On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Nicole Westrick to discuss the movement towards interdisciplinary learning in higher ed and how to be the community’s institution.
Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast, focus on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today's episode, we speak with Nicole Westrick, who is Assistant Vice President and dean of the College, interdisciplinary and continuing studies at Morgan State University. Nicole and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the movement towards interdisciplinary learning in higher ed and how to be the community's institution.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:33):Nicole Westrick, welcome to the illumination Podcast. Great to be chatting with you.
Nicole Westrick (00:36): Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:38): You know, it's fun. We've done, I wanna say like a fair number of interviews at this point with the evolution, but it's, it's, we've never been sitting at the same table at the same room. We're at <inaudible> here. I really appreciate you taking time out of the conference chat.
Nicole Westrick (00:51): Thank you. I'm glad, really glad to be here. It's always a pleasure to talk with you about higher ed.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:55): So you recently joined Morgan State University from Temple. How are you enjoying life at Morgan?
Nicole Westrick (01:00): I love it. So I am assistant Vice President and dean for a College of Interdisciplinary and continuing studies. We have 18 interdisciplinary degree completion programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level. And then I also oversee Morgan online and continuing ed. So it's a little bit like what I was doing at Temple. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, but at a whole different scale and at a historically black college and university.
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:28): That's incredible. And have you noticed, I, because I mean, temple Al also is a, is a large minority serving institution, but would the mission difference at an H B C U, is it, are you feeling a foundational difference or, or is it very much kind of the same as, as the mission oriented work you were doing at Temple?
Nicole Westrick (01:43): Yeah, I'm really smiling right now, so I don't know if that comes through in the audio, but it's really interesting because when I first arrived at Morgan, they talked about love and love of our students and it made me super uncomfortable. And then I really understood what they meant by love. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and there is a care in HBCUs for the whole student and their whole experience. And it's one of the things that I have never experienced in another higher ed institution. Fascinating. And we love our students. Yeah. So love is front and center in what we do every day.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:24): So let's talk a little bit about sort of the changing world of, of continuing ed, cuz it, it, we are in a fascinating space right now. Why is there so much industry wide interest in sort of scaling and expanding these approaches to non-credit education, continuing education that, you know, once upon a time was very much siloed off to the side of the institution and we're really seeing an effort in an energy to create new and alternative offerings with within the main campus?
Nicole Westrick (02:50): Yeah. I think it, it goes to higher ed being at a crossroads, right. We're at an inflection point. Some of that comes from the not so great things right. Demographic cliff that's coming. Yeah. but also people are losing faith in our higher education institutions. Yeah. So, combine that with employers wanting us to be able to pivot and be more agile and nimble, you have a huge demand for us to be able to deliver in the way that continuing education professional development units, online units have delivered for a very long time. And I think across higher ed, our institutions are seeing weight. We already have an organization within us that's nimble and agile and is doing some of the work that sets us up for success. I think at Morgan in particular, we think about this work from a social mobility and social justice perspective. So making sure that everyone has access to high quality education programs that take them from where they are to where they wanna be. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and that's true of my colleagues all across higher ed.
Amrit Ahluwalia (03:58): Right. No, absolutely. And so, you know, don't get me wrong, I think there's a lot of positives to this model. I think it it starts to highlight a real respect for work that maybe wasn't top of mind for folks. It highlights a recognition for the need from learners to find new pathways, to experience new things. What are the drawbacks to the siloed approach that we're starting to see so many institutions take when it comes to, you know, different colleges, faculties and units, all offering non-degree or alternative credentials independently?
Nicole Westrick (04:28): Yeah. I mean, it starts with the, the most critical one is when everything is decentralized, every unit or department is focused on their individual goals Yeah. Versus the goals of the institution. I think the other part of this is, you know, if you look at any of the innovation literature, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, if we talk about higher ed and innovation, we know that innovation comes from having diverse perspectives. You can't get diverse perspectives in a departmental silo. No. Yeah. And so I think thinking about when we do siloed work, right? Some of the drawbacks are we do unnecessary work. We do duplicative work. Yep. We do misaligned work that's not moving us towards our strategic goals or the mission of the institution. And, you know, you just have to look at the future of work. It's interdisciplinary. Yes. And so we have to bring that into what we do every day in our institutions.
Amrit Ahluwalia (05:30): Absolutely. And we'll, we'll get to the next in, in a second, but I, I wanna pick up on that for a second. Which is this, the movement towards a, a desire for more inter interdisciplinary learning opportunities. How do you start to create a culture of interdisciplinary learning in an environment that is by design and definition siloed into unique disciplines? Like how do you start bridging those gaps? How do you create collaborative learning experiences that arguably are, are what employers and learners are demanding?
Nicole Westrick (06:01): I think the easiest place to start that work is starting with individual colleges or individual schools, depending on how your institution is organized mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and saying, what are the ways that we're already interdisciplinary Interesting. Within the school or college mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and then saying, well, what if the business school went across the street to the school of engineering and we brought those two entities together, how would that advantage our students? Right. Right. And you center it on what do our students gain from us coming together in that collaborative way, but helping people see you already are interdisciplinary, take education, for example. Right,
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:42): Right. Yeah.
