Individualized, Interdisciplinary: College celebrates long tradition of serving non-traditional thinkers

Individualized InterdisciplinaryThe University of Minnesota has a rich tradition of individualized, interdisciplinary study--a tradition in which the College of Continuing Education has some of its deepest roots.

Even more than 80 years ago, there was a recognized need for a college education that went beyond the confines of a set major or single discipline. It was the belief of U President Lotus Coffman (for whom Coffman Union is named) that the responsibility of the University was to see that "the road to intellectual opportunity should never be closed to any traveler."

To that end, with the support of the deans and faculty, Coffman created "the Committee of Seven"--a group designed to study the educational programming at the U in order to "insure a more liberalized and coherent educational procedure than is possible with the emphasis now placed upon the various specialties."

The Committee's first recommendation was that the president be "authorized to create a new service for the unusual and superior student." This program would allow the student "to choose the courses where he found them, without reference to classic patterns." The plan was approved by the Board of Regents, and in 1930, the University College was born (although it did not officially adopt the name until several years later).

The University College served as a cross-collegiate committee which would examine a student's application for special consideration and either deny or approve his or her request to "map out programs of an individual character, disregarding college or departmental lines."

In its first year, 150 students applied for special consideration, yet only 20 were accepted. "The rest," says University historian James Gray, "[as] mere fugitives from discipline, were sent back to their own colleges to work out their difficulties."

A Second Era of Experimentation
The years following the "boom" of experimental education during Lotus Coffman's tenure were good ones--following World War II, individualized education became a hallmark of the U of M, and, enrollment in the University College increased substantially.

In the late 1960s, that same spirit of experimental higher education that had swept Minnesota--and the nation--some four decades prior returned with vigor, and new individualized programs sprung up (and collapsed) rapidly.

In 1969, University College became the Inter-College Program (ICP)--as it is called to this day. The name "University College" was then applied to a group of programs housing experiments in undergraduate education. One of the first of those was the Experimental College (EC), which began in 1970. EC offered both a B.A. and a B.S. and stressed equality, freedom of choice, group decision making, non-competitiveness, and personal communication skills. A relatively short-lived "experiment," the program was phased out in 1978.

In 1970, the U of M's University College became one of 17 institutions across the country receiving funding to begin a University Without Walls program (UWW). The program was piloted in 1971, with degree-granting rights conferred in 1972. The Board of Regents granted it permanent status in 1979.

The general principle behind UWW was to create "utopian institutions" that allowed for flexibility in both learning options and educational assessment. Although every UWW program was different, all were organized around the same basic tenets, including: the 
abandonment of credits as the sole measure of learning; the use of life and work and other outside-the-classroom experiences as part of the degree; a flexible time frame for degree and/or course completion; the use of individuals in the community as adjunct faculty; and enrollment by non-traditional-aged students.

A largely self-directed program, UWW allowed students, primarily adult learners returning to school to finish their education, to design their own degree program using course work and individualized learning projects, leading to the bachelor of arts degree. In 1986, the name of the program was changed from UWW to University College's 
Program for Individualized Learning (PIL) to better reflect the mission of the program. PIL continued until 2010, when the process of phasing it out began. It will graduate its final students in 2014.

Following UWW's receiving permanent status and until 1994, there were relatively 
few major changes to the slate of individualized degree options. In 1994, Continuing Education and Extension (CEE; CCE's previous name) founded the first individualized, interdisciplinary master's degree program at the U: the Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program.

Participants included working professionals in specialized fields, such as teachers, engineers, health professionals, science and technical professionals, who wanted to broaden their picture of society; students interested in an academic perspective that cut across traditional disciplines or combined areas of inquiry (e.g. business and philosophy, humanities and health care, or politics and artistic expression); and many other (primarily) adult students interested in a custom-designed graduate degree that did not require them to quit their day jobs.

In 1996, University College merged with Continuing Education and Extension; in 1998, the name was changed to College of Continuing Education. In 2005, the College of Continuing Education added one more individualized degree program to its roster: the Multidisciplinary Studies degree (MdS). Unlike the ICP, which enrolls both traditional and non-traditional-aged students, the MdS is an individualized degree program geared for individuals with a gap of two or more years in their educational history-- primarily working adults for whom the flexibility of evening and distance courses was paramount.

