go and look forward.  This is a time of opportunity; grasp it! Let’s pull together our general education courses into themed certificates that span the clusters and give students coherent breadth, create classes with open laboratory components, develop or extend first year seminars to provide students an introductory perspective on clusters, and begin to integrate our residential life and athletics with our classroom experience and align our processes to efficiently and effectively support our students.  The world is looking at us to find a way out of the problems higher education is facing and economic stagnation that we are experiencing. Let’s prove that we have the courage and stamina to change our destiny, with answers that lead us on a better path to a bright future for all of us.

As always, I want to thank each of you for all you do every day, individually and together, as we transform PSU into a healthy, sustainable community that we are all proud to be a part of and which prepares our students for a life of passion and impact.

Donald L. Birx

Copyright 2016

One of the points that came out of the University Days’ discussions and questions involved the academic and administrative structure that would be built around clusters. As several have remarked, academically clusters are different from traditional academic structures in that programs and faculty, while anchored to a cluster for administrative purposes, will overlap and engage with different clusters. Part of the idea of clusters is to not have the administrative paradigm set up walls for collaboration the way colleges and departments have done in the past. This means communication and collaborative engagement can naturally occur across disciplines. We can’t break away from this entirely because of the budgeting process. But we can create a structure that is more conducive to integrating knowledge across disciplines and pursuing the issues that our general education and first year seminar programs were set up to address when first created (and modified over the years).

So how does this organizational approach affect general education and first year seminars?

I think most would agree that a thematic approach to general education could provide a critical mass of related coursework that better enables a student to understand the connections between their discipline or area of study and the broader knowledge base required to understand, grow, and function in a team-based, multidisciplinary environment. It not only would enrich a student’s understanding of the world and their role in it, but it would facilitate critical thinking skills. This is clearly very difficult even if picking courses from a portfolio of predefined buckets. The problem is not the portfolio or the design of the courses. It is the coherence and relatedness that often does not emerge naturally or organically or that falls prey to course scheduling challenges in the major.

A cluster-based approach to general education suggests that students take enough coursework in an area to gain a competency at a certificated level (2-4 courses) and to understand the relationship between those courses and the discipline or area they are studying. These families of courses could span a cluster or multiple clusters. They could be flexible and students could have input into the themes. If we did this judicially, students could graduate with 4-6 certificates and a major field of study. If a student changed majors or is undecided and later on decides on a major (or interdisciplinary studies), very little is lost because this approach provides a way to explore broad areas of study in a coherent way and narrows focus through an evolutionary process. Building a themed general education program of study can start with the courses we have today with some changes in our policies. Over time we can evolve the program in ways that will become apparent as we build up our themed course sequences.

First year seminars could then be an introduction to this integrated and engaged approach to inquiry and understanding the world around us and incorporate interdisciplinary projects and an introduction to clusters and cluster-based learning. All this would be prompted by a challenge question – or a set of questions built around a challenge -which would start each course and be picked by the students from a set of challenge questions designed by the faculty and course leaders with student input. This may even provide a way to engage college students with high school students in summer programs that mirror the first year seminars. As a bookend to this, seniors would take a similarly organized capstone course, giving us a simple and integrated set of metrics to demonstrate student outcomes. These capstones would address outcomes for both majors and general education requirements, evaluating the use of discipline-based knowledge in team-based settings to synthesizing knowledge across disciplines to solve transdisciplinary challenges and demonstrate critical thinking skills. (I’d much rather do this, which is now a requirement for our accreditation, than teach to outcomes or have to make up a bunch of metrics independently).

I hope you see how this integrates well with much of what we are already doing. While what we are creating here will be revolutionary, we are building on what we have already done well and developing a solid basis of research and practice. The revolutionary part is pulling it all together and reintegrating the liberal arts (and yes that includes science related (STEM, etc.) and business as well as the arts and humanities).

