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ODEA Member School Spotlight: American University

OD Education Association Spotlight:
The MSOD Program at American University

Each month, Network News features an academic partner of the OD Network, including member schools of the OD Education Association (ODEA) and university sponsors of the OD Network Annual Conference. Our special guests this month are Ruth Wagner and Vince Chapa of American University.

Written by Marco Cassone, MSOD, Board of Trustees, The OD Network

MC: Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ruth Wagner, director of the Master of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) Program at American University (AU), and Vince Chapa, recruiter for the MSOD program at AU. Thank you both for joining me.

To start us off, what can you share with readers of Network News as an overview of your program?

RW: The American University MSOD program is an experiential, executive-style and cohort-based masters program in organization development. We were originally co-created in 1980 between the NTL Institute for the Applied Behavioral Sciences––led by then resident, Edie Seashore––and American University for the purpose of offering students the best of both worlds: NTL and a degree-conferring university.

The program is geared to accommodate the busy lives of our students, who are primarily early-to-mid-career professionals. We meet one weekend per month for 20 months, including three residencies, two of which we’ll describe for you. We do two cohorts per year and are about to start our 74th cohort. We are proud to say that since the program’s inception 36 years ago, we are now at about 1,700 alumni.

MC: A thriving alumni community can be an important factor to prospective students when considering graduate programs. How does AU nourish and stay connected to your alumni?

RW: That is truly an important factor, so we’ve structured the program to let us stay very engaged with our alumni. There are four formal ways this occurs, which distinguish us from other programs:

  •  All current AU MSOD students are offered six hours of coaching from professionally certified coaches—the majority of whom are alumni.
  • Secondly, every Saturday that students come onto campus, we set aside two hours called Learning Community Time, where cohorts have an opportunity to learn in their community by dealing with their own cohort’s group level issues. This is often facilitated by 2-3 alumni as well.
  • The third piece is our practicum, which is like a capstone course over 4-5 months, where students complete a full-cycle action research project on their own with a client. Each student works with a practicum advisor—all of whom are alumni.
  • In addition, about a quarter of our adjunct faculty are also alumni.

MC: You mentioned the experiential nature of your residencies, which sounds like a centerpiece of the MSOD program at AU. Can you describe one or two for our readers?

VC: One of the aspects that make our program special is the middle residency (of three), which is dedicated to Use of Self in Professional Practice. Use of Self is a cornerstone of the AU MSOD program and is woven throughout all of our courses, but we do conduct a weeklong intensive held off campus on a cultural island, if you will, where students focus on themselves as the individual to learn how they affect groups and therefore organizations. This is rooted in the belief that the individual is the instrument utilized to affect positive change in a human system. To be effective, OD practitioners have to know themselves, must be critically self-aware, and must harness all that they have to do this kind of work.

Our third and final residency is international. Right now, we alternate between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where we have resident faculty members who find clients facing real organizational challenges. Our students go abroad together and divide into teams to do a full-cycle of action research consultation compressed into 11 days. Part of our philosophy is that the world is changing at a rapid pace and OD is being done cross culturally, so we want to ensure that our students develop that critical competency.

MC: In this Network News series on the member schools of the OD Education Association (ODEA), I always like to ask program directors how you can tell that your program and alumni are making a difference in the world?

RW: Wow, great question, Marco. We recently did an external review of our program that collected a lot of data, and one of the most interesting outcomes was an understanding of how people find out about the program. About 50 percent learn directly from our alums, indicating a very strong word of mouth appeal. Graduates speak very highly of their experience in the program and encourage others to explore AU. Even more interesting was that another 25 percent find out because they have been referred by a business leader who––though they have not gone through the program––recommend AU because they’ve been so impressed with the quality of our alumni.

VC: If I may add here from the student perspective, we often hear great feedback around how impactful our students feel in the various systems and organizations that they work in. This is especially true when they return from a weekend of learning together and find they are immediately able to apply course learnings in their work. There’s an immediate applicability to how students are growing, developing professionally, and discovering how to effect change in the world.

MC: To wrap up our time together, I’d like to ask what you are most excited about or proud of, whether related to faculty work, to your alumni or to the field of OD itself. What lights you up looking across the panoramic view of your perspective?

RW: Top of my mind of what we’re proud of is the seminal work published last year by Dr. Bob Marshak and Dr. Gervase Bushe. Bob has been a faculty member at AU for 36 years, has authored 85 articles and 3 books, and is a recipient of the OD Network Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015, Bob and Gervase published their book, Dialogic Organization Development, which was characterized by Ed Schein as a paradigm shift in the field.

 Marshak and Bushe reviewed trends in OD over the last 60 years and were able to label the first 30-40 years as diagnostic OD, where much of what has emerged in recent decades—such as Appreciative Inquiry, large group interventions, etc.—can be distinguished as dialogic OD. We’re very proud that one of our founding faculty members has made a constant contribution to the field of OD and continues to play such a critical role in the scholarly thinking of our students. 

Reflecting on AU alumni, here’s a quick anecdote for you: Vince and I were at a SHRM conference in June and met the head recruiter for one firm. She approached and wanted to meet us because she had successfully placed so many of our alumni and they had been so outstanding. Though not quantitative, these are indicators that AU students develop a very solid scholar-practitioner foundation, and the particular emphasis on Use of Self enables our graduates to be most effective out in the world doing this work.

"And lastly, the MSOD Program at American University is proud to be a member of the OD Education Association (ODEA). The fact that there are so many good programs out there says something wonderful about our field. More importantly, the fact that the heads of these outstanding programs all come together twice a year to share our experiences, challenges, and insights also says something about the collaborative nature of the people in our field. We are all really practicing what we teach.

Learn more about the MSOD Program at American University.

For information about dialogic OD and the publication, Dialogic Organization Development by Marshak & Bushe (2015), click here.

Access a video overview of AU’s MSOD program “Master the Power of You: AU's Master of Science in Organization Development.”


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