Students select two or three areas of concentration and earn either a B.A. or B.S. using course work drawn from across the University, with an emphasis on evening and online options. The areas of emphasis are: Applied, Technical, and Professional; Arts and Humanities; Communications; History and Social Sciences; and Science and Health 

Looking Forward
Today, the College of Continuing Education remains the home of the University's three inter-collegiate, interdisciplinary, individualized degrees--the Inter-College Program, Multidisciplinary Studies, and the Master of Liberal Studies Program.

The ICP was formed in 1930 with the goal of meeting the needs of the student who "because of aptitude, previous training, or experiences, differs from the typical." It is a goal that the College continues to strive for with all of its individualized programming, more than 80 years later.

"The University recognized back in 1930 that not all degree plans met all students' needs," says the College's senior academic adviser, Josh Borowicz. "There was a case for individualized degrees, for crafted degrees.

"The ICP continues to open doors for students to explore their interests that a single area major would perhaps not provide for. They can take courses from the Carlson School of Management, and combine them with work in the College of Design. They can investigate Public Health while delving into Mass Communication and Applied Business.

"And through the MdS program, adults are able to finish what they started, earn a 
credential, set an example for their children, any and sometimes all of the above. It allows them to combine their prior academic and educational history, their life experiences, and their interests and goals to form or refocus a new course of study that reflects where they have been, and where they want to be."

MLS program director Jo Ellen Lundblad agrees that meeting the need for 
interdisciplinary, individualized education is critical to the College's mission. "We received approval for the program in June of 1994. The first ads went up in July. For our first info session in August, we had more than 100 people attend. It was nuts--we knew from all of the research we had done that it would be popular, but...this was something else.

"We've seen such a huge, diverse range of students through this program," she 
continues. "But for all of them there has been this need to pursue a topic, line of inquiry that they were passionate about. The MLS program opens the door to the U, it provides intimate access to world-class, meaningful graduate education for adults.

"Our students are furthering their careers, building new ones, or exploring the 
connections between ideas out of intellectual curiosity. They are becoming experts in their own fields of study. Really, the goal of the MLS, of individualized, inter-disciplinary study, is to open the doors for opportunity. To allow students to gain confidence, to discover or rediscover a part of themselves. We want them to walk away from here knowing they have linked what may be seen as disparate ideas and theories, and created new ones; that they have made a substantial contribution to a body of knowledge. We help them open that door."


Published sources consulted include The University of Minnesota: 1851-1951 by James Gray. University of Minnesota Press, 1951. Additional information courtesy of "University of Minnesota's Individualized Degree Programs" (unpublished mss.), by Kent Warren.

Student Profiles

Jennie Germain
Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) Graduate
Focus: Arts AdministrationJennie Germain, Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) Graduate

Jennie Germain knew she wanted to focus her graduate work on arts administration, but at the same time, she wanted to find a program that allowed her to combine various subject areas. "The field I work in is interdisciplinary--it's a mix of arts, business management, and public policy. A graduate degree in any one of these fields alone would not have made me as well rounded as I need to be."

Through the MLS, Germain was able to focus her studies on an area of emphasis that closely matched her career goals. "I was able to take courses in nonprofit management through the Humphrey Institute, as well as grant writing and arts management courses. [Plus] I was able to intern at numerous nonprofit arts organizations throughout the Twin Cities."

The program opened many doors for Germain, both professionally and personally. "One of the first papers I wrote was on the economic impact of the arts on small communities. Now six years later, I am working as the executive director for the Austin Area Commission for the Arts, and have developed a grassroots movement in Austin that is dedicated to promoting economic and community development through the arts.

"An interdisciplinary degree like the MLS allows students to become more well rounded than they otherwise would in a traditional program, providing them with a wider range of connections and opportunities for their future. My experience in the program provided me invaluable connections within my field...and my [education] definitely helped me achieve an executive-level position sooner than I would have with experience alone."

