We just became a better University

The announcement that UCF is joining the BIG 12 is big news. It will be seen by many as an indication the university is on the rise — that it deserves to compete with a more prominent set of universities.

I am a fan of the saying that you are the average of the five people you hang out with the most. Maybe that is true for universities, too. If so, the value of your degree just went up. Maybe you should start hanging out with a new group of people, too.

Labor Day 2021

Labor Day 2021 looks too much like Labor Day 2020. The virus still dominates the news and our collective psyche. People differ on the proper response, but there seems to be growing recognition that we are going to have to learn to live with COVID for a while, maybe years.

Because Labor Day 2021 looks much like Labor Day 2020 my blog post today might seem redundant, but I don’t think it’s any less timely.

I grew up in a working class family. I was the first person in my extended family to go to college. Other than my school teachers, I’m not sure I knew anybody who went to college. My grandmother and mom were determined that I would go to college. They believed it would give me a better life. I’m also certain they hoped it wouldn’t give me a sense of privilege. I’ve always tried to live up to that.

If ever there were two years to celebrate Labor Day as a thank you to the American worker in recognition for what they do, rather than as an excuse to have a picnic, it would be these two years. While many privileged folks like us sheltered at home in endless Zoom meetings followed by Netflix marathons, food processing employees, truck drivers and grocery store workers went to their jobs, braved the virus and made sure everyone could buy food. Housekeeping personnel made sure workplaces were disinfected. Police and firefighters kept doing their jobs. And hospital employees stood on the front lines to take care of their patients. To name just a few. Our worlds remained shockingly normal because of their courage in the face of the unknown. This work wasn’t just honorable, it was vital.

Many of those Publix, Orlando Health, and UCF housekeeping personnel send their kids to UCF for exactly the same reason my parents sent me off to College. They don’t send them off to zoom. If you doubt that the vast majority of our students crave a traditional college experience you should have seen the level of activity in the college this week and student attendance at the football game on Thursday.

It is my great hope that we can open new doors for these first generation students without instilling a sense of entitlement, removing that working class courage out of them, or putting one type of work ahead of another. It is also my sincere hope that we can show them how to responsibly and effectively live, work and learn without needlessly endangering each other’s health in the process. We have all been asked to step up.

It is my sincere hope on this Labor Day, that we all dedicate ourselves to getting this job done.

Understanding that Strange Creature You Call Professor

I once had a business school colleague who wore Birkenstock sandals with black socks and shorts everyday to class. I had another who chain smoked, rarely made eye contact, and carefully scripted his lectures because he didn’t feel completely comfortable in front of groups.

If faculty seem like unusual creatures, maybe it is because we have such unusual expectations of them. Here’s the deal: You have six years to prove that you have many new interesting observations backed up by data that students want to hear, editors want to publish and colleagues want to read so that they can learn from you. There are only two outcomes after six years: unemployment or promotion with a job for life. If you make the first cut, we are going to ask you to be even more interesting and secure a national reputation. If you achieve this distinction, we promote you again. By the way, the average project takes more than two years to complete. Eighty-five to 90 percent of papers professors submit for publication are rejected. Students expect you to be on the top of your game every class. If you need help, call. Otherwise get busy. Time is ticking.

That is your professor’s world and understanding it can help you get the most out of your time at UCF. Faculty are professional learners. It is what motivates them and it is what they value most in others. This distinction is not meant to excuse poor classroom performance, but if you want to impress a professor, demonstrate that you are eager to learn — a process where you are an active partner in discovery rather than expecting them to “teach.” It is a subtle distinction but an important one. Faculty hate it when they believe they are “spoon-feeding” students — pouring information into passive, empty heads. Questions like “Is this going to be on the test?” drive them insane. Ask it and they will dismiss you as a lazy student not worthy of their time.

Time is a faculty member’s most valuable asset. A professor has just six years to make a name in a world that is hard to impress. That includes the time they are in class with you. Students are a professor’s legacy. The more successful students a professor has the better their reputation. But class time is short, and by necessity, focuses on the things that matter most to student success. Not everything a faculty member says is golden, but the answer to the question, “Did I miss anything important when I skipped class?” — will always be yes.

