Can an innovative program led by the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy nurture creativity on campus?
by Kara Furlong
photography by Steve Green
For freshman William Schreiber, it’s the quiet confines of Central Library, setting aside his studies to think through a potential project.
Fellow freshman Branden Sanders says it’s walking across campus, finding inspiration for a composition.
For junior Maria Hibbard, it’s interpreting a piece of music on her bassoon – or doing the prep work for a research paper she’s about to write.
Ask these students – or a dozen others at Vanderbilt – when and where they’ve felt most creative on campus, and you’re likely to get as many different answers.
Take, for example, the work of Vanderbilt sociologists Steven Tepper and Jennifer Lena, who did a mapping exercise involving Vanderbilt students to learn more about the everyday nature of creativity. (Their findings, and the methodology they implemented, will be published in an upcoming issue of The Sociological Quarterly.)
“We surveyed about 150 students asking them where creativity happens for them on campus, and how,” Tepper said. “For the most part, it wasn’t in the classroom or the studio or the laboratory. It was when they were working on a homecoming float, or in a conversation, or while involved in religious programs.”
Creativity clearly abounds at Vanderbilt – but is it possible to harness creative efforts and direct them toward a common goal? Can a select group of students hone their creative and entrepreneurial skills and serve as ambassadors to the rest of campus? Can this change the learning environment at Vanderbilt? A new initiative spearheaded by the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy seeks to find out.
Not only does creativity occur in unconventional ways, it also operates under a fairly broad definition.
“We know that ‘creativity’ is not a code word for the arts, yet we know that the arts and media and expression are key ingredients to a creative campus,” said Tepper, associate director of the Curb Center and a leading scholar on creativity, culture and society. “We know that creativity lies at the intersection of disciplines, of scientists and artists working shoulder-to-shoulder in ways that may be unexpected or nontraditional.
“But I think more than anything, it’s a way of seeing the world, a way of experiencing it, rather than the content of any particular discipline,” he said.
Bill Ivey, director of the Curb Center and a national expert on arts policy, said, “Developing a creative campus is an effort to provide students with a tool kit that allows them to approach issues and problems using a broader set of options than would be there using conventional thinking, rules, or established ways of doing things.”
According to creativity scholars, creative people possess the ability to generate multiple solutions to problems, to think metaphorically, to make connections between unrelated things and to work in collaboration with others from different backgrounds. But creativity goes deeper than that.
“It’s interesting that there’s this understanding that creativity is a value,” reflected Ivey, who had the opportunity to speak to Board of Trust members about Vanderbilt’s creative campus initiative.
“Our trustees are mostly business leaders – very accomplished people, but often not the folks you immediately associate with creativity. Yet each had personal experiences in business or in home life that they could characterize as times when they had been creative,” he said.
“These leaders understand intuitively that creativity is important. What that said to me is that we’re tapping into an idea that’s very powerful.”
Right Place, Right Time
The Curb Center was launched in 2003 with a $2.5 million gift from music executive Mike Curb as the nation’s first university-based program dedicated to exploring the American model of cultural policy. Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was tapped to lead it. When Tepper came on board in 2004, the center began exploring possibilities for a creative campus initiative – an effort to make creative engagement and expression a core aspect of campus life.
“The focus on creativity in higher education was a natural extension of the Curb Center’s work with government and industry,” Ivey said. “In each of these arenas, we are looking for ways to remove barriers that might impede creative expression and the vibrancy of our culture.”
Of course, creativity was – and is – already happening at Vanderbilt in myriad ways: within student organizations, through service learning projects, in classroom collaborations and lab experiments, via social media, around dining hall tables, in faculty seminars and through cultural programming on campus. The Curb Center set out to map existing creative activities and connect the dots between them.
“Every time we learn about a program available to students that has a creative component, it seems there’s another one right behind it. Part of what we’re about is making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, so that the work that’s already in place is gathered together in interesting ways. We want to make connections that add value,” Ivey said. “We also are experimenting with new programs, like our creative leadership salons, and new courses oriented around creative enterprise and public leadership.”
Tepper has found that many students perceive Vanderbilt as an entrepreneurial campus – “That if you have an idea, there are resources to make your idea happen” – but creatively speaking, not a very spontaneous one. Part of the creative campus mission is to disrupt campus life as we know it.
“Getting us out of our routines to embrace the creative moments in our everyday lives is something we can do better,” Tepper said. “We have thousands of people on campus in public spaces every day. This is the perfect environment in which to do creative projects together; we just have to take better advantage of it.”
Upping the Game
Another reason to nurture creative practice on campus is that each class of incoming students is savvier than the one before.
