Category Archives: innovation

Pushing on…

Despite intermittent squalls, heavy rains, and poor visibility, students, faculty, staff, and administrators push on in preparing for what used to be the beginning of the traditional academic year.

Why students push on

To increase their learning, which contributes to the development of the means to challenge the fairness of the distribution of power and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of the promise in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Why faculty push on

To provide learners the opportunity to develop critical-thinking tools in order to discern for themselves whether or not there is a systematic plan to stratify people into groups where some are always the most needy.

Why professional staff push on

To provide the environment in which students have the opportunity to create experiences that will help them develop the skills to speak up about inequities and lead communities in public problem solving so necessary for a democracy.

Why support staff push on

To provide the safety net of strong, sometimes invisible, sinews that hold the academic community together.

Why administrators push on

To demonstrate strong leadership in turbulent times because our hope is in a new generation of leaders who can help the nation move toward the fulfillment of the promise in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

 

Tomorrow Will Be Another World

We’re still in shock—and will be for a while. While there is no avoiding the effects of the pandemic of 2020, we should feel proud of ourselves because we have been exceptional in finding ways to adapt to what we hope is a temporary reality. We gamely say that what we’re experiencing now is “the new normal,” while hoping with all our heart that this is not true. We always hated clichés about how things always work out, and now we use them as salves to soothe ourselves and one another. We must admit, though, that coping with the present has given us some respite from thinking about the future.

But we know that—like a fast-moving train approaching the next station—we can’t hold back the future. Imagine this train as an old-fashioned one with conductors and porters responsible for accommodating passengers. On this imaginary train there is no hierarchy: conductors and porters all work together according to their strengths.

Wisely, the conductors and porters on this old-fashioned train understand that they need to create different teams to work on different aspects of their dilemma:

  • The first team focuses on adapting what always has been done to the current situation in order to make the transition as smooth as possible.
  • The second team creates best- and worst-case scenarios of what they may find when they reach the next station.
  • The third team has the biggest challenge. They are charged with creating a vision for a preferred future—a future that evolves from impossible dreams and high aspirations.

It is critical that this third team has the capacity to see the positive in the midst of all that seems to have gone wrong. They will use the cataclysmic disruption as leverage to make the kinds of fundamental change that they dared not dream of making in the past. In order to meet the realities of a future in which there are no models, they will make the assumption that processes and structures that led to equilibrium and success in the past are not useful in the new context.

Like us now, this team on the imaginary train barreling into the future, realizes that previous warnings and exhortations about not creating change pale in comparison to the opportunity this pandemic has given us to pursue the “what ifs,” the “why nots”, and the “this may sound crazy, buts…”.

It is possible, whatever our endeavor, that the 2020 pandemic—our ultimate test—is the catalyst that unleashes our creativity and ingenuity in pursuing a vision that will help us create the tomorrow that will be another world.

Don’t let negativity hijack your focus: It’s all about students

When I was growing up, I was taught never to use the word “HATE.” It was the four-letter word that was taboo in our family. Whenever I would use the word, it was usually about some chore that I didn’t want to do. If my grandmother was within earshot of my profanity, she would say, “Honey, we don’t use that word in this family. Find another word.” Growing up this way makes the word “HATE” especially heinous and destructive to me.

Imagine how I must have felt when, as Dean of Student Development, I was told by four different administrators in the course of one week that a top-level administrator who was my boss’ boss “HATED” me. Naturally, I ruminated about what I had been told. Realizing that running these negative messages over and over in my mind was crippling me emotionally, I had to find a way to get back to what I had been focusing on before I received these messages.

The first thing I did to get out of the rumination rut was to reflect on what may have caused this person to express hatred toward me to other people. Thinking as objectively as possible about my last interactions with the person, I could understand why this person might not be happy with me. I had dared, in a meeting of several administrators, to strenuously disagree about an impending decision regarding student activities funds. Despite the fact that I thought I was in the right position on the matter, upon reflection, I could imagine that this person, by dent of the position held, would be extremely angry with me. For my part, I concluded that there were more effective ways with fewer negative consequences that I should consider when reacting to positions in opposition to my own. Nonetheless, for the administrator to express hatred toward me seemed over the top.

I then considered how I might put this situation in perspective because the backlash of my own behavior had distracted me from my goal of being the most effective administrator I could be. I didn’t think an apology would be accepted, and I couldn’t reveal how I knew that the administrator was angry beyond the pale. I thought my best way forward was to refocus on the expectations and responsibilities of my job.

When I look back at what I accomplished during this period of serious distraction, I might have intuitively known that I needed to shine brightly in bringing value to the college through my efforts to support students. I was realistic enough to know that I might be fired if I did not bring the kind of value that was over and above expectations. Receiving evaluations of “exceeds expectations” in the stated responsibilities of the positions would have been fine for most people, but I knew that I needed to bring more to the table.

I was already working as hard as I could, having accepted the added responsibility of being one of the academic deans in addition to being the Dean of Student Development. Having two entirely different staffs and two separate offices, working hard not to drop the ball in either area of responsibility, was hard and exhilarating. Having responsibility for some of the faculty, as well as the counselors and advisers in Student Development, put me in the best position possible to do what we all wanted in regards to supporting students.

