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The College of Liberal Arts (CLA) gained a department aimed particularly at interdisciplinary studies, complete with a new director and potential spaces for research and learning. The idea for the proposed Interdisciplinary Studies Department began materializing at the beginning of Fall 2018 and was approved by the Academic Senate on February 5, 2019. 

Of the 23 CSU’s, eight have interdisciplinary studies undergraduate programs, seven have interdisciplinary studies majors, nine have interdisciplinary studies master’s degree programs and only Sacramento State University has a college specifically for interdisciplinary studies and social sciences. Cal Poly will be the first to make interdisciplinary studies a department.

The primary purpose behind becoming a department rather than remaining a program was to gain the ability to hold tenure faculty — faculty who will belong specifically to interdisciplinary studies, so faculty no longer have to be “borrowed” from other departments. Achieving this new status did not change the exclusivity of internal transfers in the major.

The program was once titled the humanities program. The switch was prompted by the need for a title that better reflected what the program offered.

According to the Interdisciplinary Studies in Liberal Arts (ISLA) website, interdisciplinary studies develops skills such as “critical and creative thinking, effective oral and written communication, empathy and compassion, and the ability to be life-long learners,” skills “crucial in all sectors of the U.S. economy.” 

Depending on the chosen emphasis of the major, the course list can include English, statistics, political science and ethnic studies courses. Due to its flexibility, the degree itself can prepare students for nearly any job occupation they seek.

Department chair of political science at Cal Poly Elizabeth Lowham served as the director for interdisciplinary studies and the science technology and society programs. According to Lowham, as a program, interdisciplinary studies relied heavily on “the kindness of other department chairs in other departments” to help find and secure faculty to teach the program.

“[Becoming a] department really allows us to create a place inside the College of Liberal Arts that is a hub for interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary teaching, interdisciplinary students and interdisciplinary faculty who can exist there,” Lowham said.

Lowham said there is potential for hiring faculty specifically for interdisciplinary studies.

One of the professors for the science, technology and society program heads the Center for Expressive Technologies — a program within CLA that corresponds with interdisciplinary studies. According to Lowham, with donations to CLA from the owners of Ultra-Stereo Labs, Inc., Jack and Felicia Cashin, there is potential to put physical spaces in the new research complex for interdisciplinary studies students, as well as liberal arts students and engineering students.

“I think it’s really exciting, and all the faculty I’ve talked to are excited to build and create something new and think about what that looks like,” Lowham said. “Because there aren’t very many opportunities to build something and build a department from the ground up, and that’s what they’re doing.”

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