Today is the first day of classes. Thousands of students are here with dream in their eyes and hope in their hearts. Walking around campus reminded me of the debate I had with a friend from Florida last year. The issue was, of course, higher education and this friend did not work in the academia.
My friend asked me to imagine a restaurant that offers beautiful decor, glasses of cold sparkling water, and live music, but does not serve food! He asked me to further imagine a movie theater that offers free popcorn, stadium-style seating, and a video game lounge, but does not show movies! Then he asked me to imagine a plane that has extra legroom, free meals, and allows us to board early, but never takes off!
My immediate words were, “It is ridiculous! What kind of a restaurant does not serve food?” My reaction was obvious, because every organization has a core mission which must be fulfilled first, ahead of anything else. “You see”, he said before I could say anything more, “that is why we have a problem with universities. They do everything but help students succeed!”
“Excuse me! We are graduating 8,000 students every year from the University of Houston alone.” I protested.
“And letting more than that many go without graduating?” He provoked me further.
“Well, I admit that some do not graduate, but are you putting all the blame on us? Your analogies are irrational.”
Before I could say any more, he yielded and said, “Okay, I am sorry. I was too harsh. Let’s assume that our imaginary restaurant serves great meals also, but half the people get up and leave before finishing their meal. The movie theater shows movies, but only half the people stay to see the end. And our plane gets to fly, but takes the passengers only halfway where they want to go. Is everything okay now?”
By now, I knew that I had lost the argument. I could extend his logic and imagine a university that offered its students everything they desired (yes, including parking!), but allowed half of them to leave without a degree. Of course, I could raise my defensive shield and give many reasons, and they would all be true. Yes, the government is not funding us to the same level as before. Yes, students are not coming to us as well prepared as before. Yes, federal and state regulations have added to the cost of our operations. And yes, students are more easily distracted today than a few years back.
But, will that make everything right? Would the restaurant that lost half of its guests still be in business a week later? How about the movie theater that lost half of its viewers or the airline that flew its passengers to only half the distance?
Our core mission is to teach students and to prepare them to build a better future for themselves and for our communities. If they cannot get the needed education, we are failing in our core mission, and thus jeopardizing our own existence and viability as a university, irrespective of whose fault it is.
So, here is my plea to you, my team members.
As you begin the new academic year, please focus and refocus on our core mission — the success of our students! They just don’t happen to be here. They are here because we consciously recruited them, invited them in, and admitted them to our university. And now that they are here, we have the obligation to help them succeed. And we need to do that while keeping our expectations high and rigor tough.
I know that there are many things that are outside of our control to fix, but I also know that there are at least as many that we can fix. One of the most important success factors cited by alumni is their feeling that someone on campus cared. No matter where your desk is and no matter what your work is, your interaction with students is guaranteed. Please remember that you can make a difference in their lives.
Today is the day to rededicate ourselves to core mission.