This fall, 100 TU freshmen will receive an especially rigorous introduction to college. Alongside picking up the rhythms of campus life, exploring student clubs and scoping out the best pizza, they will be tasked with solving the challenges of U.S. health care, Oklahoma’s K-12 public education crisis and U.S./China trade.
And their ideas will be graded by the president.
There is a hint of benevolent mischief in the laugh that TU President Gerard P. “Gerry” Clancy, M.D., lets slip when a visitor is taken aback by the syllabus of his new class — The Presidential Leaders Fellowship Course. (Actually, that’s only part of the course title. The rest is “An Introduction on How to Get Things Done in a Highly Complex World.”)
“Today’s leaders have to be comfortable with complexity”
“Today’s leaders have to be comfortable with complexity,” Clancy explained. “Our most pressing problems are multidimensional and high-stakes. They involve tough trade-offs and unexpected consequences. Solutions must be carefully and creatively designed. This is the sort of problem-solving culture that we want TU to be known for. When better to start than the first semester?”
Clancy’s vision goes well beyond his new course. The Presidential Leaders Fellowship program is one of a growing set of co-curricular options that will help students develop what he calls a “leadership portfolio.” Other options are familiar, such as the Honors Program and the Global Scholars Program; and still others are new, such as the College Philanthropy Initiative and the Impact TU freshman leadership program.
To bring all these programs together, the university has established the TU Center for Leadership, which will coordinate the programs and serve as a clearinghouse for students seeking extra challenges.
“Students will need to take the initiative to take advantage of these opportunities, but we are giving them a clear pathway to add leadership development to their TU experience,” Clancy said.
For Clancy, leadership is largely about practical problem solving.
“When I ask people to describe leadership, usually they mention attributes like ‘vision’ and ‘the ability to inspire others,’” he said. “Those are important traits, but at its core, leadership is: one, thoroughly understanding a problem; two, designing a comprehensive solution; and, three, executing on the solution. And especially three — that’s the difference between a leader and a non-leader.”
Clancy’s perspective on structured problem solving reflects his history as a physician (psychiatrist). Assessing symptoms, diagnosing a condition, designing a treatment plan and following through are the fundamentals of medicine.
More broadly, Clancy is a champion of an approach known as “design thinking.” This approach emphasizes detailed observation and creative imagination channeled through a process of repeated prototyping, testing and refinement.
“Design thinking is pertinent to all of our majors,” he said. “Employers in every industry are looking for people who can see both the human side and the technical side of every challenge. If we cultivate this perspective throughout our culture, it can become TU’s calling card in the higher-ed marketplace.”
Students in Clancy’s class will consider case studies that illustrate design thinking including a program that Clancy introduced as a faculty member at the University of Iowa in the 1990s
The U of I’s inpatient psychiatric clinic was monopolized by a handful of high-need patients who were in continual crisis. These patients were caught in a cycle of dependency on the clinic, while others in the community were unable to get help with the clinic’s beds always full.
After studying the problem, Clancy decided to flip the model. Instead of keeping the most acute patients in the clinic, doctors would visit them every day out in the community, providing medication and other support. Clancy and his colleagues soon found bicycles to be most convenient in the parking-challenged university town, and “Psychs on Bikes” was born.
“The results were dramatic,” Clancy said. “Most of our patients adhered to their medication schedules, and because they were back in the community, they started rebuilding relationships. Many of them re-established strong family support and even held down jobs. Success hinged on shifting our thinking from clinic-based treatment to community-based treatment.”
Clancy readily admits that not every project has been a home-run. He offers a counter example where a critical nuance escaped him. In his former role as president of OU-Tulsa, he had an opportunity to expand clinic facilities. Thinking in terms of efficient space utilization, he approved a modest design that would maximize the number of new exam rooms.
“But I missed the fact that Hispanic families often do things as a family unit,” he said. “It’s not unusual to bring mom and dad and the kids, and grandma, too. It’s not just a patient experience; it’s a family experience. So the new exam rooms turned out to be way too small.”
That nuanced but critical consideration is an example of what Clancy calls “small data” – the realities that are often missed by analysis that drives reductively toward a bottom line.
It makes sense that the teaching of design thinking would employ a design of its own. The prevailing classroom model is an open lab design, with students seated in teams and the instructor in the center of the room. Whiteboards provide open canvases for ideas, charts and sketches, and multimedia systems stand ready for presentations and videos.
Following this model, the university is finalizing plans for the TU Learning Studio. The space will accommodate 100 students and will feature technology and flexible working spaces.
“All of the elements are in place to position TU even more distinctly as a problem solver and an educator of leaders.
“These are exciting times for TU,” Clancy said. “All of the elements are in place to position TU even more distinctly as a problem solver and an educator of leaders. We have a long tradition of excellence in our technical and professional programs, and a rich liberal arts tradition that remains essential to everything we do. We also are remarkably engaged with the community. We have a prime opportunity to tie these strengths together in new ways by emphasizing complexity and innovation in real-world contexts. This has always been an important part of our culture, but we’ve really only scratched the surface of what we could do.”
From freshman year through graduation, TU students have myriad opportunities to shine as leaders. Listed below are a few of the university’s stellar programs that allow students to build a foundation for future leadership roles.