Nicole Westrick (06:43): Teachers have way more than just learning how to teach. Yep. It's not just classroom management, it's technology, it's behavioral issues. So they have to think interdisciplinary by their very nature.
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:56): Yes. and by the way, apologies of anyone just for glass ice clinking. We're, we are, we're at a happy hour right now
Nicole Westrick (07:05): Cheers. Yeah.
Amrit Ahluwalia (07:06): So I'm curious, as, as you start to evolve towards this consolidation model, we start seeing the consolidation of, of continuing education at institution-wide level into a single administrative entity. Now, this is work that you've done before it, it's work that's always kind of on your horizon. How does that effort start to help overcome some of those obstacles of the siloed model, specifically around the duplication of programming, around the inconsistency from unit to unit around the tendency to shadow systems and, and the costs that come with that? I mean, how do you start to, how do you start to see benefits from a consolidated administration approach?
Nicole Westrick (07:45): So the first way is just a student experience, right? So if you think about the last time you needed to buy something, you probably went to one particular site that has everything that you can possibly need. Right.
Amrit Ahluwalia (08:01): Might have done. Yes.
Nicole Westrick (08:01): Yeah. Right. And so we've been conditioned after four years of pandemic life, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> to know that we wanna go one place and get it. So whether that's Amazon or DoorDash or GrubHub, or like, we wanna go one place and have everything laid out for us. Yep. If we as higher ed institutions are not responsive to the way people are living the rest of their lives mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, they're going to seek that education somewhere else that gives it to them in that format.
Amrit Ahluwalia (08:31): Absolutely. We're, I mean, we're seeing that.
Nicole Westrick (08:32): Yeah. Yeah. I think the other thing that's important about consolidation is what you already spoke to is that you can have clear vision and goals and metrics, and it's much easier to say, Hey, this isn't aligning right now. Yep. Or we don't have resources to fully invest in this program in the way that it needs to be. And you can push that out in the timeline, but if everyone's off doing their own thing, you have a lot of minimally built, minimally supported things that aren't getting the intention and care that they need to really be impactful in the marketplace. The last thing is, I would say that, you know, every institution that I've been at has been really focused on how do we serve our community. Right? There's always this idea of town and gown. Yeah. And if we don't make things easy to come into our doors through our, like continuing education units and access, then that community is gonna be shut out of Yeah. Coming into the institution mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And so by having everything there laid out for them, whether it's a summer camp or a pre-college program, a lifelong learner program, graduate certificates. Right. They wanna come one place and they wanna come in and out as their life demands them too.
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:55): Yeah. You know what, it's kind of fascinating as, as you've framed out the kind of this broader role of a post-secondary institution as being really oriented to the community. How does that start to shape once, once the institution really commits to the community, once the institution starts finding ways to serve that community? How does that start to shape the, the development, the evolution, and the transformation of that institution to be oriented more to the community than maybe to what the perception of what the community wants is?
Nicole Westrick (10:23): Yeah. I mean, I think we see that right now in some of the work that we're doing through some of our national research centers. Like around educational disparities, around health disparities, where our researchers are really interested and curious, but it's a co it's a co-developed model, right? And so we're calling in the community and saying, what are the problems you wanna look at, examine, solve? And it's done together in cooperation with the community and led in some ways by the community saying, Hey, this is the problem that we really need to have tackled. But if a community doesn't know how to come into the door mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, there's no way for them to tell us that.
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:05): Right. And that's where continuing ad extension really starts to play a role is by being absolutely the door. Yeah. That's fascinating. So from a, I guess from a culture, from an operational perspective, how do you be the door? Because I, I think we're, you know, we, we are seeing that challenge at many institutions is finding a way to truly be accessible and open, especially when the institution might have a reputation or might have a, a brand that the community might not feel aligned to. You know, certain R one s will have that issue. Certain certain other, you know, very high branded institutions will, will struggle with that. How do you start to create a culture of, you know, being the community's institution?
Nicole Westrick (11:46): So I think in higher ed, right, higher education is filled with experts and experts talk to other experts, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And so the first thing we can do I worked with a really great marketing person at my last job and she said, don't use inside baseball terms. They don't know what they mean. And I, it took me a long time to understand what she meant when she said that, but what she was saying is like, Nicole, don't talk in terms of the specific terms that you understand as far as admissions and application. Help people understand what they need to come in the door. Right. What's the path that's going to get them wherever they're going? Is that a credential? Is that a certificate? Is it a degree program? Clearly lay that out. Yep. That includes what are the costs? What tools and equipment do they need mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And then how do they finish that program? And then what does that propel them to do? Yeah. How do they get connected into our large alumni communities? How do they get connected into our employer relationships and being really transparent and open about that? Hmm. including being fully transparent about tuition and fees. Like if someone from the community has to work hard to figure out how much something costs, right. You're shutting the door on them. Yep.