“There’s no question that a vast majority of students are bringing a creative disposition to campus when they arrive as freshmen,” Tepper said. “They’ve had many more chances to explore their creative lives as high school students – as the cost of media production has declined, as the use of technology has become more innovative and interactive – so they arrive seeing the world differently, and their tools for learning about the world are different.
“I think the real challenge – not just for Vanderbilt, but for higher education – is to better align the ways we teach and the experiences we provide with both the distinctive talents of today’s students and with a world and economy that will require them to be flexible, adaptable, entrepreneurial and creative.”
To that end, Vanderbilt has launched the next phase of its creative campus initiative: The Curb Program in Creative Enterprise and Public Leadership. Beginning this fall, five incoming freshmen are serving as Curb Scholars over four years. They are participating in a unique set of experiences that will enable them to pursue creative enterprise as well as develop their leadership skills. In turn, the scholars are tasked with sparking creativity and engaging others in creative opportunities.
The program is patterned on the life of Mike Curb, who endowed the scholarships. An accomplished songwriter, performer, record label founder and businessman, Curb was elected lieutenant governor of California in 1978 and served as acting governor from 1979 to 1980. His family-based foundation gives generously to civic and political causes.
The inaugural Curb Scholars are planning majors in business, economics, history, engineering, computer science, psychology and more, and their interests run the gamut from music and design to computer programming and robotics. They were chosen not only for their creative pursuits, but also for how they’ve applied their creative energies to serve their communities.
William Schreiber, a Curb Scholar from Birmingham, Ala., designed the Web site for a nonprofit cystic fibrosis foundation that was founded for his sister, who has the disease. That experience inspired him to start a T-shirt design business. As a high school sophomore, he and a friend formed Bus Productions, LLC, which designs and produces T-shirts, videos, graphics and Web solutions. He co-chaired a concert event raising nearly $100,000 for cystic fibrosis research. And he has a fledgling record label.
Schreiber said the opportunity to grow these ventures as a Curb Scholar helped make his decision to attend Vanderbilt.
“I had the dream of hitting the ground running as a freshman, because I had a lot going on in high school and I wanted to keep it going in college,” Schreiber said. “The Curb Scholars program was the only option that would truly allow me to do that.
“I’m an entrepreneur at heart. My life dream is to start businesses and watch them grow – I never want to work for anybody else,” he said. “But I’m also a news junkie. I love politics and public policy. I think eventually, I might end up in politics. I feel that if I make it in the business world, I might want to go over to public service and give something back.”
This duality of interests is shared by many of the Curb Scholars and is often a catalyst for new creative endeavors.
Maria Hibbard, a junior from Gahanna, Ohio, is the program’s sole upperclassman, selected in part to serve as a mentor to the five freshman scholars who are new to campus. (As the program adds a new cohort each year, current scholars will in turn mentor them.)
A music performance major specializing in bassoon and piano, Hibbard came to Vanderbilt with a delimma.
“I spend so much time playing music, yet I know I don’t want a career as a professional bassoonist,” she said. “And I love reading and writing too much to only be a performance major.”
This conflict led Hibbard to research careers related to music performance, which sparked an interest in arts policy and led her to the Curb Center.
“I declared a second major in Human and Organizational Development, which has kept up my love of reading and writing. I love doing organizational analysis. And combining the theoretical aspects of HOD with the practical aspects of music seems like the perfect fit for me,” she said.
Thinkers and Doers
A vital ingredient of the Curb experience is its unique programming.
“There’s the intellectual backdrop of creativity, and then there’s the craft – the hard work of making stuff happen,” Tepper said. “We want the program to be a nice marriage of both.”
The start of the school year saw the Curb Scholars participating in a creative retreat at the Neuhoff Complex, a former meat packing plant in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood. Armed with cameras and boom mics, they were given five hours to create a pair of original short films.
The scholars regularly participate in a salon series of intimate talks delivered by creatively successful people. Guests have included Vanderbilt alumnus and violin virtuoso Daniel Bernard Roumain and New York-based experimental artist Oliver Herring. An upcoming lecture will feature Anita Hartel, executive chef of Nashville’s Mämbu restaurant.
It’s important for the students to hear first-hand from these leaders about their successes, but especially about their failures and how they overcame them, said Curb Center Assistant Director Elizabeth Long Lingo. She has studied music producers in Nashville and is an expert on negotiation, networks and creative entrepreneurs, as well as on managing creative venture and working across organizational and disciplinary boundaries to bring novel ideas and programming to fruition.
“We all come in with our own set of experiences and what we think is possible,” Lingo explained. “The idea is to break that wide open and expand the possibility set – to harness the creative potential.
