Behind the Scene: The Republican Primary Debate

On Thursday, the Republican presidential candidates’ debate will air from the beautiful campus of the University of Houston. And yes, we are excited. The campus is already buzzing with excitement and activity. As I walked around the campus Monday, visiting the debate hall, the media center and the operations room, it reminded me of Indian weddings. With trucks pulling in, boxes lined up the walls, people rushing from one room to another and temporary tents getting secured on lawns, it felt festive and chaotic at the same time.

I kept checking nervously with my staff as well as those from CNN and RNC, “Is everything under control?” And yet, I knew that like all Indian weddings, everything will pull in at the last minute making it a perfect production.

It was less than three weeks ago that we got the final go ahead from our partners—RNC, CNN and Telemundo. Yes, just three weeks ago! But kudos to our UH team who took the challenge and are now driving it to a new level. Our faculty and staff are busy coordinating the logistics and supporting the event, but most importantly, they are busy ensuring that this event and everything surrounding it turns out to be a rich learning experience for our students.

We knew that tickets will be limited, but “25” was a much lower number than I was ready to hear. Even though we gave a portion to the tickets to students/faculty/staff for random drawing, it barely made a dent in the demand. So we had to think of every possible way to get people engaged and involved.

Yesterday, our faculty participated in multiple academic panels and debated a wide variety of topics from political philosophies to the United States Justice System to civic engagement. On Thursday, there will be a forum with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a watch party for students. Another watch party is planned by the Faculty Senate. I know that many professors have integrated the debate into their classrooms as part of their research or learning assignment.

More than 400 media outlets have set up their desks in the media center, which looks as impressive as central command offices you see in movies. More than 70 students are working as volunteers hoping to rub shoulders with journalists or get selfies with the candidates. One told me he can’t wait to put the debate volunteerism on his resume.

Dr. Temple Northrup, Chair of Valenti School of Communication, made my day on Monday as he summed up the opportunity the debate has offered to his students in an email on Monday:

First, journalism students will be live tweeting the debate, providing student insights into the event. Second, our students will be creating a live poll that will be shown to the students at the watch party. The students at the Student Center will get to text votes in throughout the evening as our students question them about what they’re seeing. Lastly, all of this will be done with a live streamed broadcast using our talented broadcast journalism students. During commercial breaks at the Student Center, they will hear from our students, who will be broadcasting live from our building.”

It is not to say that bringing the debate to campus has been without challenges or controversies. Many faculty members had to adjust their classes, many staff members had to give up their offices, many administrators had to divert their time from other pressing projects, and many students have had to search even longer for parking. I also wonder if I have personally made more enemies than friends by denying them tickets and instead letting those tickets go to random drawing for students.

In the end, however, we hope that the opportunity for our students to learn, for our community to engage and for our university to be showcased to one of the largest national audiences ever will outweigh whatever challenges and controversies we faced. All things considered, I must say that our faculty, staff and students have been awesome!

So, even if you are not politically inclined, you may want to tune in for the debate because it is coming from one of America’s most beautiful urban campuses! At UH, we place a premium on community engagement. Often, that means our own neighborhood or city. But Thursday night, the community we are engaging is the entire country, and UH is especially proud and excited to play an important role in our national political conversation.

Blessed are those who give…

Like every other university president, I spend countless hours raising funds for my university. People often ask me if I like doing so. I smile and reply, “I love it!” Born and brought up in a privileged family, I found asking for anything, let alone money, was difficult at first, but it became easy once I figured out that I was helping two individuals – one who has the means and wishes to make a difference and one who has the dream but needs someone to believe in her.

Daisy

Daisy

The connections that we, as fundraisers, make have transformational impact. No, it is not about transforming an organization. It is about transforming a life, a family and even a generation. Here is an account from Daisy, one of our students, who stood up to thank a group of donors recently.

“Hello, my name is Daisy and I am currently a sophomore at the University of Houston where I am working on a dual degree in psychology and nursing. I think we are all aware about the allegations a presidential candidate made about illegal immigrants, specifically those who come across the Mexican border. He said they brought drugs and crime. He also said, ‘I assume some are good people.’ I promise I am not going to get into politics. I just want to say that he is right… kind of!

