The Four Pillars of Woodbury University: Dr. Doug Cremer and the College of Transdisciplinarity

Though the College of Transdisciplinarity at Woodbury University is newly christened, the collaboration and holistic course designs at the heart of transdisciplinarity, and the efforts that bridge various practices and multiple perspectives, is certainly not new to the campus.

Dr. Doug Cremer of Woodbury University is a living embodiment of the four pillars that form the core of student experiences at the university: Transdisciplinarity, Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, and Civic Engagement.

Previously known as the Institute of Transdisciplinary Studies (ITS), the new College of Transdisiplinarity provides a nexus for Woodbury’s core values of Aspiration, Integrity, Community, Professionalism, and Agility to intersect with the educational pillars of the university.

As an institute, their focus was to support liberal arts, whereas their move to a college signifies a continuing mission to develop a variety of new programs that apply, in both principles and practice, to a transdisciplinary education.

Just a few weeks ago, Cremer addressed the entire campus community when they made the move, making a formal announcement of the shift during the Annual Faculty and Staff Appreciation Luncheon, as they became the “College of Transdisciplinarity.” With only five or ten minutes scheduled to speak, Cremer could not possibly recognize everyone involved in launching the college because it was not just faculty and students but the entire university—faculty, maintenance, admissions, administrators, and all staff members—who were responsible for offering “the space and the time to experiment.” As he shared with his friends and colleagues on that day, the COT was also a result of “active support from the community,” which meant boundaries could be crossed in “real, lived ways.”

Cremer acknowledged the critical roles of those who installed the HVAC and lighting in a classroom, people serving in ways that were just as important as those of the teaching faculty and the people making donations of time and money to support the university’s mission.

Reflecting on this moment, he emphasized the “equality of respect” that acknowledges the relationships that were built in order to solve problems and create innovative programming for Woodbury’s students.

Cremer also stressed the necessity for asking for help with all facets of the “moving and lifting” in a new or developing program, as well as the necessary task of “humbling yourself” and asking for advice, admitting there are others who know more than you do, and inviting them to help you solve the problem.

By the same concept, students help shape what they learn at Woodbury. Cremer explains that students build their own degrees in an interdisciplinary program and “reverse engineer a program from their career goals.” For instance, if they want to work in the art industry, as art buyers and talent scouts, students help to determine the coursework that will get them there. In the politics and history degree program, they “negotiate a course curriculum,” an opportunity that excites most students. There are topic-based seminars, and students also decide what will be offered the next year; there is a list of courses that students request each year, including favorites and recommendations for new classes.

Based on recommendations for new courses that students are requesting, faculty members work together to develop a set of non-traditional courses to fit those descriptions. For instance, Cremer’s background is in European and Chinese history; he knows from experience that a course entitled “European history from 1900-1950” might not attract students, but repackaging that information—such as concentrating on the Holocaust or world wars and revolutions during that time—allows him to refocus the curriculum and grab student interest. “You can play with the content in a really flexible way,” Cremer states, “and use a variety of authors.”

Faculty members have the chance to “rethink the curriculum and make it more challenging.” Because of this tremendous benefit to students, Cremer notes that Woodbury “scrapped the traditional surveys and went whole-hog into a comparative, interdisciplinary curriculum.”

Dr. André B. van Niekerk, Dean of Business, considers Doug both a trusted and valued colleague: “valued because he makes me think and challenges the status quo” and “trusted, because he never embarrasses anyone, keeps confidences, and always puts the students’ wellbeing and learning first.” Paul Decker, the Executive Director for Woodbury’s Institute for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, adds that Cremer is a “seasoned administrator who possesses both the requisite knowledge as well as the skills to implement policies and procedures.”

In addition to praising Cremer as a friend, witty conversationalist, dedicated family person, and generous community member—whether that be in his school, neighborhood, or church—Decker also sees Cremer as an “advocate for the less fortunate” with listening skills that “complement his Solomonic wisdom and decisiveness.” He notes that Cremer has an “uncanny ability to summarize and draw conclusions from a myriad of data.”

Dr. Emma Archer also considers Cremer a close friend, saying “he certainly embodies the pillar of transdisciplinarity in his teaching and approach to leadership as the COT Dean.” Archer shares a recent experience team-teaching a class with Cremer in early 2014, a course focused on the Holocaust that exposed students to “a variety of methodological approaches and perspectives informed by our disciplines (history and political science) in order to consider important course questions.”

Along with Dr. Will McConnell, another Woodbury colleague, Cremer and Archer co-authored a paper on terrorism that was recently published in The European Legacy (in an issue devoted to terrorism that Cremer also edited). She notes, “I think of this work with him as championing the notion of transdisciplinarity also. Since all three of us come from different disciplines, we brought our style, methods, and understanding of terrorism together which resulted in an exceptionally unique paper. Had I worked with other political scientists, the paper would have been without the talent, values, and experience of the historian (in Doug’s case) that increases its richness.”