I threw myself into trying the impossible, such as bringing faculty and counseling advisers together for student academic advising. The gods looked upon us with favor when a popular faculty member and an influential counselor coordinated the joint advising effort in a space dedicated for this collaboration. Despite the fact that this effort was fraught for a number of reasons, we were all passionately committed to how the collaboration would benefit all students.

During this same period, I initiated something else that kept me from being distracted by the negative messages I was receiving. I approached the director of the county schools’ program for gifted and talented students to pitch the idea of a Middlestart Program. The county schools’ director and I brought the idea to our respective institutions and the program was embraced by faculty, staff, and administrators from the college and from the county schools. It was not long before 50 junior high school students were taking summer courses taught by our college faculty. In addition to the courses, students were receiving an excellent orientation to college and would hopefully consider our college in the future.

I have reason to believe that anyone who is a member of an academic community, whether on college and university campuses or in association work, may find themselves distracted by negative interpersonal issues that block creativity and enthusiasm for one’s work. Knowing that I was contributing to larger goals in significant ways worked for me. Focusing on initiatives and being exhilarated by the challenge of doing two full-time jobs boosted my confidence and sense of safety despite functioning in an environment that was anything but nurturing. Though my focus might have been hijacked momentarily, remembering that my raison d’etrewas all about students removed all traces of the distractions resulting from messages about my being hated.

Finding the right time…

It was a decision that had to be made.  In my comment following this excellent presentation, do I only reference the parts of what I heard about the vision for IT at our College or do I also attempt to help everyone who is not in student affairs understand that IT can also play an important role in improving the educational experience of students by supporting the work of counselors and advisers who want to use technology to be more efficient and effective in their work with students?

Why did I have this dilemma?

The CIO made a most impressive presentation introducing concepts of the hype cycle, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. He talked about the history of technology, where the College has been in its use of technology, where we are going, and various faculty and student initiatives in regard to instruction.

The bottom line is I loved the presentation! Yet, something really bothered me.

During the presentation, the CIO was quite specific in outlining how what he was proposing would work with the “academic areas.” Following the presentation when the administrators were making comments, the academic vice president framed his remarks with the words “on the academic side.”

I was surprised to hear this clear delineation of what was academic and, by inference, what was not, especially at a critical time when the entire College has been restructured to insure that advising is done by everyone to some degree.

To insure consistency, accuracy, continuity and a developmental model for advising, counseling faculty in student services are encouraging the use of a system where advisers are encouraged to place notes about their work with students so if a student changes a major or decides on a major after being advised as an undecided students, the next adviser has some prior information about the student.

The system also allows students to select the same adviser by scheduling their own appointments. The system will insure that students are on a pathway towards a degree or certificate, and data can be collected from the system to gauge the impact of interventions to help students succeed in their courses.

A wealth of information can be collected and shared among students, faculty, and administrators with a system that is technology dependent. Why the CIO and the vice president for academic affairs found it necessary to carve out the “academic side” in talking about the future of technology at the College was a puzzlement to me.

I chose not to attempt to enlighten my colleagues at this presentation because there is a time and place for everything, and my attempt at enlightenment following an outstanding presentation would have been seen as negatively disruptive, and no one can hear our message if there is the noise of negative disruption.

I will find other times and occasions to talk about holistic learning, the value of advising, and the fact that all of our work with students is “academic.”

Affirmations on Innovation and Collaboration

Fareed Zakaria had a special on CNN on Sunday, November 30, 2014, about innovation, which caught my attention because I have written about and given speeches on the topic for many years.

More than anything, I want faculty and student affairs educators to be innovative in the manner in which they help learners achieve their educational and career goals. Another ongoing theme and wish that I’ve written and spoken about is the value of collaboration among all parts of the college and university, especially between academic and student affairs.

On this same Sunday morning special, Zakaria interviewed Walter Isaacson whose recent book is on innovators and innovation. I’m paraphrasing, but Isaacson said that in creating his new book he discovered that, more than a facile mind and a willingness to pursue the dreams of one’s imagination, an important element that promotes innovation is collaboration. He said that unlike our image of the lone genius creating something new, those who would be called innovators more often than not worked with others who brought the needed talent to realize a vision.

As I listened to Isaacson talk about his discovery, I was talking back to him and saying “Amen” to his realization. Hearing Isaacson gave me the confirmation I needed to continue my message to academic and student affairs to pull together to innovate in colleges and universities for the sake of learners who need new ways to access the bounty of higher education.

Another guest interviewed by Zakaria for this special was Linda Rottenberg who spoke from her experience of reading thousands of business plans and working with more than a thousand entrepreneurs. Her “aha moment” was that one need not be a creative genius to be an innovator. What one needed to be was a “Doer.”

I loved hearing this because student affairs people often say that they are “Doers.” When there is a problem to be solved or a wrench has been thrown into the best laid plans and everything looks hopeless, two or three student affairs people in the room will tell you, “No worries. We’re student affairs people and we fix problems. We’re doers.”

Hearing these interviews on a Sunday morning was my church that gave me the spirit to keep beating the drum for collaboration, ringing the bell for innovation, and appreciating the work of student affairs professionals.