PSU Divided: Part 3 – The Clusters Initiative

By Nick Pulliam

PSU Divided is an ongoing series covering the growing tension at Plymouth State University. Part 1, which was released in the last issue of the Clock, focused on the controversial Kristie Torbick case, and how PSU found itself involved in it. Part 2 focused on a growing culture shift that some have been noticing. This article focuses on the Clusters Initiative and the problems surrounding it, as well as the possible benefits such a shift can bring to PSU.

Since the Integrated Clusters Initiative was introduced by President Birx three years ago, it has been met with a combination of excitement, confusion, and frustration. While some think clusters are an exciting opportunity for a new, 21st century education, others don’t understand what they are or how they could benefit the campus.

When asked what the clusters are, President Birx said, “The Clusters are an idea or concept that does a couple different things. One is, it creates a focus for what the Universities about. It tries to say, ‘We shouldn’t try to be all things to all people.’” He continued and said that we should, “[F]ind the strengths that are needed in the region that we can play off of and also find our internal strengths and look at the jobs of the 21st century.”

The clusters were the main reason Provost Dorff took over in his role in the summer. He said, “I was taken by the idea that Plymouth State was not just doing the Integrated Cluster Model, but to reorganize completely around making that model work or translating that model into action. I was very much taken by that.”

Provost Dorff thinks that the clusters can help elevate PSU’s position as a university. When asked about what the benefits of clusters are, he said, “One is to make Plymouth State University a more attractive place to come study. To offer an approach to higher education that, by its own distinctiveness and hopefully demonstrated success, is something that students will increasingly be attracted to come to. Secondly, though, to make it a more effective administrative and business model for providing that higher education.”

The administration is excited for what clusters can bring, but there are some on the faculty who feel differently.

Opposition to the Clusters

Professor Robert Egbert has been with PSU for forty years; he teaches political science. He is also one of the most vocal opponents to clusters because of the lack of communication surrounding them.

He said, “I haven’t held back at all that I don’t like it. I don’t understand it and I think it’s created a terrific confusion.”

He said that when the clusters were first introduced, it wasn’t exactly clear what they were meant to be, “When it was laid out initially, it was laid out in very general terms and then we were told to go figure it out. It seems like we haven’t done a very good job of figuring it out because there were no guidelines whatsoever in regards to how we would proceed, how we would organize, what was really expected. We’re essentially inventing it on the fly.”

Egbert also thinks that the situation here is a familiar one. He said, “[T]here’s nothing terribly unique about what’s going on at Plymouth. Presidents come in and think they’re going to have a magic wand and change it into something. Some actually know what they’re doing and some don’t and sometimes some things work and sometimes some things don’t. But it’s not atypical that a president comes in and wants to make a name for himself and certainly there are places where Plymouth can be conceivably a stepping stone to something bigger and better. And how do you make stepping stones? Well, you come in and you have something to brag about.”

Many on the campus are frustrated with administrative decisions, but Professor Egbert is one of the most outspoken. When he was asked about what could be done to improve communication on campus, he said, “Well I think we need some new leadership.”

Faculty aren’t the only divided on the clusters, students also have mixed opinions on them.

A Student Perspective

Since the clusters have existed in some form for three years now, students have had a mix of experiences. Sam Papps is a History major who shared his experience with clusters. He said, “[I] worked on a history project for a client, and we gave our content to a graphic design class to design and create brochures from our content.”

Papps didn’t have much to say about the project. “Based on the limited experience, it wasn’t very collaborative; it was just an exchange of text and images,” he said.

Papps also criticized the PSU’s communication in regards to the clusters, saying, “If I hadn’t done two years of orientation training, I would have no clue as to what clusters are or how they affect my learning.”

The miscommunication is something Papps feels is affecting other students. He said, “So far nobody has said much that is positive about Clusters; I think that is mostly based on the fact we don’t really understand what they are.”

Nick Prescott is an English major who had an experience with a cluster project last year and going into the summer. He said, “Members of my department know that I am an avid fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I was forwarded a thread from my professor and advisor from a student from the Music Theater Dance Department asking about proficient writers needed for a cluster project. The project was to put on a livestreamed Dungeons and Dragons show for twenty episodes or so, involving writers, technical designers, set designers, IT students, and actors. I applied and was accepted along with three other people to be the writers and worldbuilders of this project.”

This project began near the end of Spring Semester last year, a busy time for students. He described how those involved with the project met during this time to develop the project. In the summer, Prescott was notified that the project’s budget was cut and many in the project were no longer needed.

“I basically added more to my bogged down schedule to sign onto a project that ended up being thrown to the wayside for me because someone way above my head decided that it wasn’t going to work out, even though the project was approved to move onto the production stage. This did not feel very good,” said Prescott.

Prescott feels like many students just don’t have a clear idea of what the clusters are meant to be. He mentioned his discussions with fellow students and said, “I’ve talked to other students plenty about it. We all seem to be on the same page: that there’s little cohesion, at least from our perspectives, in the way the initiative is being implemented.”

He is also concerned about how clusters may shift the power at PSU. He said, “From a political standpoint, the clusters seem like a way to integrate power up the structure of the university into fewer and fewer hands because of the dissolving of department heads. This scares me because I know that the farther a person who has power is from me, the harder it is to get their attention if something goes wrong and that they’re less likely to know a good solution to that problem. Maybe this observation is incorrect, but other students seem to agree with me that it seems like movement of power upwards into the hands of the few.”

