In most higher education institutions, the first questions that faculty ask students are: What’s your major? What do you want to do? What industry do you want to work in?
But the world isn’t structured by discipline, says Capital University President Elizabeth Paul, Ph.D. It’s structured by real problems, issues and areas of impact that require people to learn and grow in different ways.
The environment is a good example. People used to work on the environment from a particular discipline, but today the environment itself has become an area of expertise, she says.
Along those lines, Capital University is emphasizing collaboration, helping students learn different disciplines and put them together in novel ways. Its new Convergent Media Center, for instance, houses creative, communication and public relations disciplines.
“We’ve brought all of that under one roof — opening up those fields to think about how we can help students put them together more in a unique way that helps them to go out and be better and more effective communicators in today’s world,” Paul says.
“Businesses are clearly looking for that now, recognizing that there are multiple channels or multiple media outlets that they need to be focused on,” she says. “This kind of graduate becomes an asset to a business.”
In order to break down barriers, in education or in business, you have to approach from the mission, Paul says.
“If you say, ‘Take this discipline and let’s try to put it together with this discipline and see where we get,’ it’s harder because what you’re doing is you’re almost emphasizing territoriality,” she says.
Instead, come at it from the wider perspective of “why.” Ask questions like, what do we need in society? What is the purpose behind it all?
Physical space can help break down mindsets, too.
Paul says the Convergent Media Center has a studio area for radio, television production, recording, graphic design and print media, and all of them are interconnected.
While collaboration sometimes needs seed support or putting a challenge out and asking for conversations about how to solve it, at Capital it also has come from the students.
“A student can be a really good integrator,” Paul says. “If a student comes here with a burning interest to address hunger issues in a local community, all of the sudden, they can start bringing together different people who haven’t talked with one another, but that they know have something to contribute.”
Some students come to Capital knowing what they want to work on. So they put together a unique set of courses that help them get there. Now, Paul says the university wants to facilitate that kind of approach. While she has only been leading the university since last summer, she’s a believer.
Focusing on interdisciplinary convergence, however, should not be at the expense of in-depth knowledge.
“That’s the worry of coming to this kind of approach, both in learning as well as in business,” Paul says. “Don’t we need people with the depth of knowledge in a particular area? I think what’s interesting is that I suspect over time our concern about losing disciplines is going to become less and less.”
There should be a sweet spot, where you can have people with depth in a couple of areas.
“You start realizing there are other ways for things to get done, and it opens novel opportunities,” she says.
A broader mindset and more collaboration is also what employers want.
“We hear from employers that they don’t want single-minded people,” Paul says. “They want people who have been exposed to different ways of knowing, who can think outside of the box, who can tolerate ambiguity and can put different kinds of information together in novel and different ways, and who can keep on learning.”
In order to create this kind of culture, it comes back to tapping into the why of individuals.
“Every one of us is trying to do something meaningful in this world. Every one of us is making choices about how we’re using our talents and skills for a particular reason,” Paul says.
If you tap into those reasons, while helping people understand each other from that perspective, it opens new opportunities.
“You learn things about one another that creates points of intersection that can transcend the kind of skill or discipline or department barriers that are the artificial structures by which businesses are organized,” she says.
It may sound nebulous, but she believes it makes concrete problems easier to solve when you’ve laid this kind of groundwork.
“If we work with people as a robot, we’re missing a huge part of what motivates people. And I think it’s worth the investment to figure out why people do what they do, and to try to help them connect with the goal that you’re trying to work toward,” Paul says. “I think it unleashes power and opportunity in people that we often overlook.”