This last “why” of clusters pulls all the previous elements together. Most of us went into education because we wanted to equip students with the knowledge and skills to create a better world, to be life-long learners, to constantly re-invent themselves, to experience the thrill of discovery and to live lives of innovation and impact. Along the way, as it invariably happens, we ran into things that led us to concentrate on our own little worlds. We, whether faculty or staff, had our areas of expertise and comfort and we learned to stay out of others “business” because of the frustrations of the larger tasks, those tasks that cut across disciplines, that fought the bureaucracy, of those that dealt with uncomfortable change. We narrowed our focus and ultimately our impact. I know, many would disagree with that last statement and in fact think the opposite is true. I know I did. But I had the misfortune over the years to fall into situations where what I could do didn’t solve the challenges I faced no matter how much of an expert I thought I was; where I was responsible for a whole system and I didn’t have all the ideas to make it the best it could be.

Clusters allow us to go back to that time when we really did believe we could change the world and create a holistic educational environment that links together research, education and service into engaged scholarship at a university level, where we all play a role and all roles are valued – a foundational form that really did create positive change. Interestingly the brightest minds and the most forward thinking agencies are starting to see the same thing. It is a cultural change in thinking that brings us together and makes each of us; faculty, staff, student, community a part of something larger than ourselves and in which we can see and value the roles each of us play in this much greater endeavor. Part of seeing things beyond our selves is recognizing our interconnection with each other. When we do that we start to see a whole person and that brings a whole new energy to the workplace. It also pushes us to greater levels of transparency and trust. Trust is further developed when we also move away from the traditional top down hierarchical decision making processes of the past to a more natural self, cluster, and group managed structure – one where the people closest to needing to take action are empowered to do what needs to be done for the betterment of our institution.

So I hope that as we move forward, you will all contribute in any way you can and be patient with yourself and each other. This is an adventure; it is exciting, and it matters. We are pioneers, not traveling a well-worn path but opening new territory for ourselves, our community and most of all, our students. The alternatives for our student, our country and ourselves are really unappealing.

Please understand these posts are mine- I present things as I see it. Others I am sure will see things differently, but by the time I am through with my series of posts, I hope you will find at least one rationale for integrated clusters that resonates with you.

One of the things our change consultant said that he learned from us was the importance of structure in supporting the changes that an organization is contemplating. In fact, he has now included it in his recommendations and advice to other universities. He also noted that many organizations do not achieve their goals because they are unwilling or unable to make the structural changes required. Our administrative structure grew over time in a somewhat haphazard fashion in response to our periods of growth and decline. The unintended consequences of this included a system of multiplicative and duplicative structures that made decision making and resultant action more complicated than needed. Our structure was organic, but it grew without a holistic strategy for how all the pieces would work and fit together. This was not anyone’s fault; we just outgrew what we were and yet couldn’t visualize what we should be.

Clusters will put us back together again and facilitate transdisciplinarity while streamlining our processes and empowering those who are closest to the point where decisions need to be made. They are also highly efficient. I first saw how this worked at Penn State as I wondered how the Behrend College could thrive when so much of the tuition went back to University Park. At the heart of its success was a system of schools that functioned liked our clusters will administratively. True, the academic organization was still more siloed, like traditional colleges, however, in administration everything was clustered together with empowered leadership and there were no departments or department chairs (though there were program chairs). Administration at the executive level was very lean and could be because the financial and academic data was distributed to the schools where the decisions could be made without constant approvals at the college or university level. The schools had a full time director, but functioned as a team with the program chairs and a complement of administrative support staff. In essence, while Behrend is about the same size as Plymouth, instead of 24 departments and three colleges, there were four schools with directors and program chairs (that focused on the academic components of traditional department chairs).  This allowed faculty to allocate more of their time to the teaching, to enhancing the student experience, to research and service missions and less to administration. Moreover, bringing related programs into schools such as Humanities and Social Sciences encouraged interdisciplinary gatherings that would not have occurred otherwise.

How we implement clusters here is up to us, but one of the potential benefits of this type of organization is a streamlined, efficient, effective, and empowered administration.

One of the things that so impressed me about the origin of public higher education was that it was built on the idea of partnership with its local community. In fact, whole segments of universities were given over to this idea of “extension services” or working collaboratively on the various challenges they faced in the community. This became the motivation for much of the research and experiential teaching and engagement that occurred in universities and which we are just now “rediscovering.” The result was a tremendous growth in national productivity, job creation, and innovation. It wasn’t teaching job skills, it was about creating new jobs and new skills and ways of learning and doing things that were responsible for 85% (estimated – national academy report) of the increase in our standard of living over the past 150 years.

