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Interdisciplinary studies meet demand, grow at a fast clip

Rochester Business Journal
March 28, 2014

More and more, colleges and universities are using interdisciplinary graduate programs to meet the changing needs of students, higher education markets and the business community.

“Inter- and multidisciplinary studies is reportedly the fastest-growing field in higher education and has been for several years,” asserts Samuel C. McQuade III, director of graduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Multidisciplinary Studies.

How the institutions create their programs depends upon their resources, their students’ desires, and market and business conditions. Such decisions come at a time of change for higher education.

“What once was … an industry that was somewhat immune to economic and market principles is now completely driven by those,” notes Ian Mortimer, vice president for enrollment management at Nazareth College of Rochester.

Against this backdrop, several factors have helped shape graduate education into its current state. To begin with, students increasingly turn to the kinds of post-baccalaureate educational programs that can help them achieve specific career goals.

“Even a master’s-level education is almost universally being pursued by people (as) an investment in their career track,” says James Spiller, assistant provost for research and scholarship and dean of the graduate school at SUNY College at Brockport. “You really need to have a program that is going to clearly open doors.”

At the same time, employers more often look for employees who can respond to rapidly changing business, market and economic conditions. Colleges need to be flexible enough to be able to provide the specific knowledge and skills their students can use to do so.

Finally, graduate schools seek to meet these kinds of challenges as much as possible using the faculty members, courses and physical resources that their colleges or universities already have. For many, interdisciplinary programs fit the bill.

Interdisciplinary programs bring together elements of two or more instructional programs in a combination that exceeds its parts.

“You still have your A and B concentrations, but the emphasis is on the intersection,” McQuade explains.

At that intersection, students can synthesize the literature, theories and knowledge they have drawn from the individual programs and develop resources that may meet their needs better than those found in the programs themselves. By allowing such combinations, the colleges involved also gain some of the flexibility they need to respond to the changing needs of students, markets and the business community.

The type of interdisciplinary program a college or university develops depends upon the institution’s focus and decision-making process. Nazareth’s first effort, a master’s-level program in higher education student affairs administration, seeks to prepare students for careers in college or university administration.

“A lot of times in higher ed, an advanced degree is a requirement,” Mortimer says. “There was a need in the market to provide a real, focused, graduate degree … to allow individuals who are working in higher ed to advance.”

The 33-credit-hour program, which is in its second year, combines courses from Nazareth’s psychology and business departments with content from its school of education and from other faculty members.

“We had a lot of the knowledge and capacity without having to go out and hire a lot of new faculty,” Mortimer explains.

Though Nazareth’s interdisciplinary program is open to all qualified applicants, the college devised the program in part to give its staff members some of the training they need to advance on campus.

“We wanted to use it as a talent retention strategy,” Mortimer says.

College administrators consulted Nazareth’s enrollment, academic and student affairs departments and conducted focus groups while working out the program’s curriculum, Mortimer says. So far, 30 students have enrolled each year.

Interdisciplinary programs at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School are designed to create partnership opportunities among different elements of the university while furthering the interests of the school and its students.

“There has to be student interest, there has to be the potential for impact, and it has to make sense strategically,” says Mark Zupan, dean of the Simon School.

The school’s first interdisciplinary effort, the technical entrepreneurship and management program, results from a partnership with UR’s Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“It’s designed … to teach three languages: business, entrepreneurship and further depth in engineering or science,” Zupan says.

The Simon School began looking into the possibility of creating the program, called TEAM, after Robert Clark, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, described a similar program he had seen while at Duke University.

“We looked at how Duke graduates had been placing, and we had some indirect information on how business graduates with technical skills did relative to business grads without technical skills,” Zupan says.

TEAM has caught on with students. The program, which started five years ago with just four students, now enrolls at least 30 each year.

SUNY Brockport develops interdisciplinary courses through what Spiller calls a dialogue between the academic administration and the faculty.

“We’re looking at what kind of certificate opportunities we have and what kind of master’s degree opportunities we have, to take advantage of the strengths we have in individual disciplines,” he says. “We have the opportunity across disciplines to pull a variety of courses together to create a new program.”

The programs to which the college devotes its limited resources also have to line up with its educational mission and be in demand among students and potential students, Spiller says.

SUNY Brockport’s 30-credit-hour master of arts in liberal studies program fits those criteria. Eighteen credit hours consist of course work the students select with the advice of the program’s director. The remainder must be completed by all students.

“They put together an interdisciplinary course of study revolving around a thematic topic of their choosing,” Spiller explains. “All of that is then kind of bound together by a series of seminars that teach rigorous writing and methodology in the various fields—humanities, natural sciences, social sciences.”

Created over 15 years ago by RIT, the Center for Multidisciplinary Studies offers programs that can lead to undergraduate degrees and a master of science degree in interdisciplinary professional studies. The program draws on RIT’s wealth of academic resources while allowing students what can be a great deal of flexibility.

“We don’t have predetermined courses,” McQuade says. “We allow students to develop completely unique, individualized plans of study.”

At the same time, students must set their academic goals with the assistance of the school’s advisers, take a course that helps them do so, and obtain the unanimous approval of their plans from a university-level academic committee. CMS is RIT’s second-largest graduate program, reports directly to the provost’s office and has a level of support that other colleges’ interdisciplinary programs might lack.

“Within higher education, colleges and universities struggle to find an administrative home where programs such as ours can thrive and be supported,” McQuade says.

Whatever form they take, local interdisciplinary graduate programs have grown in number in recent years—or are expected to do so. Zupan says the Simon School, which currently offers four interdisciplinary programs, could double that number within five years. Nazareth is launching a second program, in human resources development.

“We feel that we have to do a more advanced job of solving business needs in the community,” Mortimer says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

3/28/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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