Last week, I tweeted looking for advice on how best to understand UCF and the UCF experience. I wanted suggestions about places I should visit and people I should meet. When prompted for a little more information from one of my followers, I explained that I was trying to understand the soul of UCF—what the institution is all about. What it is at its core. Silence followed. Twitter was probably not the best vehicle for trying to communicate such a complex idea.
As a manager, it is important that I understand how the institution looks by the numbers. I believe in the old saying that “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed.” But as a leader looking to motivate people and take the institution to the next level, I know inspiration won’t be found in the numbers. I need to understand how to speak to the institution’s soul. So let me take a slightly different approach. ….
My undergraduate institution is all about greatness: in the classroom, on the football field and in life. The first question I got from a fellow student when I got to Michigan was “What was your SAT Score?” People in Ann Arbor have an edge. They push and expect you to push back. If you don’t, you are viewed as a light weight. They believe college football was invented at the Big House and that all good things come in maize and blue. Maize, by the way, is a more arrogant version of yellow. Everybody at UM believes they are special and that are going to be (or already are) famous. Think Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) or Jim Rome (have a take and don’t suck). To be successful at Michigan you had to speak with authority bordering on audacity and grab people’s attention with very big ideas.
LSU, the place where I got my first taste of higher education administration had a bit of chip on its shoulder. It rightly believed it didn’t get enough credit from outsiders; that it was better than people believed and that its image problem came from being in a relatively poor state. The citizens of Louisiana were fiercely loyal to LSU, more so than any other place I have been, but thought they couldn’t afford to financially support the institution to the degree it deserved. To wit, there was something called “LSU Nice”—a back-handed complement that meant that although a physical environment might not be posh by objective standards, that it was nice by LSU standards. Think Rodney Dangerfield or maybe Norma Rae. To be successful at LSU you had to promote institutional self-esteem by regularly highlighting faculty, student and staff achievements that were on a par with those at aspirant institutions.
Kentucky was about upward social mobility. The President of UK regularly spoke about “the Kentucky uglies”: the state population’s high rates of diabetes, lung cancer, illiteracy and poverty. Investing in UK and increasing the number of Kentuckians earning a degree was seen as a way to solve the state’s problems and give more people a better life. The campus is beautiful. People who visit are pleasantly surprised by both the physical surroundings and the friendliness of the people. Civility is expected, activism encouraged. Think Ashley Judd or George Clooney. A polite sense of urgency coupled with constructive feedback went a long way there.
My most recent stop, UNLV, was a young woman growing up in a working class neighborhood not far from the Strip. It was looking to make an academic splash in a city dominated by neon, cash and sin. UNLV started out as “tumbleweed tech” and was trying to become a major research university. The reviews weren’t always good and sometimes the harsh commentary shook the confidence of those trying to make the transition to adulthood and stardom. Think Spiderman’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson. To be successful at UNLV, you had to reassure people that the dream was possible, that there was no turning back despite self-doubt and that you were going to support them through the transition. Efforts to promote self-efficacy were especially important.
So, if you had to describe UCF as a person, who would it be? What characteristics are most salient and how could I best motivate the place to reach its potential? Tweet me the name along with a brief description of the characteristics UCF and the person share. Just please don’t tell me we are Sybil.