When we compartmentalized education, we not only separated knowledge components into disciplines, which did not yield the breadth of knowledge required to play a significant role in our communities, we also eventually decreased the level of interaction with our communities and allowed ourselves to become glued to the classroom – hence the pejorative “Ivory Tower.”

Clusters allow us to provide the type of education, even at the freshman level, that integrates the learning process in such a way as to create opportunities to interact with our communities again. Using open laboratories, we can work across disciplines and with community members to solve problems and challenges that give students insights into how education is relevant to the needs of the world and their role in innovation, entrepreneurship, discovery and exploration. It is an exciting, invigorating and integrated education in which partnerships with community members (yes, including business and industry) greatly increase the educational value of our programs to students. It provides a portal (open laboratories) we have not had and a two-way window between the university and the community that enriches both.

And if you are teaching in an area where you don’t see the role of partnerships outside the university, don’t worry about it, but look to see if there are some internal partners with whom you might join forces.

Other than the idea of clusters themselves, the cluster I receive the most comments and concerns about is Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In particular, this is with regard to its current depiction at the center of the cluster diagram and secondarily the idea of entrepreneurship as a business concept. First let me quickly address what I mean by entrepreneurship. The history of the word from the French and the Latin is the idea of one who undertakes. It is further described in Wikipedia (I know totally non scholarly- but handy) as describing “qualities of leadership, initiative and innovation in new venture design.” There is also the implication of “team-building” and “converting an idea into a successful innovation.” In Engines of Innovations (Thorp and Goldstein, 2010), the word “entrepreneur” meant “to take action” and it refers to one who shifts and adapts resources from one area to another area for higher productivity (p. 6). Qualities to be embraced in the spirit of entrepreneurship involve being:

  • comfortable with ambiguity, not being afraid to fail (afraid to the point of not taking any action)
  • willing to live with risk, and
  • willing to sometimes make it up as you go along (in the sense of learning as you are doing).

Entrepreneurs innovate because they see problems as opportunities. By modeling entrepreneurship in our organizational structure and our integrative cluster engagements, we are teaching our students the art and science of entrepreneurship. I hope you can see the idea of action and undertaking to make something come of what we are exploring and discovering, that benefits the world and teaching others to do the same, is in essence what we are about.  That word (entrepreneurship) and the cluster it is associated with is really one of two concept clusters that embody the foundational core on which clusters are grounded. The other cluster is Exploration and Discovery.

Why would we embed these four areas in the clusters and why give Innovation and Entrepreneurship such a central position? Most individuals would agree that exploration and discovery should be central to any great university in both teaching and research, but what about innovation and entrepreneurship? There is a story in this.

During World War II professors from universities across the country, industry and government worked collaboratively on everything from breaking codes to perfecting radar to creating the atomic bomb. This integration of government funding, industry production and university innovation led to one of the most profound eras of advancement in U.S. history during and after the war. But a belief grew during this period that insufficient advances had been made in exploration and discovery. So Vannevar Bush, who was in some sense the founder of the National Science Foundation, developed a policy that split apart basic research (exploration and discovery) from application (innovation and entrepreneurship). Universities were to focus on basic research and industry and on applications of that research. In time, however, those two efforts (the integration of exploration and discovery and innovation and entrepreneurship) grew so far apart that something called “Yankee Ingenuity” started disappearing.

The academies and the funding organizations began looking at this and came to the conclusion that two things needed to happen. First, we needed to reintegrate the disciplines and second, we needed to consider innovation and entrepreneurship (applied research) as an integrated stream that runs from exploration and discovery through to application via innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. That is the reason we depicted innovation and entrepreneurship at the center of our cluster diagram – because it has been the missing ingredient for so long. This is not solely a business concept, just like exploration and discovery, is not just a science and technology concept.  Our view is that it is part of a holistic and integrated perspective that is embodied in all we teach and do at a university and it is one of the founding principles of public higher education (Morrill Act). Should Innovation and Entrepreneurship always be front and center and do we have the best words given legacy usage? Probably not, but for the very reason we are discussing it, and the fact that it has been considered something apart for so long, we placed it in the center of our cluster diagram and linked it up with Exploration and Discovery. The idea is to say, no matter what you study, whether Arts and Technologies, Education, Democracy and Societal Change, Justice and Security or Health and Human Enrichment, Exploration and Discovery and Innovation and Entrepreneurship are not just business and science concepts, they are overarching themes for all of our clusters, but they need to have a home, hence the cluster names.