Amrit Ahluwalia (13:05): That's, you know, what, it's, it's interesting you point that out. One thing I'm, I've always been curious about when it comes to this broad diversification of higher education in the learner piece, how do you do that well at scale? Like how do you, how does an institution position itself to serve an entire spectrum of access when there are so many, so many learner populations looking for unique things from the institution? You know, what does it take to make sure that you are truly the an open door for the community when the community has such a, a broad array of needs?
Nicole Westrick (13:38): I think it starts with knowing what are the ways that you are going to serve the particular community that you're in, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and being intentional about that. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So if that is through really high quality academic summer programs, then lean into that. And that's the space you occupy. If that is, you know, graduate certificates or workforce development, really lean into that. And then you build that into your relationship and partnering, you know? Yeah. And you know who else is working in that space, you know, the nonprofit leaders that are working in that space, you know, your elected officials who are working in that space, you know, the other institutions mm-hmm. <Affirmative> that are in that space and doing different programs so that when a student comes to you and it's not the right fit for you, you can send them down the road. Right. which is probably
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:27): Because you're a learning hub at that point. It's not exactly. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Nicole Westrick (14:30): Yeah. It's not about like, you come in and I'm gonna try and serve you in every way. It's about doing what our institution does best. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:38): Just guiding people where it's Right. Yeah. Directing people maybe where it's not.
Nicole Westrick (14:43): Exactly. Absolutely.
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:44): So, you know, we're obviously, we're looking at this relatively challenging post-secondary space. We're looking an another possible movement towards a decentralized, you know, may following maybe what we saw about 10 years ago. What advice would you have for, for leaders in the PCO space who might be trying to find ways to adopt a consolidated administration model at their own institutions?
Nicole Westrick (15:09): Yeah. So I think the first thing to do is really look at what are your silos, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, where are your silos? And don't think I'm gonna break down all the silos and it's gonna be unicorn and rainbows. That's not gonna happen. I often think about, and I like the metaphor of thinking about the silos and saying, how do I cut a window in the silo, right? And it starts with sharing information and knowledge. It could be saying, Hey, let's have lunch together. Can I buy you a coffee? I want to hear what's happening in your college. What are you thinking about? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and I share with them what's going on in the continuing ed space, and here's some things you might wanna consider. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, here's what we're hearing from employer partners. And so it's this mutually respectful and mutually trustful relationship, but it starts with a window.
(15:59): And then as you build the trust, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you engage that and you say, Hey, let's cut a door. Let's flow more fully back and forth between our silos. Yep. And then over time, those silos start to deteriorate and weaken because they see you as part of their trusted partners. I like to, the other thing I like to think about is if you call people out, right? Like say, Hey, you're not doing this. You really need to do this. People's reaction is gonna be like, yeah, yeah. I don't need to hear that from you. Right? And Loretta Ross is this really amazing public activist intellectual professor, and she talks about, and is written about calling people in. And so calling them in and saying, Hey, how, tell me more about this. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, what are you, what are you thinking? Help me understand why you believe that. Yeah. How do you think about that? And while that's mostly been like part of the work that I've done in anti-racism, I see it in breaking down the silos of academia, right? Because you think about it, our silos give us some of our entrenched beliefs about how we view the world. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so if we can use that calling in to see how we're similar, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and to see how we bridge that gap, that's one way we can build the relationship with other parts of our institutions.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:26): That's, that's a facet. It's true. I mean, we really do, we set lenses for ourselves. It, it seems like a really interesting leadership competency as well. Just finding ways to, to really reframe a challenger, an opportunity or an issue that someone might have, and, and positioning it as something that can be collaborated on as opposed to something that either needs to be ignored or gone about alone.
Nicole Westrick (17:46): Exactly.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:48): That's really interesting. Nicole, this has been really good food for thought. Thank you so much for your time.
Nicole Westrick (17:51): Thank you. You're welcome.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:52): Now, before we close, I have to ask you if I'm in Baltimore, which I think, I think there are a few conferences actually coming up this year in Baltimore. Yes, there are. Where do I need to go for dinner?
Nicole Westrick (18:01): Okay, so if you need a crab cake, this is a highly controversial one, I'm putting it out there. If you want a crab cake with some white tablecloths, you wanna go to Papas, which is in Parkville. There's a, it doesn't look like it should have white tablecloths, but it does <laugh> and it's really great crab cake. But if you want more of a home spun crab cake in a place that you're not really sure you should go into <laugh>, you wanna go to Cocoa's Pub, which is in the Hamilton part of Baltimore. Really outstanding. And I'll give you two bonus ones. Yes, please. So if you're looking for an amazing cocktail in a fun atmosphere, Bluebird Cocktail Lounge, which is in Hampton, and then if you want some pink shows little Spanish Bites. Okay. there's a place called Cuchara, which is in the Woodbury part. It's just a short, short ride away.
Amrit Ahluwalia (18:57): I’m taking pretty fastidious notes. Yes, those are I heard this term the other day, and I love it. Honorable Munchons. Ah, that's brilliant. Nicole, thank you so much for your time. You're welcome.
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