My parents, both immigrants, represent both sides of his spectrum. My dad was the drug- dealing criminal one. My mom was the most hard-working and caring person I know. When I was in Pre-K, my dad decided to buy some property. Soon after the contract was made, he got arrested and eventually deported. So my mom was the one who had to carry that huge responsibility of fixing the property so we could live in it. She literally started from zero.

My mom raised us on her own and gave us a place to live. She was always so loving. She would wake up each morning to walk us to the bus stop, made sure we left, then walked to work. Monday through Sunday, rain or shine. Growing up with a single, immigrant parent was so hard. I mean, the struggles were so real.

I really never thought I was poor; I actually thought I was rich because we didn’t ask for much, yet we had a lot. Now that I look back, I can’t believe we survived. I know it kind of sounds like I’m just talking about my mom, but really, I can’t imagine being here without her. I always worked so hard in school to make my mom proud. They told me in high school that if I worked hard enough, others would help me pay for college.

Today, I am here to thank you personally. The amount of gratitude I feel inside can’t be expressed. I can stand here and thank you all night and it still won’t be enough. I don’t know if you all are aware of how much difference you are making in our lives.

I remember when I first met my sponsor, I felt so blessed. He told me how he put his grandchildren through college and how he was glad he had the opportunity to help someone else. I felt truly humbled that he was willing to invest his money in complete strangers just so they could have a chance at their dreams. We hear about people investing in stocks, markets, and various industries, but rarely strangers.

I remember how many things were going wrong my senior year in high school. A week before the deadline, I heard about the Rodeo Scholarship. I hadn’t done ANYTHING and there was so much mailing and paperwork to do. I remember having a hopeless feeling deep inside of me, but I then had a Bible verse in mind which states, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ I look back and I feel silly for feeling hopeless knowing that God is always with me and everything is possible through him.

Months after my application submission, I received an email notifying me that I was the only one in my school to be awarded this scholarship. And we’ll, here I am today.

This scholarship is not a gift. It is a loan, because just like you all are making this happen for me, sometime in the near future it will be my turn to pass this loan along to someone who needs it just as much as I did. So again, thank you so much and don’t ever think that your time and efforts are pointless, because every second and even the smallest task has a great significance for people like me.”

Daisy finished her story to find that everyone was up on their feet, every eye was wet with tears of pride, and every heart was touched by her humility.

Personally, I have been at both ends of this give-and-take relationship. I still remember the day when I signed the withdrawal application and took it to my department advisor because I lacked the funds to pay tuition. (My husband was too proud to take money from my father, and no loans were available for international students). But a scholarship from Purdue University kept me in school. The bittersweet memory of that difficult time was very much on our minds as my husband and I made an endowment donation to the University of Houston to fund scholarships. As Daisy suggested, a scholarship is not a gift, it is a loan and we take great satisfaction in being able to repay it in our own way.

I am blessed to be a connector of those in need and those with means. Over the years, I have also learned that blessed are those who receive, but even more blessed are those who give!

When she asked me about my “typical” day?

I was wrapping up my speech to a group of young professionals when a woman raised her hand but quickly brought it down as if unsure. I prompted her to ask the question anyway. She said, “What does your typical day at work look like?”

“Typical? There is nothing typical,” I said casually, but realized that it is one of my most frequently asked questions, so I should answer. After a longer than usual pause, I said, “Would you allow me to tell you about two typical days?” Her face lit up and I began…

A Day in October

It is a beautiful fall morning. I do my daily yoga routine and get ready to leave for office, having ignored the pleading eyes of my dog to accompany me. I arrive for a 7:45 meeting at the university restaurant with a potential donor. Everything on the menu tempts me, but I end up ordering a bowl of berries – they are easy to eat when you have to listen carefully for the words that arent being said. Finding out about a donor’s true passion is the key to successful fundraising.

I arrive in my office by 9 a.m. for an audit briefing and then two more meetings after that – one to sign off on a $62 million construction project and the other to discuss system level issues with university presidents. I walk up to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea and when I come back, one of my vice president’s is awaiting at the door to update me on something “real quick.” That two-minute “real quick” meeting ends up lasting for 45 minutes!

Meanwhile, two calls have come in, one of which seems rather urgent so I dial it on my cellphone while walking toward the library for the next meeting. The call is a complaint about the quality of food at our stadium’s concession stand. “You have got to be kidding me!” I say to myself, but because the call is from a very important person, I listen patiently and promise over and over again to take care of it right away.