Despite his criticism of clusters, Prescott does acknowledge that an effort has been made to explain what clusters are to students. He said, “I think there are plenty of good-meaning attempts to make clear exactly what the clusters are. I know they’ve integrated clusters into the front page of our MyPlymouths and for a time I believe there was some kind of cluster mission statement for each individual cluster. I know that each individual cluster has its own mission statement and goals, but from my experience these seem to be more of a progenitor of sorts to what they will eventually become. What I do know is that most people are lost as to what they are, what the goal of them is, why they’re “better” than the traditional university model, why we’re implementing them, and what it means for their academic future.”

Just like every other group on campus, students aren’t in agreement over clusters. Stelios Eleftheriou is a Strategic Marketing and Professional Sales major. When asked about clusters, he said, “When it comes to the clusters here at Plymouth State University, an experience that I have with it so far would have to be related to Statement.” Statement is the t-shirt and emboridery printing business located across from Hyde.

Eleftheriou said, “That is a cluster experience because it takes business students such as myself and collaborates with stakeholders such as student orgs, internal/external stakeholders such as athletic orgs, anybody else off campus such as businesses, anybody else that we might know through connections within the chapter itself, or people who want shirts. But it also takes in the graphic artists, because they are helping us design our shirts and getting their designs printed on a t-shirt, or embroidered onto a golf shirt, a regular shirt, or a jacket.”

He said that the program takes two departments together to run the business. Eleftheriou continued to say, “When it started last year it was just a t-shirt business and now it’s becoming more of its own apparel business for custom apparel for anybody. So the fusion it has between two different academics shows that the cluster experience can be applied and this was actually recognized by President Birx at the Statement Open House a couple weeks ago and he recognized that this was a cluster project because of the stakeholders coming together to form this business and fulfill all these needs that the people have.”

The administration is aware of the mixed reaction to clusters so far and they are willing to speak about it.

Robin Dorff

Provost Dorff joined the PSU community because of his excitement for the clusters. He is aware that they have been heavily criticized in the past and he acknowledges that at the root of the issue is miscommunication.

“Not to be glib about it, but there’s probably very little reason for them to understand what they are and how they’re supposed to benefit from it and I think that comes then, to what can be done about it. Well, the responsibility is very much on us.”

He continued to speak about communication, saying, “I think we have to do a better job communicating with students. We still have a huge communication responsibility just with faculty. And it’s not just talking, it’s about learning as we go. Learning from each other. I think we as faculty have to learn from our students what we are doing better what we’re doing not so better, what can we do to help communicate more effectively and what can we learn from those conversations with students that would help us more effectively and more efficiently get the clusters organized and really fully up and running.”

Provost Dorff argued that what PSU is doing hasn’t quite been done before. There have been universities around the world moving towards interdisciplinary practices and creating their own programs, but they aren’t the same. He said, “I have shared with many of our colleagues here that one of the primary reasons for that is that we’re doing something that nobody else has done before. So there’s no manual for how to do this. There’s no “Ten Steps to Building an Integrated Cluster” model. So a lot of it is going to be a bit of trial and error.”

Provost Dorff wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the criticisms that have been leveled against the administration, but he is still passionate for what the clusters can do to make PSU stand out and he thinks they are necessary, given all the changes universities are going through on a national level.

He said there are, “Two things, I think. One of them falls into that whole nest of, if we kept doing the things the way we were doing them for the last, you know, fifty years, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we probably as a university, and many other colleges and universities around the country, would not be around. I don’t know how many years it would take but frankly, it wasn’t sustainable. If we were building cars the same way we were ten years ago, our cars would be obsolete. If we just continued doing what we were doing it would not be sustainable.”

Most important to Dorff though, are the students. He said, “I think the number one priority in all of this is student success. How can we help students learn more effectively and efficiently? How can we help prepare students more effectively and efficiently? How can we introduce students more effectively and efficiently to working with others, problem solving, internships, actual doing, related to the teaching and learning process along the way?”

Clusters in the Near Future

That is where Cathie LeBlanc, the Coordinator of General Education, comes in. She said, “What we’ve done now that we’ve started the Clusters Initiative, is we’ve organized those first year seminars around “Wicked Problems.” These are societal problems that are really challenging to deal with. They might be impossible to solve because every time you try to solve one another problem arises or you have some unintended consequences of some sort.”

LeBlanc spoke about a course she taught last semester on fake news. She explained that her class tried to make a difference by producing something that would make a difference in the real world.

“This is the beginning of what I’m calling Cluster Curriculum. It’s curriculum that tries to get students to work collaboratively in interdisciplinary teams on projects that actually impact the outside world and work on real issues,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc also announced a plan to introduce a set of classes called Integrated Capstone (INCAP.) They are courses taken at the end of a student’s general education. The program begins in the Spring Semester. The courses are going to allow students to work on projects together.

LeBlanc also mentioned toolkit courses saying, “That’s another way students can get involved in the Cluster’s Initiative, they can take these toolkit courses, which are focused on helping students develop individual skills that meet whatever their goals are.”

When Dorff was asked how long it would be until the issues surrounding clusters are all sorted out, he said, “I think we can be much more effectively operational with the Cluster Model in a two year period. So that might be three years almost from the time I would arrive, but I think that we will be much better next year and the year after that. I think we will be much better, but I think that if you, by my view, that this is still going to be an evolutionary process.”

The Integrated Clusters Initiative has changed Plymouth State University. Some believe that the clusters are at the root of the culture of fear people have mentioned; the culture of fear that was brought to light when PSU became involved with the Kristie Torbick case. Most people seem to hope that the clusters will work themselves out. But at this point, only time will tell.