Now, with this foundation, Cathie LeBlanc and others are looking at a better way of presenting these concepts and clusters. So look forward to future better depictions of clusters and these key concepts/clusters (as below). And please try to put aside your concerns, if you have them, at least for the time being.


We dealt tangentially with branding, uniqueness, identity, and reputation in the last blog post on student success and its role in attracting and retaining students who want to come to Plymouth State. But creating a unique identity has importance in many domains. Plymouth State used to be known as a teachers college and somewhat later it became known for training in business. When we became a college, then a university and finally a regional comprehensive university, we lost not only our focus and uniqueness, but we lost our potential students’, parents’ and communities’ understanding of what we were about and how we had been known. We tried to be like everyone else, and in doing so risked losing how we were viewed and what had made us special.

This couldn’t have come at a more difficult time because higher education in general was being challenged nationally in perception by businesses, taxpayers and state, federal and local governments. We began to hear a lot of talk about outcomes, metrics, career relevance and high costs. Underlying this was the sense that students were not getting the type of education they needed to succeed in a global economy. In some sense, they had a point, but there is also the sense that we, in higher education, may have not communicated in a coherent and focused way what we were doing and why it has huge impact on our land nationally and regionally. Moreover, the diagnosis and remedies suggested, in my view, missed the mark and have spurred policy shifts and involvement that ultimately could be destructive (e.g. look at the impact on K-12) to higher education.

What are we attempting here at PSU?

Is it not that we want to give our students an educational experience that is unique and different than what they’d get elsewhere – an educational experience that is built on the roots of what PSU has always been about and which integrates the liberal arts into connected programs of study that enables students to excel in a complex interdisciplinary world?

Plymouth State has never been just a generic milieu of programs, so why not present ourselves in a way that tells others what is unique and wonderful about PSU? That is what integrated clusters are about. Clusters give us the focus and coherence that has been missing in our messaging and highlights a key long-term strength of PSU – our interdisciplinary and integrated approach to education. It also leverages our location and regional strengths. This is not something that came from me, it is something PSU has always had, but clusters provide a way to highlight and message it. So we have organized our marketing materials and our funding requests around our seven clusters. How we market to students, businesses, governments, taxpayers, and donors is now being based on our uniqueness and national strengths not our sameness to everyone else. How can that not be a better way to view this great university that we are so proud to be part of?

My first blog post took the perspective of reintegrating the liberal arts. This second post is a follow up to that topic and focuses on student success.

There are three parts to student success: (1) recruiting of students who resonate with what we are teaching – who come here because of what we have to offer, (2) retaining those students because they are integrated into the community, engaged with each other, faculty, staff and the community in their pursuit of knowledge, (3) graduating students who are prepared for a career of passion and impact with the requisite skills (read more about this in my upcoming post) and experience to succeed.

The data shows that as many as half the students graduating from college today do not have a job or have one outside their field (including taxi cab driver and food service) and that as many as 47% of students who took out loans believe going to college was a mistake and actually hindered them because of the debt they incurred.

So why are these reasons for clusters?

First, in recruiting, clusters allow us to demonstrate what is unique about Plymouth State. They provide focus and identity (read more about this in my upcoming post) and by organizing all of our programs into seven integrated clusters a bridge is formed between the students who may be undecided in their studies with those who are certain of their major, which creates learning communities that facilitate exploration and discovery across disciplines. They allow us to create families of programs that are uniquely defined, interrelated and that resonate with the region and the students who find that distinctiveness important. In the same spirit of distinctiveness, clusters are also structures that enable students to work in an interdisciplinary capacity that mirrors what it is like to collaboratively work in a connected global environment, identifying and working with others to solve real challenges. The ability to market our uniqueness will attract students and keep them, especially when we provide what we promise.