All too soon, it is 12:15 p.m. and the Faculty Senate is in session. I am on the agenda to give a report, which I do, followed by a couple of questions from the floor. I stay for a while and enjoy listening to passionate arguments against an issue that has already been decided by the state legislature. But I am grateful for their insight because I know it will help us frame the implementation.

Back in the office, I grab a cup of soup and stick it in the microwave. During those few minutes while the microwave clock is winding down, I chat with whoever is in the kitchen. I am back in office for a meeting with the leaders of Student Government Association. Their agenda is long, but superbly organized and efficient. It is a joy to watch the next generation of leadership in the making.

I am eager to spend an hour of desk time, as clearly noted on my calendar from 3 to 4 p.m. But after only five minutes, one of the university attorneys walks in with a “for your information only” matter that turns into a 30-minute detailed discussion about how, why and what. I am grateful for the early alert.

I return the second phone call from the morning and make another one to a Board of Regents member on a pending issue. It is almost time to head to the academic building to offer greetings to 500 people assembled for a talk on energy. I quickly scan through the bio of the speaker, take a deep breath, and walk toward the podium to do my part.

At 5:30 p.m., I get in car to go home where 80-plus athletics boosters have been invited. Thanks to our wonderful staff, I can just walk in and play hostess. I give an update about the university, turn the program over to my vice president then hop in the car again for one final stop, a fund-raising dinner for one of our colleges where I need to make a few remarks before I can have my dinner.

I come back home around 10 p.m. and review the agenda for the next day before hitting the bed at 11:30 p.m. to fall asleep instantly.

If the day sounds like one made for the Energizer Bunny, it probably is. From September to May, with our university operating at full speed, it is all about stamina. There is precious little time for long-term, strategic thinking because the day is carved out in 30-minute slots. But then there’s …

A day in June

It is a hot and humid summer day. Now that the sun rises early, I am able to let my dog take me for a walk before getting to the office. I arrive at 8:15 a.m. and spend 30 minutes organizing papers and then walk in to the board room. Two flip charts are arranged on both sides of the table for this brainstorming session with vice presidents. The question of the day is, “What is a game changer for the University of Houston?” There are no passes. Everyone is forced to chime in and offer his or her best, brightest, and often crazy ideas. Once the list is exhaustive, we begin to pick apart each idea by looking at its feasibility, desirability and transformative impact. Finally, we vote and settle on our top three ideas before ending the meeting at noon.

I decide to have lunch in the student dining hall and then take an unscheduled tour of engineering building under construction. It is terribly hot, but I need to get out and feel the air. On my way back, I stop at the bookstore and casually chat with students enrolled in the summer session.

At 1:30 p.m., I leave for home where my long dining table is cluttered with papers left from the previous night with a warning sign, Do not touch. These papers include budget requests, performance numbers, tables and charts. Among them are also stacks of white papers and proposals. I make a cup of hot tea (yes, I survive on tea!) and pick up highlighters in yellow and pink colors.

I walk around the table and search for answers, but there are none to be found. “Why is the retention not better for low income students who are on full tuition waiver?” The figures puzzle me, so I make two calls to my contacts in other universities hoping to get to the bottom of the issue. One of my colleagues gives me the name of an industry expert, and I immediately call her. She promises to send me some material, and I offer to host her at a football game if she visits Houston.

I pick up a book from the small table nearby and for the next two hours, read the case study from a university where retention rates have dramatically jumped in recent years. I make a list of questions I should be asking our staff.

It is 6 p.m. and I feel like I should cook a good Indian dinner for my husband tonight, but the phone rings and our friends want to know if we care to try this new “hole-in-the-wall” ethnic restaurant. We agree and take our own bottle of wine that costs three times as much as the dinner itself.

Even though I want to go to bed early, I decide to check my email just one last time. I see that a colleague of mine has sent me several articles on university-led innovation centers and their impact on a city’s economy. I get engrossed and before I realize, it is midnight.

If that sounds like a day made for a graduate student, it probably is. Trained as a policy analyst, I relish delving into issues myself and coming up with strategies. This day has been all about strategy and such days last from June through August.

Two days, two lives! One is about strategy, the other about stamina. One feeds my scholarly spirit; the other keeps me close to the people I serve. I cherish both, and I have come to know that both are needed to lead the institution effectively.