Archer also explains that she has seen Cremer illustrate the pillars of civic engagement and entrepreneurship—simultaneously no less—in their collaboration on designing the new Public Safety Administration Degree. Cremer and Archer created a Criminal Justice curriculum that would go beyond a typical program, one that she notes “addresses both public and private sectors, as well as community engagement that will allow our graduates to take what they learn into their own communities to make them safer.”

Recognizing the visionary nature of the curriculum, Archer adds that this program will “position students to succeed in a variety of sectors, rather than preparing them strictly to work in law enforcement as most competing programs do.” She sees the careful planning as intimately connected to civic engagement, particularly as she has watched Cremer reinforce Woodbury’s ties to both the LA Sheriff’s Department and the Pasadena Police Department, so they could ensure their joint curriculum was “preparing our students in the most holistic way possible.”

Randy Stauffer notes that, over the past several years, Woodbury’s four pillars—which emerged from the six principles of the university— became the guides for the university curriculum, with one of the most important of those pillars being transdisciplinarity. Stauffer adds,  “When introduced as one of the first 6 principles, it was an idea that had little use in educational language. It was a concept that captured the idea of working together across disciplinary lines. Doug was the champion of this principle and has been steadfast in educating other faculty members on its value.” Stauffer also mentions that, while this pillar still brings continuous questions from students and even from faculty members, Cremer’s ability to “live in the language of ambiguity” models an understanding that all learning grows from constant questioning.

Douglas Green says that Cremer has been a mentor to him since he arrived at Woodbury in 2007, where Green began as an adjunct professor who was assigned only a few lower-division art history courses. Now, just a few years later, Green is the co-chair of Art History, a fast ascension that he believes is due in large part to Cremer.

Green adds that Cremer helped him “shape the department into one that focuses on curatorial studies and an unconventional merging of the traditional curriculum of historical material with actual studio classes to better illustrate the connection between visual theory and praxis.”

Green also explains that many Woodbury majors are in the applied design disciplines—such as graphic design, interior architecture, fashion design, animation, and film—and Cremer’s leadership has helped the faculty “to link the seemingly disparate studio culture with the practice of history and curation,” the quintessential transdisciplinary approach.

Cremer acknowledges that there are certainly challenges to creating transdisciplinary courses and programs. He recognizes a university would need faculty “willing to bend and explore.” He points out, however, that faculty members at any institution must be willing to update and revise every year to stay current, so the faculty members at leading universities are already “always adapting and always changing.” He suggests being unafraid of the change, as well, because—in addition to better serving the students—faculty are “empowered to explore and push and change,” while still requiring the highest quality of analysis, writing, and collaboration.

One advantage he and his colleagues have at Woodbury, he adds, is that none of the departments are very big, so even in office space they may have an art historian next to a physicist who is next to a mathematician; by physical proximity alone, they are “always bouncing ideas off of each other.” They are constantly asking themselves what students are already invested in when they arrive on campus. For instance, though many colleges and universities have a shared book that all students are asked to read, Woodbury’s most recent selection may be considered unconventional by some: World War Z.

This unique choice for a community-shared text allowed faculty members to address zombies from their various disciplines, getting takes on zombieism from philosophers, biologists, and art historians. Cremer notes that the faculty recognized many of their students were already interested in zombies, a result of the rampant popularity of Romero films and the more-recent “Walking Dead” series.

Cremer explains, “Smart people take what is already popular and contemporary and ask themselves, ‘How do you leverage that? How do you take a disadvantage and use it as an advantage? How do you get them passionate by tapping into what they care about?’” From the beginning of their interactions with students, the faculty are focusing on building connections between what people care about and want to learn to what they will be taught. They adjust the curriculum to the students, Cremer explains, “in a very intentional way.”

Obviously, this tremendous coordination requires a great deal of creative work for deans and administrators, Cremer states, who are normally the people who have to focus on solutions and put rules and limits on ideas. However, Woodbury prides itself on this willingness to stretch and explore boundaries. Having been at Woodbury for over two decades now, Cremer notes that this flexibility “is part of the DNA of the place,” in an institution that has proven itself over and over again to be both “receptive and agile.”

In 2006, the old School of Arts and Sciences was being evolved back into a General Education department, so they asked, “How do we reinvent ourselves?” They performed what Cremer calls “a little departmental jiu-jitsu” and discovered ways to move beyond interdisciplinarity (which they had already been doing a while) in order to tackle problems that could not be solved by disciplines alone— environmental damage, ethical lapses, conflict resolution.

They wanted students to consider ethical stances of new technologies— for instance, looking at the ways an overreliance on machines can lead to a lack of humanity, when there is not enough incorporation of flexibility and compassion. They wanted course work that constantly reminded students in business and design that there was more to consider than profit or product alone—the “moral rules, ethical principles for every living thing on the planet.” Ultimately, though they recognized and satisfied their charge to accommodate General Education practices, they also used that opportunity to turn those practices transdisciplinary.

Cremer adds that they aren’t “wedded to any conventional orthodoxy,” and faculty members are encouraged to directly challenge orthodoxies even in fields where they teach and thus model that academic resistance for their students. He adds, “Why do t