What keeps me up at night?

Almost every time I speak at any workshop on higher education leadership, I am asked, “What keeps you awake at night?”

While the question is anticipated, I always pause before answering. I could easily say that finding a way to prepare the underserved population for tomorrow’s social and economic needs worries me the most. We have yet to close the achievement gaps of our Hispanic and African American students and, without their full participation in the workforce, we have no hope of keeping America competitive.

Or I could point to the financial model of higher education, which, to say the least, is unsustainable. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, 400 small private colleges and regional public colleges failed to meet their financial bottom line last year as their enrollment dropped or tuition collection declined.

I could call attention to the various disruptive technologies, like MOOCS, that are knocking loudly on our universities’ doors and demanding serious consideration. While no single force has offered a viable alternative to the traditional university model, their collective impact is surely about to change the higher education landscape forever. Preparing my institution for the turbulent waters ahead is certainly something worth losing a night’s sleep over.

Or, finally, I could cite the increasing burden of federal regulations or court rulings that, as well intentioned as they may be, are reshaping the scope of our mission.

In reality, each one of these issues is more than sufficient to keep any university president up at night. But there is one that worries me the most – and it concerns losing our ability to assemble the world’s best talent.

Generally speaking, there are two types of universities. One has as its primary purpose providing access to higher education at an affordable cost. These institutions are fundamental to our survival. But then there are also those universities that are the repositories of the world’s best talent – people who are obsessed with breaking boundaries, expanding horizons and seeking knowledge. No, I am not talking about sponsored research or writing books. I am talking about those academic Olympians for whom research and discovery are as natural as breathing. They are motivated by their passion and rewarded by their own work. They live for the “Eureka!” moment.

Today, America is the breeding ground for these passionate innovators from all around the world. They come here because American universities provide them the best environment in which to practice their discipline and satisfy their craving for inquiry and examination. To these people, the most important thing is the supportive system, one which provides the tools of exploration and the teams of similar-minded people. They will travel far and live where little is familiar to them just as long as they get the opportunity to pursue their passion.

When Asian universities were at their pinnacle several centuries ago, it was because they had succeeded in creating that magical environment and assembling that talent. Indian Vedic scriptures written thousands of years ago include the mention of such scholars and disciples travelling from all around the world to gather in scholarly communities. Similarly, European universities reached their zenith because they were able to attract the best talent from every continent.

For decades now, America has enjoyed that coveted position in the world. People leave the comfort of their language and food and family to cast their lot with American universities, first as graduate students and then as professors. The fire of intellectual curiosity burns in their bellies. They have given America the edge that at one point in time Asia and Europe previously enjoyed.

Are we at risk of losing that preeminence? What would it take for these Olympian academics from other countries to pack their bags and move on in search of another place that provides that enabling environment? What might turn the tide?

Facilities? No, because many countries today have far better laboratories than any university in America can provide.

Money? No, because many countries can provide far more discretionary funding than we can.

In reality, it is primarily the guarantee of having similar-minded, similarly-dedicated people that keeps these exceptional scholars and researchers here in America. If any other nation becomes able to attract enough of these gifted and driven people – to provide a similar guarantee, as it were – the trend could reverse. These dedicated discoverers of knowledge will move on to wherever they find the best tools and teams to quench their thirst.

All research is not same. All researchers are not same. All discoveries are not same. So, you ask, what keeps me up at night? Thinking about how we can continue to nurture those who are so productively consumed by intellectual curiosity. As long as we have the best talent here, I am convinced we can find solutions to everything else. Holding on to that talent is crucial … and we better not doze off.

Anything worth winning is won with passion

Last week, I was waiting for the elevator when I heard someone running toward me, literally screaming, “Oh My Gosh! I can’t believe it is you! Can I please take a selfie with you?”

“Of course, you can. Where is your phone?” I said. She fumbled for it in the backpack, too excited to concentrate. Finally, the student found the phone and took a selfie, still chanting, “Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh!”
She was vivacious, happy, full of life and full of spirit. We started talking and within few minutes I realized that Tina was no ordinary person.

During high school, Tina became the sole survivor of a fatal car accident that claimed her mother and sister. She delayed her entrance to college by one year. During her sophomore year, Tina was diagnosed with cancer with not-so-good odds of survival. She took a year off from college, fought the battle successfully and returned. During that time, she managed to complete one online course.

In her senior year, Tina’s father lost the functionality of his legs in a random shooting. Once again, she had to stay home to care for her father and provide support to two younger brothers. But Tina enrolled in several online courses and completed them with good grades. “I love being on campus, but you don’t get everything you want,” she said in an accepting voice, without a note of complaint.

“You will be proud of me, President Khator, but I am graduating within six years. I did not want to let you down.” She had the smile of a winner as she said it.

I hugged Tina and held her a little longer than usual. I did not want her to see tears filling up my eyes.

What kept Tina going against all odds? Life pushed her back again and again and yet she came out victorious every single time. “I am so proud of you,” I said admiringly. “I am so glad you chose to continue your studies.”

“I had no choice,” she replied. “I never thought that way.” Tina waved good-bye and ran in the other direction. She was gone, but her words kept buzzing in my ears throughout the day … and the next and the next.

I never thought that way! That way…

What way?

Did Thomas Edison feel the same way when he failed 999 times before inventing what led to the modern light bulb!
Did Henry Ford feel the same way when he declared five bankruptcies before becoming hugely successful?
Did R.H. Macy feel the same way when he closed down seven stores before finding success in New York?
Did Walt Disney feel the same way when told by his newspaper editor that he lacked imagination?
Did Dr. Seuss feel the same way when rejected by publishers, not once, not twice but 27 times?

What is “that way of thinking” that seemed to give them no other choice? Did passion make them blind to reality and deaf to the voices of reason?

Tina, like these famous people, had passion for her goal, and that passion pushed her forward. In theory, she may have had choices, but she could not see them and that made her succeed despite many setbacks. When people face setbacks, they react in one of two ways: They think from their brain and analyze everything minutely to decide whether it is wise to quit. And then there are those who respond from their heart and look for a different way or a different time or a different setting to reach their goal.

Winners fall in the second category because their eyes are on the goal, not on many ways to reach the goal. They keep trying different tools, because their goals are not negotiable.

I salute Tina for making me see her way, that way… the way of winners!

[To protect her identity, this student’s name and circumstances have been altered.]