So now you’re thinking maybe the best strategy is to hide in the back and try not to say the wrong thing. A popular but bad idea. You came here to learn, and the best education happens in those moments you get to sit on a log with a professor and talk one-on-one. So go to office hours, especially when it is not right before a test or assignment is due. Getting to know a professor is a bit like being on a blind date — prepare, ask good questions and listen. The best professors I had gave me new perspectives that changed the way I viewed the world. They devoted their lives to the study of a subject they believed was important and wanted to share their insights with anyone who would strike up a conversation. In sharing their ideas, they hoped to change the world. It should not surprise us that unique perspectives come from unique individuals. You don’t have to wear Birkenstocks, or chain-smoke. Just engage, appreciate the insight and put it to good use.

Engagement Might Be At an All-Time High

The start of a semester can be deceiving. There is an energy level in the first couple of weeks that rarely sustains itself throughout the semester as the newness of the school year wears off and the reality of the hard work that lies ahead sets in.

That said, I thought this week might be the most engaging I have witnessed in my nine years as dean. Faculty were glad to be back on campus. Students were filling classrooms and engaging in chatter. Civility reigned.

Welcome to the Majors was especially well attended, and students seemed more receptive to our messages than in past years. The college’s Outreach & Engagement team did its usual stellar job in pulling off multiple events in the same week, and students got the opportunity to connect with the resources they need to succeed here.

All told, I thought the college shined. Thanks to all of you for engaging in the current “new normal.” Let’s hope we can get back to something even more normal soon. In the interim, let’s do what we can to make sure that we can continue to learn and grow together throughout the fall semester while keeping the virus away.

Charge On.

Welcome Back

It has been almost 18 months since we have had all our students back in the building.

Everyone is both excited and nervous. Excited because learning is a social exercise. We learn best from each other. Business is also inherently social. It’s about building relationships and delivering on promises so that those relationships continue to flourish.

Nervous because we are all being asked to learn to live with a virus that stubbornly refuses to go away and has learned to spread more quickly. Not everyone agrees on the best response to this surge, but everyone in the building today chose being here over staying away.

I ask that each of you do what will best promote learning and build relationships while you are in the building so that we can continue to engage in these social activities we all value and move forward.

Welcome back. Let’s all work together to make sure we get to stay.

Standing with Your People

This week might be the most important week I have ever had with my colleagues in the business school. It has been 17 months since we have been together in anything like a face-to-face meeting and 70,000 students are about to descend on us. Starting today, I have face-to-face meetings with new faculty, senior faculty and all faculty.

They are going to have more questions than I will have answers. Virus questions, class management questions, budget questions, staff questions, questions about our new President, questions about the college’s strategy going forward, questions about where they can get help and questions about why they must come to work. Those are the most obvious; I’m sure there will be others.

The most important thing I can tell them is that I will stand with them. I’ll be visiting some classes to welcome students back, observing what is going on in our REAL courses and trying to learn more about what they are going through so we can respond better to their needs. It won’t be perfect, but the plan is to learn so we can get better each day and week.

I suspect managers at grocery stores and other essential services learned these lessons more than a year ago. It is our turn to learn how to do the good work of the college, engage our students on campus and keep moving forward.

The Return to a Full Campus

Faculty return to campus today and students start classes on the 23rd. The fall 2021 schedule looks like the fall 2019 schedule, meaning campus will look like it’s pre-COVID self. Everybody has an expectation, a plan of sorts, on how they want this to go.

The problem is that things don’t go according to plan. They never do. Sometimes the deviation is minor, sometimes it is major. But the key point is that the world really isn’t interested in your plan, it has its own ideas. The best any of us can do is graciously adjust to what is thrown at us.

Universities are the guardians of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness. They are meant to be places where truth matters, civility reigns and it is safe for people to disagree. As faculty, we have a special obligation in these unsettling times to uphold these values and ensure that science, civility and reason prevail. Try to meet fear with reassurance, frustration with patience and irresponsibility with accountability.

This is perhaps our most teachable moment. Let’s all rise to the occasion.

There is much to do

Saturday is summer graduation. It is a completely different job market than a year ago and many students are leaving with a job in hand. Employers need people because there is so much to do. Supply chains need rebuilding, people need to be reintegrated into the workplace, consumer demand is shifting from goods to experiences, the virus is mutating, and building a more just society is on the front burner. This is just to name a few things on the “to do” list. It has been a while (maybe since the 1960s) that we have had so much going on all at once.

