Reinventing Higher Education with What? With Spods!

Norfolk State Provost Stacey F. Jones. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

When Eddie Moore was appointed interim president of Norfolk State University in 2013, the historically black university was in crisis. The school had been warned that its accreditation status was at risk, it was losing students and it was hemorrhaging tuition revenue. The situation was desperate.

“We had a forced reset,” Moore told Bacon’s Rebellion last week. Business-as-usual palliatives would not save the university. In a bid to differentiate itself in a highly competitive educational marketplace, however, NSU just might have devised the most revolutionary idea to hit Virginia higher education since Thomas Jefferson created his community of scholars and students in Charlottesville in 1819.

NSU is reorganizing itself around learning-teaching-research units it calls Spods: interdisciplinary communities of interest that include faculty, students, alumni, and outside companies or agencies. Spods are similar to interdisciplinary “institutes” or “centers” seen on other college campuses, but they are not bound by the same academic regulations or dependent upon outside benefactions with strings attached. They bubble up from faculty and students.

“Spods morph into what the members make it,” explained NSU Provost Stacey F. Jones, who presented the concept to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) board when it visited NSU for its monthly meeting last week.

The kernel of the idea arose from interest at NSU in creating “learning communities” in dormitories in which students shared common interests. While not typical, themed dormitories are found at other colleges and universities. But NSU took the idea to a new level when it hired Jones, a Ph.D. with a mathematics and engineering background and extensive experience in both private industry and the academic world. Jones had outlined the Spods concept at a conference in Las Vegas, and the NSU Spartans gave her the opportunity to implement it.

Typically in the academic world, collaborative research occurs between faculty members and, occasionally, graduate students. The idea behind Spods, which is short-hand for Spartan Pods, is to create interdisciplinary communities of interest that extend roots into the undergraduate student body and shoots into the world beyond the campus. Jones sees them as “family-like units” that engage students on a deeper level that traditional college departments do not.

Driven by the passion of a few individuals, Spods can start small and grow organically if they strike a chord with others. While NSU will confer recognition, classroom space, and perhaps even provide funding from its foundation, the university will not encumber Spods with rules and regulations.

NSU is in the early stage of implementation. It has identified several prospective Spods, but they are still conceptual. None are expected to begin functioning until the next school year. Spods in the making include:

  • Cyber-psychology. Many institutions are addressing cyber-security issues, but mainly as an IT problem. The cyber-psychology Spod will focus on the psychology and motives of the bad guys, “modeling and analyzing adversarial decision-making to predict cyber-attack strategies.”
  • Bio-fuels. This Spod will examine the efficient and eco-friendly production of bio-fuels. It might take on an inter-disciplinary cast by incorporating political and public-policy perspectives.
  • Ancestry. This Spod will approach the study of ancestry through DNA analysis, history and genealogy, and might incorporate a series of written works and video documentaries.

To be recognized by the university, a budding Spod must find alumni partners and an outside partner, such as a government agency. The way Moore sees it, Spods will engage graduates far more deeply and productively with the university than through traditional alumni activities. Ideally, alumni and agency/corporate partners serve as conduits for NSU students entering the workforce. And ideally, Spods will provide a reason for graduating students who stay in the field to stay actively involved with the university. Over time, successful Spods will put NSU at the center of webs of relationships reaching around the country and even the world.

The university will provide Spods no dedicated staff. Spods will administer themselves. “The viability of the Spod depends upon its members,” Jones says. But she is confident that the bottom-up approach will succeed. Although it will take time, she adds, “the goal is to have everyone [at NSU] be a member of a Spod eventually.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There is no way to know if this radical idea will succeed until NSU tries it. But I think that Spods potentially could transform higher education. They require little up-front money or generous benefactors, neither of which NSU has in abundance. Instead, boot-strapping Spods will rely upon the passion, ingenuity and creativity of its participants. Some will succeed, evolving into centers of excellence; others will wither away in a Darwinian survival of the fittest. Spods will empower the knowledge creators — faculty and students — not the administrators. Unencumbered by regulations, nimble, entrepreneurial Spods will be able to morph quickly in response to changing conditions. I anticipate a frenzy of experimentation and innovation.

As the idea matures and Spods proliferate, NSU will offer a value proposition to students unmatched by any other university in the country. While wealthy institutions throw vast sums at creating “enrichment” programs for students, NSU will furnish amazing educational enhancements at very little cost.┬áIf the concept succeeds, it could become the greatest legacy of Eddie Moore, who recently announced his attention his intention to step down as NSU president. It could make an academic superstar of Stacey Jones. And it could provide a road map for less well-to-do colleges and universities to revitalize themselves.

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2 responses to “Reinventing Higher Education with What? With Spods!

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention. I don’t see how these Spods are going to work but at least Ms. Jones is trying something. Good for her.

  2. I’m a bit of a skeptic also. Will they retain their accreditation ? Is this approach – accreditable?

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