From avoiding to dancing in one week…

I met her at Cougar Village, one of the residence halls at the University of Houston, four days prior to the beginning of the new academic year. Accompanied by her mother, sister and a cousin, she seemed unusually shy for an 18-year old freshman. I had gone to Cougar Village to help students move in, a ritual hundreds of staff and faculty members do at the beginning of each year.

As I got out of my car, I saw several volunteers, all dressed in red, waiting outside the residence hall under a temporary white tent in the late morning drizzle. The place was filled with luggage carts and water coolers. A rickshaw carrying two people pedaled by with a sign offering a “Free Ride.” Welcome banners were hanging everywhere, and some upbeat pop music was filling the air with excitement.

Overall, it felt festive and fun.

I shook hands with the volunteers, thanked them for their service, commented on their rain ponchos and stood by the doorway. “It is a little slow because of the rain, but you should have seen it yesterday,” said one of the many volunteers who were understandably full of pride for their contribution. Two cars and an SUV drove in. Driver of the first car popped open the trunk. Before the driver could even walk around to the trunk, volunteers had cleared the trunk and loaded the luggage in a moving cart—a bean bag, a suitcase, a guitar, a bag full of shoes, a cube filled with wires and CDs, a pillow, a wooden bookcase, a large picture frame and two dozen hangers with clothes. One volunteer shook hands with the student, another one handed every family member bottles of cold water and with the greetings of “Welcome to the University of Houston! Welcome to Cougar Village!” everyone proceeded toward the entrance.

Welcome Party

Welcoming Team of RAs from Cougar Village II

At that point, one of the volunteers shouted, “Here comes Erin” and a chorus of cheers and claps erupted from the welcome team standing just inside the door with banners and posters. Blushing, Erin’s face turned red – and not to match all the Cougar red around her. Within minutes, Erin was checked in and her luggage was delivered to her room. Half an hour later, Erin’s family came down the elevator and her mom walked straight up to me saying, “This is not the UH I remember. Wow! This is amazing.” We talked for about five minutes, and I said a few things directly to Erin to which she shook her head, but did not say anything. She was even avoiding an eye contact. She was either shy or uncomfortable – possibly both.

IMG_0065

The Cat’s Back organized by Student Affairs

I happened to run into Erin again on Monday, the first day of classes. Our Staff Council organizes Cougar First Impression (CFI) on the first two days of classes, providing cool water and much needed help to students. Erin was standing under one of our temporary CFI tents in front of the library asking directions. I had come to thank the volunteers for standing under the hot afternoon sun with the temperature feeling like 106 degrees. After answering her question, the CFI volunteer handed Erin some UH goodies. At the very next tent, someone handed her an ice cream that melted away the anxieties. I saw Erin give a polite smile.

IMG_0064

Simon Bott’s Chemistry, one of the classrooms I visited

What a coincidence that I spotted Erin again two days later in the hallway of a classroom building. She was late and rushed in to find a seat. I had come to the class to personally greet students and tell them that the university was committed to one and only one goal, i.e., their learning. At the beginning of my remarks, I tossed some personalized t-shirts to the students. Most raised their hands eagerly to grab a shirt, as did Erin although there was hesitation in her movement. She was still feeling the strangeness of the new environment. At the end of my remarks, I offered students my email address and told them they could write to me if they ever had an issue that they could not resolve on their own. In all, I made 28 classroom visits in two days to make sure that I reached out to every new student in an intimate setting.

The next day was our big event, The Cat’s Back, a celebration filled with fun, food, free t-shirts and lots of prizes. More than 500 student clubs set up booths with information to inform new students of their activities. Although I was not looking for Erin, my eyes spotted her again in front of Women in Business table. By now, she was with two other students and they were chatting away, eating hot dogs.

On Friday, I was coming out of a lunch meeting when I saw a long line of waiting students across the street in front of the Student Center. Out of curiosity, I decided to walk over. “What’s up?” I asked the waiting students.

“Free t-shirts and Ice Cones!” The student at the front of line said with excitement.

“The line is too long. How long have you been waiting?”

“Half an hour, but I don’t mind. Can I get a photo with you?” She asked as if she knew the answer would be yes.