I told you when you first came to the College that we are about doing, not being. Being is a form of identity “I am a finance major”, but that doesn’t really get anything done. Employers pay to get things done, to solve problems and make the world a better place.

Opportunity abounds at the moment. There is no excuse for inaction. Go out there and get important things done. We are depending on you.

Why Do We Have to Do This?

Guest Post by Lonny Butcher

Lonny sent this as an email to his TA’s to help them understand how to answer the question he gets most often. It’s a good read..

This is probably the question I’ve answered most over the last 7 years. Why? You’d think it’d be “how,” but it’s not.

The today, I saw this article: LinkedIn Asked People to Give Advice to Their 20-Year-Old Self. The Same Lesson Came Up Again and Again | Inc.com.

To summarize the article, the most frequent answer given to LinkedIn’s question was some version of don’t be in a rush to find the perfect job. You’d think this answer flies in the face of what we are asking students to do in the career classes (set a goal, execute an action plan, graduate with a job), but what we are asking our students to do FITS PERFECTLY with this advice.

The article essentially says that deliberating and researching endlessly is what’s pointless. You need to take action. Get out there. Work. Succeed. Fail. Learn. Well, that’s EXACTLY what we’re asking students to do through the Career Cycle and Career To-DO List assignment. Alex even says in the Career Cycle that students can “over-rely” on self-assessments and secondary research.

But, in the same way that endless deliberation to identify the perfect job is wrong, so is just mindlessly jumping in. We just ask students to do the exploration BEFORE rather than AFTER graduating. Why? Simple, people find students way more interesting to help than other unemployed-underemployed young people. If they mess up now (do an internship they don’t like, find out they don’t like the people who work at a company or in an industry, realize the major they thought they needed isn’t necessary or interesting…) they are in a relatively safe place to recover.

So, the next time you’re posed with a “why” question instead of a “how” question, keep this article in mind. We do these classes this way because we don’t want their future self to come back and say, “You had a chance to do something about it, you just chose not to!”

I would only add that your first professional job will not be your dream job. If it is, you didn’t have much of a career. That first job does however put you on a path that will close some doors and open others. You need to think about that, but the only way to get to your dream job is to start down the path. Procrastinating or being unwilling to do the hard things to get there, and there will be hard things, only keeps you from finding out what that dream job really is and where on your path it is hiding.

The Cost of Mediocre Experiences

One of the most popular shows when I was growing up was the Andy Griffith show. It was set in the small town of Mayberry. Andy was the Sheriff. The show was a comedy about the interconnected lives of colorful characters living in a small town where everybody knew everybody. In Mayberry you couldn’t separate the service you were receiving from the person providing it. This would lead to guys sitting at Floyd’s barbershop or Emmitts “fix it shop” not because they needed the service, but because they just wanted to chat with the owner. Or, Juanita at the Bluebird Diner knowing what you wanted to order when you sat down.

I grew up in that same small town. The show resonated with me. Very few encounters in my youth were purely transactional, they were personal. Daily interaction with the same service workers was part of the experience of living in a small town whether it was Mayberry NC, Norway MI, or McConnelsville OH.

Mayberry was on my mind last week when Dean Wang from the Rosen College and I visited GRUBRR. GRUBRR manufactures and services the next generation of food kiosks —the type you see in fast food restaurants. At GRUBRR the restaurant of the future doesn’t have any cashiers or people taking your order and the food is delivered to you without you having to interact with anyone. GRUBRR is growing by leaps and bounds, accelerated by the health concerns of people coming out of a pandemic and a recovering economy where it’s hard to find people willing to take these front end service jobs.

But at the heart of GRUBRR is a mediocre transactional experience of the kind that is far too common today. Computer scientists are busy taking the people out of these transactional encounters. They have rightly perceived that the service worker is at best irrelevant in such settings and at worst a source of error. As a result, in the words of Nick Riggle (a guest speaker of ours a few years back) there are no social openings in GRUBRR’s restaurant of the future, no chance to be awesome or have an awesome experience.

And that frankly is their vulnerability. Mayberry is not coming back and mediocre service interactions of all sorts, including in education, will continue to fall victim to computer scientists. The trick to remaining relevant and flourishing in this evolving world is to use the information you can collect through the new technology to know your customers better, provide that information to your front end service people (like professors) and provide that personal service that Floyd or Juanita did. If the person can’t complement the technology, they will surely be replaced by it.