“These students are already unique; they have the creative passion, the entrepreneurial spark, the dedication to service and the public interest. But the extent to which we can provide them with provocative ideas and experiences that enable them to find their own path and a way to go forward – that is invaluable.”
The programming is designed to give the scholars an eclectic set of experiences; to nurture their appreciation for process and craft; to expand their network of creative professionals; and to build their portfolios of creative work.
Their first major project coincides with a Nov. 17 public lecture by Rock Band/Guitar Hero developer Eran Egozy at the Student Life Center. In addition to engaging a diverse audience for the speaker, the students are tasked with promoting the event in innovative ways using social media, with creating souvenirs to commemorate the occasion, and with planning a Vanderbilt-wide Rock Band competition to raise money for Nashville’s W.O. Smith Community Music School. The parameters are wide open, with the scholars expected to flex their creative muscle. (To view their efforts, visit www.rockbandatvandy.com.)
“The students not only need to know how to think differently and make connections and be generative, but they need to be able to bring people together around their vision,” Tepper said. “They need to know how to curate things; to figure out a media campaign and to execute it.”
“One of the things we’re keeping in mind is that this is about doing, not about observing,” Ivey said. “So we are working toward internships and projects that are about honing the skills of creative practice through work.”
The program includes an internship experience to be undertaken between the scholars’ junior and senior year, most likely in Washington, D.C., New York or Los Angeles. This is music to Curb Scholar Branden Sanders’ ears.
The freshman from New York City has been writing and recording music since the age of 7, and interned for noted producer Salaam Remi during one of Remi’s successful collaborations with soul-jazz singer Amy Winehouse.
“I would definitely take another internship like that, but I’m ready to stop serving coffee and start making music,” said Sanders, whose interests lay in rap, techno and pop. He is working with other Curb Scholars to establish a music studio at the Curb Center, and is eager to collaborate musically with students from other parts of campus.
“Most of the Curb Scholars like doing projects – you know, actually doing things,” Sanders said. “The salons and other activities have been interesting and fun, but we want to go and build things ourselves.”
A Creative Network
By way of opportunity, the scholars will find on campus a burgeoning support system of other students, faculty and staff working to enrich the creative experience.
The Curb Scholars are affiliated with the 15 undergraduate fellows who have taken up residence this year for a creative campus living-learning experiment in the Vandy-Barnard residence hall. These residential fellows frequently join the scholars for creative retreats and salon lectures.
To support the development of the Curb Scholars program and the broader creative campus, Vanderbilt has hired Assistant Professor of Sociology Terry McDonnell, an expert on media, advertising, politics and the power of culture and creativity in everyday life.
The Curb Center is developing a core curriculum for the scholars that will result in either a contract major or certificate in creative enterprise and public leadership. A fifth-year master’s program is in the works, and the Curb Center is building relationships with other universities where Mike Curb has sponsored educational initiatives with the mission of bringing the creative model to those campuses.
In addition, a creative campus task force comprising faculty from across the university has convened, with the mandate of exploring creative programs and curricular innovations that might be proposed for the broader Vanderbilt campus.
“The idea of a creative campus resonates with people who have already embraced its principles,” said Mel Ziegler, chair of Vanderbilt’s studio arts department and co-chair of the task force with Tepper. “So we have extremely creative scholars and teachers who see this as an opportunity to amplify the values they already practice. It hasn’t been hard for us to find allies across campus.”
Several prominent universities have experimented with the creative campus concept in recent years, but Vanderbilt is attempting a model that is truly one-of-a-kind.
“Ours is the only program that is fundamentally student-focused,” Tepper said. “We’re the only one with a scholarship program of this kind; with faculty who are a part of the planning process; with a patron who has provided substantial resources to help us make it happen. We’re the only program organized around a national center for cultural policy.
“I think we have the most parts working together around a sustainable, long-term vision of what a creative campus can be.”
All of this represents a possible sea change for how learning takes place on campus.
“The idea of a creative campus may not be appealing to every student, but I think it’s relevant to every student – every student will be going into a world that requires the kinds of creative skills that we’re hoping he or she will get through interaction with our program,” Tepper said.
“For some students, creativity will be a focus of their undergraduate and perhaps their graduate educations,” Ivey said. “What we hope for the entire campus is that it will be an atmospheric change, so that people have a sense of creativity, creative problem solving, of innovation as a kind of theme across campus life.
“We think we can add an important value to the Vanderbilt experience, and over time that value will become part of why students want to be here in the first place.”
To learn more about Vanderbilt's creative campus initiative, visit www.vanderbiltcreativecampus.org.