“Of course, you can.” I posed for her selfie, which she posted on Instagram instantly. Others followed suit. Thirty photos later, I started to leave when I saw Erin again. She was a little behind in line, but was waving her phone. I walked over and asked, “Is everything all right? How was the first week?”

“Oh, my God… Oh my God,” she said, “this is the best school ever. I love everything here. My dad wanted me to go to ____ but I wanted to come to UH. I knew I was right, I knew I was right. Thank you for everything. I love my classes, and I love you too.” This was our first real conversation, and she was literally dancing with excitement.

What a transformation in one week! Erin was over her apparent anxieties and ready to learn. This is what Making a Good First Impression is all about, I believe. It can be critical in defining the success of a project or partnership. First impression, however unintentional or seemingly benign, gets imprinted in our memory. It becomes a screen through which later information gets filtered and used. Yes, it may take some effort on our part to create one, but creating a bad one has a much bigger cost.

I thank our faculty, staff, and students for volunteering their time and giving our 42,000 students—12,000 of them new—a good first impression so they could take pride in their school, in their learning, and consequently, in their own potential.

[Name and some circumstances have been changed to protect identity.  All photos are from my IPhone]

Uniquely American: College Athletics

Many foreign delegations visit our university each year and almost always, the topic of college sports, particularly, American football, comes up.  They walk in to my office, notice signed footballs and basketballs, helmets and trophies and bring up the topic before leaving the office.  Our friends are intrigued, amazed and confused about our obsession with college sports. Many have studied in America and have experienced the craze first-hand, but they want to know my views as an administrator. They ask:

Don’t you find it difficult to manage sports?

Do your faculty support it?

It has to be distracting. Isn’t it?

They know that I studied in India and therefore would understand where they are coming from.  I always smile and tell them the truth. Yes, it does take a lot of my time. And yes, it can have a life of its own. And yes, it can feel distracting sometimes.  But, no, I will not have it any other way.

Then I go on and explain to them two fundamental points.  One, student athletes do get an opportunity to get a great education, but more importantly, they get an opportunity to learn life skills, like leadership and teamwork.  I have personally seen the transformation in young athletes.  When done right, the experience of being a student athlete can be one of the most transformative experiences in life.

Secondly, I tell them that college sports engage students, alumni, and communities like very few things can. When we search for coach or athletic director, everyone knows about it and has an opinion about who should be hired.  During the football season, I cannot go anywhere in town without people stopping me and giving me an expert analysis of our performance.

If teams are doing well, I get all the undeserved credit as if I am the one coaching them.  And if the season is rough, I get bombarded with email and social media advice.  Over the years, I have received some interesting suggestions, of which my favorite ones are:

“Fire the coach, fire the AD, and while you are at it, fire yourself.”

If you don’t fire the coach, I will never give another dime again.” (We are still searching our database for the first dime he claims to have given.)

“If you don’t fire the coach, you will be personally responsible for my death.”

These are not the usual feelings, but I will take negative feelings over no feelings at all. As long as alumni are engaged, they care, and as long as they care, there is a chance that they will find positive engagement with some part of the university.

I know that the world of college sports is getting financially and administratively challenging.  Many institutions are questioning the value of having a major sports program at all. Some of them may decide not to have one in future.

Phi Slama Jama

Phi Slama Jama

For the University of Houston, we find a historical need and a valuable impact of college sports on educational experience. Our alumni are still inspired by the magic of Phi Slama Jama, the glitter of Olympic gold decorating Carl Lewis, and the weight of Heisman Trophy in the hands of Andre Ware. They are part of our tradition but they are also part of our identity and pride.

Legendary Coach Lewis

Legendary Coach Lewis

 

We cherish our student athletes and will keep on working hard to make it a positive learning environment for them. We also treasure our alumni and will continue to find ways to make them proud of their university.

 

 

Oooops…I lost track of time. It is time for me to take our delegation members to the baseball game. Go Coogs!

 

Let’s change our attitude…

[Below is a piece by me recently published in the most recent issue of Presidential Perspectives]

Although it has been nearly a half century since Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock warned us about being under-prepared and overwhelmed by “too much change in too short a period of time,” that cautionary advice remains useful and instructional, especially in our field of higher education. To revise philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation about the past, those who do not create the future are doomed to resent it.