Having students who come to Plymouth State because of what we have to offer is not only key for recruiting, but it is also the starting point for greatly improved retention. These students will come with an idea of how they fit in. They will be engaged immediately with faculty and other students through thematic general education courses, first year seminars and open laboratories that create a sense of community that spans the disciplines and reintegrates the university. This also applies to their residential and social experience. Residence space can become theme-based open laboratories, as well as using the HUB and Field House with similar goals. Some of you have seen how powerful this can be with the 10,000 steps pilot that bridged art and environment. Our university is the perfect size to make this work.

A critical component for retention in regards to a cluster-based educational experience is advising. Our plan is to have a student success coach assigned to each of the clusters over the coming years to help work with our first year students. Their responsibility will be to help navigate students through their cluster-based education, and start to identify career paths early on. They will help students identify campus resources and aid them in building the non-cognitive skillsets that are critical to succeed in university life and beyond. This will allow professors to mentor and build relationships with their students at the same time. Some of this is being done well currently, but it is not consistent across the university.

As for the financial aspect of student success, while clusters enhance value, they are also a more streamlined organizational structure that empowers and reorganizes what has become a somewhat siloed bureaucracy into a structure that allows us to provide an exceptional education at a cost that matches our reduced tuition and what students today can afford. (You can read more about this in my future post). It also deals with the reality of limited state funding amidst financial competition in the new landscape of higher education.

As students go through their years at PSU, they will build the relationships, skills and experience that will position them well to be global leaders in their fields of study. They will have built connections with other students in a host of disciplines, garnered certificates in thematic areas that intersect their chosen field and they will have seen how their expertise can be teamed with others to successfully solve the challenges of our partner organizations and the world (You can read more about this in my future post). Transition to an impactful career will then be just part of the overall process, not something separate and apart.

I hope as my blog posts continue that you see clusters as a systematic, integrative, self-reinforcing way of thinking that does not compromise, but strengthens and builds on our disciplines with a unique, valuable, and integrated program of studies.

Many people around campus ask me “why clusters?”

As I see it, there are seven drivers for clusters and this post explains the first. In future posts, I will detail the other six and how a university arrives at clusters that are best suited for it.

Years ago (when the pillars of the liberal arts were first established) it was believed that if an individual studied seven (to nine) subject areas they would have the tools they needed to learn, succeed, grow, and interact with the world around them. In other words they would be fully equipped with an integrated perspective embodying:

  • exploration and discovery (astronomy, biology)
  • communication (grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics)
  • art and technology (geometry and music)

Subject areas were added as our knowledgebase expanded and some differentiation occurred, but one was always expected to have an integrated perspective that came from some knowledge of all the key pillars of the liberal arts. However, it was during the last two centuries that a strong focus on discipline-based skills developed following the German model that gave us deep probes into specific disciplines at the expense of a broader integrated perspective of knowledge. It was a very successful approach for a long time resulting in some incredible breakthroughs, but after a time, the benefits started to accrue more slowly and our knowledge, instead of taking leaps became incremental.

It became obvious to many, even in the scientific community, that thinking across disciplinary boundaries was where the great discoveries and insights were to be found in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the liberal arts had become increasingly fragmented (following their scientific cousins), and in an attempt to overcome the narrowness of perspective, the concept of general education was introduced. I say introduced, because it represented a valiant but flawed attempt to give a perspective that addressed the concerns of specialization with the goal of creating a well-rounded and learned individual. In my view, it did not yield an integrated perspective but was often a smorgasbord of areas of study in which the student picked a course or two here or there with no understanding of how all these courses were relevant to their interests or core studies. This is a hard environment in which to learn and an even harder environment to teach. What if we could make it better?

So how do we go about recreating an integrated perspective that was so valued by the originators of the liberal arts, and has become so important to the resurgence of our processes of discovery, lifelong learning, and the production of well-rounded and fully-equipped individuals in an age of so much specialized knowledge?

The answer for me came as I grappled with:

  • what I was seeing in the National Academy
  • what my experience was with how problems were being solved outside of the Academy
  • disappointment I had with the pace that discoveries were being made because of the narrowness of the graduate students entering our research programs

I concluded that it is next to impossible to:

  • think critically
  • communicate effectively
  • work together synergistically if one did not know how to integrate what one had learned and had worked with and knew how to link up with others who had different interests to solve our multidisciplinary challenges

What developed was the idea of clusters and associated open laboratories.