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A word with Boise State President Bob Kustra

Bob Kustra croppedIn the last eight years or so, the national discussion about higher education has focused on science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM areas where employers say they are having the most trouble filling jobs.

Meanwhile, employers also say they’re looking for a complementary set of skills: so-called “soft” skills such as communication, empathy, and the ability to work effectively in a team. Research shows those abilities can be critical in all fields in handling complex problems and making important decisions.

In response, Boise State University has created a new college that is designed in part to draw students toward both areas of competency. Called the College of Innovation and Design, the program, which was approved by the State Board of Education in October, provides a formal system of acknowledgement for its students who gain experience in areas such as teamwork and leadership.

Idaho Business Review sat down with Boise State President Bob Kustra to learn more about the new college and what it might mean to employers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to undertake this process?

I often hear from employers, especially in the tech industry, about a need for a broader set of skills and competencies. I hear more and more about how important it is to have people who understand the role that the arts and humanities play in the business of design, and to have students and graduates with significant computational skills – and the ability to cross over back and forth between competencies.

In January of this year, the New York Fed released a study of the underemployment of college graduates. They took 20 years of data, and found a significant increase in underemployment. That’s where I got the idea that colleges and universities have to start worrying not just about getting the student through the pipeline to get the degree; we have to worry equally about what happens to the graduate after they walk off the stage with the degree in hand.

I’d argue we haven’t spent as much time on that. Nor have parents and students spent as much time throughout the undergrad experience thinking about the connection to the eventual job and career they’ll receive.

How does the new college address this problem?

One part is the bridge to career program. It will work around the concept of badges. It’s a new form of validation, where a student will take a course, for example, in business literacy, computer literacy, or how to code. There will be one in leadership, in ethics, that will explore the issues a student will face going into the business world. We’ll have a long list eventually; those are a few examples to show what we’d like to offer a student who is majoring in political science or English. It gives them an opportunity to leave here with a slightly more competitive edge than if they simply zeroed in on their major in the social sciences.

For our technology majors, for people in science and engineering, we’ll have badges that might complement what they have experienced. Employers who are lacking graduates with soft skills, I suppose what they’re really saying is that they don’t see enough students who have come to the intersection of arts and technology who are broadly educated.

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson is a perfect role model of someone who has done this.  He studied science to become a dentist, and he’s a significant watercolorist. Those competencies come from the left brain and the right brain.

We’ll also be focused on students learning by doing, not just learning by listening and taking notes. We’re talking about group exercises, teamwork assignments where we will not grade students individually, but will grade students collectively for the way their team succeeds or fails. That’s the way life will work in their real jobs, and they might as well get that experience at the undergraduate level.

Where does the concept of creativity fit into this?

One reason we created this program is we don’t want to discourage students from majoring in the social sciences, arts and humanities.

What can we do to help a student who really wants to major in history, in graphic arts, in any of the arts, the humanities, the social sciences? How can we help them with that first job experience? We do that by broadening their education a bit. These badges are a great way to do that.

There’s not much space in the marketplace for one trick ponies coming out of the undergraduate experience. If somebody wants to specialize, they do that at the master’s level. In undergrad, if they specialize they’re doing themselves a disservice in the long run. They’ll get the first job, let’s say nursing. How useful is that specialty when someone says, “Can you manage 10 nurses?” That’s where the badge comes in, or where the advanced degree comes in.

What else will the college do?

Among other things, we’ll have a degree called “gaming, interactive media and mobile technology.” To prepare the student to be a video game designer, that degree counts on the faculty from English, graphic arts, computer science, information technology, educational technology. What is that, if not the intersection of the arts and technology?

Can everyone gain competency in such different areas?

We do have a very small percent of student entrepreneurs, and those student entrepreneurs find their own way through the traditional bureaucracy of higher education. They don’t settle for one major, they don’t settle for one minor, they want to be a Renaissance person, and they work their way through the undergraduate experience and they succeed. What we’re getting at is this happens for a small number of people, there are just not enough people who have this broad and deep appreciation for the various sides of an issue that they will confront.

I am arguing for a more aggressive, organized approach in the undergraduate experience that recognizes this can’t be reserved for just a small number of students. We’re all going to have to be, no matter who we are in this world, more roundly educated with the same emphasis on the depth of our experiences as well.











About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.