Clearly, disruptive transformations are already underway or looming on the near horizon – a few seem to be fairly predictable, but many (by their very nature) are not. Our academic journals and scholarly publications have been filled with the challenges that currently confront higher education. There is no need to belabor them in detail. It is a litany that most of us know too well:

  • Rising tuition costs, significant student debt and declining government support
  • The growing impact of MOOCs and other technological advances on traditional educational models, offering the apparent advantages of low-cost delivery but (so far) lacking any widespread validation through measurement of learning
  • Increased scrutiny and demands from the public and policymakers about graduation rates, economic outcomes of our students and the mismatch of degrees and actual skill sets needed for employment
  • Expanding globalization that exacerbates the market demand for intellectual resources (faculty and researchers) while the supply side is lagging

As we grapple with these transformational factors, it is difficult to know how best to react. Race ahead and confront them aggressively? Wait for the smoke to clear and proceed cautiously? Succumb to paralysis by analysis?

While we are optimistically reminded that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of the two ideograms “danger” and “opportunity,” it is the positive side of human nature that encourages us to focus on the latter and downplay the former. But, in truth, they are equally pertinent when it comes to the future of higher education. These are exciting times, but they are also unsettling times. I cannot casually declare that every one of these problems before us can be solved at our respective institutions by keen analysis, dedicated leadership and a slew of highly paid outside consultants.

Some – possibly many – of these gathering clouds are going to rain down on us and most of us will be getting wet, to one degree or another. Clayton Christensen, the noted Harvard Business School professor credited with popularizing the notion of “disruptive innovation/technologies,” has dramatically projected that in the next five years higher education will be in “real trouble” and within the next 15 years, more than half of our American universities will be facing bankruptcy.

Unduly pessimistic? Even alarmist? Quite possibly. And there is always the possibility that we may be placing too much emphasis on Professor Christensen’s “disruptive” predictions. Then again, it is difficult for anyone to present a convincing case that higher education is well positioned to face the disruptive challenges that are at its gates. Many of us in leadership have, I suspect, quietly wondered in our darker moments if we are now selling the educational equivalent of buggy whips?

I would like to offer a modest shift in our mindset that can serve us well during this period of higher anxiety in higher education. If it is not a solution, but it can serve as a remedy and help insulate us from that future shock of mounting challenges, escalating changes and sweeping transformations.

No, it is not a novel way to generate additional revenues, or a startling procedure to improve graduation rates by 20 percent in a single semester. It is an adjustment in attitude.

Can we adjust our attitude in a way that will help us become more innovative?

I sincerely believe that we can. Further, I would suggest that attitude may be one of the most valuable tools with which we have to work. Our attitude plays a significant role in determining how we react, how we respond and, ultimately, whether we prevail.

Let me begin by pointing out what our attitude should NOT be – that is, four possible reactions that I have observed in too many of my colleagues (and, occasionally, in myself) when it comes to these challenges:

  1. Ignorance – This is exemplified in the phrase “When did that happen!?” It is rooted in the premise that everything is moving too fast now, and it’s all too complicated to deal with. Yes, it is fast and complicated. But we are smart and resourceful. If we are unaware of these things, it is because we choose to be. Let’s keep up
  2. Arrogance – “We have been doing this our way a long time, and we know best.” It is the very nature of disruptive innovation that not only do we NOT know best, we likely don’t know at all until it happens. Let’s keep that in mind.
  3. Victimization – “Why are they doing this to us?” This is not paranoia – these transformations are not imagined – but they are not personal and hand-wringing won’t change them. Let’s keep our perspective.
  4. Panic – “We HAVE to do something! Anything! And quickly!” Unfortunately, the “something” often turns out to be building another climbing wall in the Rec Center or adding a degree in Game of Thrones that students can earn on their smart phones. Let’s keep calm.

Those are exaggerations, of course. But they do reflect the potential pitfalls awaiting us when we under- or over-react.

Instead, we must move toward a higher-education version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s celebrated “Serenity Prayer.” In our case, the revised mantra might be:

Grant us the serenity to accept the disruptions we cannot change,
The courage to improve the things that we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

That will provide the stability to endure what must be endured and, when necessary, the impetus to move ahead with conviction and creativity.

The good news underlying all this apprehension about changes and transformation is that none of these issues – current or predicted – appears to find serious fault with the intrinsic value of higher education. Instead, these are shortcomings of the delivery system, cost of the business model, pedagogical method, output and outcomes. In that respect, it is not the noun higher education that is under fire but the verb – how we are educating.

