To lead, focus on core mission!

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. 

Fifty Shades of Red

Is red really red, or is it a collection of shades that look like red?

Come and walk the grounds of the University of Houston on any given Friday and chances are that you will be overwhelmed by a sea of red. Nearly 70 percent of the students, staff and faculty will be wearing that distinctive school color. The sight is so compelling that I have had many visitors comment, “Wow…your campus is all red.”

A Friday at UH

A Red Friday at UH

But if you look closely, what people describe as “red” turns out to be more like 50 shades of red, anywhere from almost-orange to maroon-look-alike to pinkish red. Yes, there is an official “Cougar Red” red, but many people still wear all shades of red because they don’t want to repeat the same outfit. I mean, just how many truly red outfits can you really have? (Disclaimer: two-thirds of my own closet is now red.)

Yet, to a visitor, it looks as if everyone is just wearing “red.”

I often wonder how and when shades can lose their individual differences and become a single chromatic phenomenon? Last month, I was wearing a maroon-pink suit to a meeting. The first comment I heard as I walked in the door was, “There is the lady in red!” I was surprised. First of all, it was not Friday. Second, the suit was not red by any stretch of the imagination. And finally, I was not even in Houston. Yet, because I wear red so often, my suit was immediately perceived as “red” before it looked maroon or pink to these people.

To me, the different shades of a color are natural and, in their way, important. They expand our limits and add value in reminding us that we have a common ground. The varying shades also remind us that commonality is not automatic; it has to be built and nurtured.
Every organization is shaped by two opposite forces: those that unify its members and those that divide them. A successful, high-functioning organization strives to strike the right balance because neither is good in its extreme. Too much uniformity may lead to complacency. Too much divisiveness may lead to conflict.

My organization–the University of Houston–continues to flourish with the healthy interplay of forces that simultaneously unite and divide us. We all are the same in many ways – our mission, core values, commitment, logo, color, team and the list can go on and on. But we are also very different– the disciplines that we teach in, or the departments that we work in, or the ideologies that we believe in, or the approaches that we take to fulfill that common mission. And, of course, we are also divided by gender, color, race, socio-economic status, neighborhoods and many more such factors.

The secret of our success is remaining divided and yet united. Our strength comes from recognizing our differences but still relating to one another so naturally that we appear as one. The significance lies in the strength of our unity, and not in the elimination of the differences.
An orange-red looks red if it is surrounded by other reds, but it will be perceived as orange if standing alone. A strong organization is not the one that ignores its divisions but one that builds a compelling sense of unity that transcends its differences.

So, I am proud of our own red and even prouder of the 50 shades that also contribute to our greater sense of “red.” I salute those who unify our cause and mission, and I applaud those who challenge us to be different.

(But, hold on, Cougars. Let me be very clear. I still love it when you wear your Cougar Red on Fridays!)

Making ordinary travel extraordinary

Everyone travels with a purpose in mind—business, relaxation, getting-away-from-it-all, education, sightseeing, culinary curiosity…well, the list goes on. Why do I travel? Maybe all the above, but there’s always needs to be a little more for me and it is that “little more” that makes things extraordinary.

This month, my husband and I took one week to experience the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. I had read about its blue waters, dramatic cliffs, charming towns, and everything else that has made Croatia an international tourist destination.

But, we added two “little” conditions to our journey.

One was that we would backpack–-no suitcase, no hassle. My European experience never feels complete unless I put a pack on my back and wander around looking for a place to eat or sleep. A sense of liberation and youthfulness starts to wash over me the minute I roll my shirts and layer them in my backpack.

The second condition was that we will find a unique bar on every island to enjoy our traditional evening drink. (No, I am not promoting drinking …natural juices are also served in all Croatian bars.)

Our journey started in Dubrovnik. After soaking in the history, walking on the old city wall, experimenting with Croatian dishes, we headed for the

A cliff hanger

A cliff hanger

region’s most talked-about beach. We’re used to the beaches of Siesta Key, Florida, with white sand covering an area the size of four football fields. What we encountered was the size of a basketball court— and full of pebbles and stones. After the initial shock, we came to realize that the simple, elemental landscape created by the combination of rocks and sea was just as remarkable as any Florida beach. it was gorgeous!

Searching for our special place to have a drink, we found the Buza Bar, a small place that seemed to be hanging off a cliff. While it was relatively expensive, we knew that we were paying for that extraordinary view, not the drinks.

The next day, we took a ferry to Korcula island. As we expected, the ferry was filled with students from all around the world, mostly backpacking. We may have seemed out of place, but never felt so. We talked with young travelers and learned the island’s best bar sits atop one of the fort towers. “But you have to climb through a small hole in the ceiling using a temporary ladder,” they advised us. Getting to Massimo proved to be quite an adventure, but once on top of the tower, we loved sipping our mojitos as the beat of loud music surrounded us and an invigorating wind blew through our hair.

The next stay was in Hvar, Croatia’s most popular island. We rented a scooter, and we decided to disappear into the mountains. It was hot and humid as we left, but the skies darkened. Soon, there was thunder, lightning and cold, with absolutely no shelter in sight. By the time we found a village (if you can call five houses a village), we were soaking wet. It was fun, nonetheless.

The recommended bar for this area was Carpe Diem, located not on the shore but a nearby private island. The operating hours, we were informed, ran from midnight to 6 a.m. Really? Six in the morning? What a concept!

After Hvar and Stari Grad, we boarded a catamaran to get to Split, with its dazzling Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 3rd century. The huge palace (once the retirement home for the emperor) has now been converted into a vibrant urban space with shops, restaurant and rental apartments. We stayed there with our room window opening to the largest square within the palace. That night, I kept my window open and, despite the sounds coming from below, I slept better than usual. I realized why. My childhood was filled with urban noises – rickshaw-pullers arguing, vendors selling vegetables, trains whistling by, and street dogs barking at passing cars. You can change as much as you want, but you can never take the childhood out of your system. How comforting!

Our bar of choice in Split was situated on the steps of palatial ruins. Luxor sets up cushions and wooden boards and serves you drinks as you watch curious visitors raise their eyes to look at the bell tower, the cathedral or the treasury.

We took the local bus back to Dubrovnik so we could admire the coast from the landside. We could have rented a car, but that would spoil the backpacking mood. The trip took us through Bosnia, with its tight border security. Bosnia has a slim, 24-kilometer wedge of coastline that bisects Croatia. It was interesting to see the incredible density of hotels and restaurants squeezed along that Bosnian coastline. I suppose when you have such limited space, you use every inch of it.

Ice chamber

Ice chamber

On our last day in Dubrovnik, we were looking for another unique experience when we noticed a sign for Ice Bar. Yes, it sounded kind of touristy, but we were tourists after all, weren’t we? Upon entering, we were given parkas and led to an ice chamber where everything—table, chair, bar stool, glasses and decorations–was carved from ice. Frosty blue light danced and soft music played. We sipped our drinks and chatted with the bartender, just like in any other bar. After 30 bone-chilling minutes—that’s all we could take—we left. Brrrr!

After exploring every type of pebble beach, experimenting with all kinds of Adriatic and Mediterranean dishes and visiting with happy Croatians, we said good-bye. As an educator, I believe my strongest memory from this very memorable journey was how excited the young people became every time we told them that we taught at the University of Houston. In their eyes, a university professor was revered and college education was an important goal to pursue in their lives. Hearing that was as thrilling as any of the adventures we experienced during this wonderful trip.