Matt Musel
Inter-College Program (ICP) Graduate
Focus: Organization and Human Development, Human Resource Development
Matt Musel, Inter-College Program (ICP) Graduate

Despite being intensely involved in extracurricular activities and student government, including serving as student body president, Matt Musel found himself adrift without a major. "I had interests that were divergent--political science, human resources, organizational development. And there really wasn't a single major that encompassed all my interests, or that would give me the flexibility to major in one and still have time to study the others."

He found a home in the Inter-College Program, where he was able to design a major in Organization and Human Development, with a certificate in Human Resource Development. "The cross-collegiate nature of CCE meant I could take courses from CEHD (College of Education and Human Development) and earn a certificate in HR Development, and combine that with management courses from Carlson School of 
Management and the Humphrey Institute. Plus, I could continue with the poli sci courses that I enjoyed."

Since his graduation, Musel has been able to parlay his interests into a career path--he worked in the governor's office, founded two nonprofits, and is currently the chief development officer for U of M Extension. He is not, however, the only one in his family who took a nontraditional path to a degree.

His grandmother, Elnor Peterson Pahl, had enrolled at the U at the age of 16, but then left school after three years, married, and started a family. Some 15 years later, she found herself divorced and a single mother, working to rebuild her life. She decided to return to finish her education, and began taking classes in her north Minneapolis community through the CCE Neighborhood Program. Eventually, she earned a bachelor's degree in humanities, and later a master's in library science, on her way to her lifelong dream of becoming a librarian.

She was a lifelong learner, and her spirit and drive inspired Musel to found a CCE scholarship fund in her name, the Elnor Peterson Pahl Scholarship for students working toward their bachelor's degree. "CCE offered me a way to pursue my interests and a degree. It gave my grandmother an opportunity to get back into the U. I see how CCE and continuing education and the University made a difference in my family's lives. You really need a part of this huge institution that is flexible and open for people who need something different to achieve their dreams.

"Opportunities need to be given; doors opened. And sometimes you are in the position to receive those opportunities, and other times you are in the position to give them away to others. I'm glad I am in the position in my life to help other struggling students, and to honor my grandmother's memory at the same time."

Kathleen Spehar
Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) Graduate
Focus: Arts Administration and Women in Leadership
Kathleen Spehar, Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) Graduate

"My background was in music and music education," says Master of Liberal Studies graduate Kathleen Spehar. "And I was working as a K-12 teacher when I decided to pursue my master's degree."

The question though, was, "in what area?" Spehar had long been interested in interdisciplinary approaches to teaching, and wanted to find a way to carry that over to her own education. "When you begin incorporating an interdisciplinary approach into teaching, when you find ways to integrate arts and academic subjects, you'll see students' lives--and test scores--improve. It enhances the way they see the world around them, how they tackle problems," she says.

"So, when I was considering graduate school, I knew I wanted to find a program 
that offered me flexibility, creativity, and a way to draw from numerous disciplines 
and departments. None of the more traditional degree paths seemed open enough, vibrant enough to me. I was looking for something where I could combine from here and there, take seemingly disparate, but actually interconnected ideas, and make a whole. 
I found that approach, as well as the mentorship that I needed to help me grow as a leader, in the MLS."

Spehar combined the study of women in leadership roles with arts administration as her focus, basing her thesis on three women who are largely credited with the regional theatre movement in the 1940s-1960s. She investigated how those women were instrumental in decentralizing Broadway and bringing art to the country as a whole. She also looked at how the theatre would culturally and financially function within the community, and its role in society.

Spehar also found that her studies changed the path of her career. While in the program, she worked as a T.A. and then went on to serve as an adjunct professor and assistant managing director for the University of Minnesota's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. Following her role at the U, she served as the managing director at St. Paul's History Theatre, and had an opportunity to work as a visiting assistant professor in Arts Management at Florida State University. In 2011, she landed her current position as director of the O'Shaughnessy Theatre at St. Catherine University.

It is a role that plays to her academic pursuits, as well as her personal interests. "I am working in the arts and arts administration, and I am doing it at a place like St. Kate's where there are so many female potential leaders. I hope I am able to serve as a good role model for them, as a mentor. I want to use my position to be able to help them dream their big ideas."

She concludes, "The College of Continuing Education and the MLS program challenged me to look at the world and my place in it differently. It fed my imagination and opened the door to experiences I might not have otherwise considered."