So, as we confidently recite our Serenity Prayer and move forward, what direction do we head?
I believe our core mission should serve as the guiding light.

Make no mistake, the core mission is not what we would like to do or even what we hope to become. The core mission is what we are obligated to do to remain relevant to the community and our stakeholders, whether that is developing a workforce, creating intellectual capital, engaging with the community directly or any of the various combinations of those enterprises.

Today, we have about 5,000 institutions of higher learning and, in my experience, far too many of them are ambitiously envisioning a different future than their current reality. Two-year community colleges want to become degree-granting four-year schools. Four-year schools want to add graduate programs. Teaching-based colleges want to expand into research institutions. Research institutions are striving to achieve Tier One status. Basically, who we want to be appears to be different than who we are. This continuing and widespread drift away from the core mission is troubling. Clearly, a university cannot be all things to all people, but many continue to try.

We must always take a long, hard look at what we are doing and evaluate what our real-world options are, but we must do so while remaining totally committed to the core mission. That commitment is not an excuse to avoid changing. The core mission remains constant, but the manner and methods we use to achieve it may change.

Change is the one constant in this equation. No one is entirely sure what these changes will be and what they will bring. But one thing feels certain – higher education tomorrow will not look like it does today. As educators and leaders, we have an obligation to be as effective as we can be right now, but we have an even greater responsibility to look ahead and be prepared. So, it is absolutely crucial for an institution to know, first, what its core mission is and, second, what its particular value is within the overall educational framework. Those who do will persevere. But if the answer to either question is not crystal clear, it will take much more than an attitude change to help.

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!)

Welcome home…to your dorm!

Last week was full of nervous anticipation. It was the final week of summer break and I knew that the campus would soon be buzzing with the energy of 40,000 students, with 8,000 of them living on campus. I had visited Cougar Village II on Friday and it still looked like a hard hat area. Carpets were being installed, doors and windows were being fixed and large areas were plastered with construction paper.

“Are you sure this place will be ready for move-in?” I asked my vice president. “We cannot afford to NOT open it on time.”

“Don’t worry,” I was told.  “We are on schedule.” I knew that might be an overly optimistic promise.

Last Thursday was the move-in day, and I decided to check out Cougar Village II. As I approached the area, I could hear loud music with a DJ playing the latest hits.  Soon, a gray station wagon pulled in and 3-4 volunteers wearing red shirts descended on it. The driver (mom) popped open the trunk and before any of the passengers could get out of the car, the contents from the trunk had been transferred to a waiting trolley. The president of the Faculty Senate greeted the family, shook hands with the student and began to push the trolley toward the front door. Still in shock, the family walked behind the trolley, only to be greeted by another group of volunteers giving them high-fives and “Welcome Home!” cheers.  Beaming with joy, the family walked in to the lobby where they were quickly led to the elevators.

No wait, no papers, no signing.  It was truly like coming home!

I noticed that in 1Fall_2013_Move_In_057-2724557412-O0 minutes, the family was down again, this time with water bottles and maps in their hands. I walked over to them to introduce myself and to asked them if everything was okay.

“Okay? Oh my gosh! We have never seen anything like this before,” said the dad, shaking his head in disbelief.  “We moved our other son to ______ and it was not half as nice.  You guys are the tops.”

“I am so jealous of Georgie. I want to come back to school,” said the sister who had graduated 6 years ago from UH.

I turned to the student and asked, “Are you happy? Do you like your suite?”

“I love it. I really do.”

“I am happy for you, I said, “But do you know what will make me even happier? It is the honor of shaking your hand when you walk across the stage with your degree.”  I told his parents, “Thank you for trusting us.  We will take good care of him.” They thanked me in return.

This same scene and the same conversation got repeated over and over again during the next two hours that I spent at Cougar Village II.

I was amazed that the building was finished, but I was more amazed that overnight, these staff and student volunteers had made it homey.  No amount of training could have ever taught them the passion needed to do that. It was their love for the school and dedication to new students that was on display. Thank you student volunteers, particularly Roxie, Patrick, Rima, Jonathan, Geordie, and Tanzeem. (Yes, I read your name tags!).  You all are an awesome team!

I left the campus that day reassured that the campus culture is definitely undergoing an important change, and this transformation had already taken deep roots.

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