Grandma Susie’s Quilts

My grandmother Susie was an artist with fabric. She spent weeks crocheting blankets and making quilts. Those who understood such things told me her technique was quite extraordinary. The problem was her color schemes: Fuchsia and Orange; Olive and Blue. Perhaps it was that she had a limited budget and bought whatever fabric or yarn was on sale. Perhaps it was that she lived through the Great Depression and put practicality far ahead of aesthetics. Perhaps she was color blind. Certainly she was a little crazy. Whatever the reason, her color combinations were frighteningly bad. So bad that despite the technique and the love that went into them, her creations generally stayed in your closet only briefly seeing the light of day when she visited.

I have been thinking of grandma Susie these last few weeks because I have been working on a quilt of my own. This one will take about six months to complete and is made up of the views and opinions of the staff, faculty, students and stakeholders of the College. Each meeting and ensuing conversation represents a square. The squares are filled in by people who sit in very different kinds of places and see the College from very different vantage points. When I get them all done, about 300 in all, I will hang the quilt on the wall, step back and see what it reveals.

It is still early, the quilt only has a few rows. The individual squares have been beautiful: devotion to the college is high, almost everyone says it is a nice place to work, and people expect UCF to reach the next milestone. But grandma Susie’s individual squares were beautiful too. With a little more planning, coordination and definition they would have made exceptional quilts. Am I making one of grandma Susie’s quilts? We shall see….

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High Heels and Ivory Towers

I once had a student tell me that she had never been to career services because it was too far a walk in high heels. I had another student with a 750 GMAT. He was on full scholarship, slept in class every day, barely spoke, hardly bathed and aced every exam. My MBA Director cried every time she saw him, knowing she had no shot at helping him get a job. You can’t make this stuff up.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by Tim Sandoval on the suspect nature of many college’s job placement statistics. It is a tough job market. Colleges that claim high placement rates have an edge in attracting students vis-a-vis schools with less impressive numbers. The crux of the article is that many schools exaggerate their placement rate. Part of the issue is technical: students are more likely to respond to questions about post-graduation experiences if they are employed than unemployed. Since colleges typical report the results only from those students who responded to their survey, the employment numbers have an upward bias. The other part of the problem is that there are no commonly held standards on how to report such data: Schools consciously fudge.

The real problem runs much deeper: Universities everywhere have career service centers staffed by professionals sitting behind their desks waiting for that woman in heels to walk in and start her career exploration process. They are also waiting for that MBA student to show up properly attired at this year’s career fair with the right set of questions to ask the right set of employers. University administrators reason that centralized career services are the most efficient way to offer job search assistance and provide would-be employers with one-stop shopping for all of their human resource needs. They build impressive facilities to achieve this goal. The problem is: she’s not coming. She reckons that if this was really an important part of the college experience, there would be for-credit classes about it in the curriculum and faculty would take an interest in her career prospects. Since there isn’t—she will just wait until after she graduates to worry about it. That MBA student thinks his obvious genius will prevail. He really doesn’t need anyone’s help. He’s not coming either.

This situation persists because many faculty and administrators don’t really believe job placement is the goal of a college education. They are committed to providing the critical thinking and adaptive skills that will benefit people no matter what their chosen occupation or profession. Like my disheveled MBA student, they think genius will prevail. So, faculty see career services as “that place over there that can help you find a job if you can’t figure that out on your own.” Students, recognizing a bad sales pitch when they hear one, don’t go and don’t respond to surveys from strangers who played no role in their post-college employment success. A lack of commitment leads to faulty programming, backed up by faulty data collection.

We are not the Diesel Truck Driving School or Lynn’s School of Cosmetics and Hair Science. We are not in the business of supplying a well-defined set of employers with the human resources they need to perform very specific jobs. But it is the twenty-first century and most students have to work for a living before, during and after they leave here. And like it or not, most students do not have the polish to win high-paying jobs on their own. Waiting for them to recognize this and come to us, is a really bad strategy. Until faculty partner with career service professionals to develop a proactive, systematic program of curricular and co-curricular activities that prepare students to compete as professionals in today’s job market not much progress will be made. Most accounting departments get this. They tend to be the best at preparing their students for professional careers. Others need to take note.

The good news is that if you are a student who recognizes the need to invest in developing your professional demeanor and job search skills, there are many career services professionals just waiting for you to make an appointment. So put on some flats or a shirt and tie and make the walk over to career services starting in your freshmen year. If you start now, you can wear those heels (or clean shirt) with a smart looking suit the first day on your new job.

The Personality of the University

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.

Drinking Water from a Fire Hose

When you are brought in from the outside to lead an organization there is a lot to learn and little time to do it. Your honeymoon is short. Everybody is anxiously waiting to see what you will do. The longer it takes you to act, the more time for inertia to set in. So you need to prioritize quickly. Expect to put in lots of long hours trying to get up to speed. The challenge for a new leader is frequently likened to drinking water from a fire hose.

So for the next few months, I will be furiously drinking from that hose. I need to understand my colleagues: where we have consensus about our values, aspirations and strategies; where we disagree, and what needs to be done to build a credible vision for the future that will move us forward.

I need to understand how our external stakeholders view us, especially donors, the business community and governmental leaders: What they see as our strengths and weaknesses; what roles they think we can play in helping to build the central Florida economy; what they expect from UCF graduates; and what motivates them to participate in our endeavors.

I need to understand our alums. They are the legacy upon which we will build our future and an important asset for us in mentoring students, employing our graduates and projecting our brand. We need a vision they can rally behind and that will celebrate their success.

And I need to understand our students: how well they have been prepared for college; their professional goals and aspirations; what we need to do to put them in the best position to compete and where we are falling short of their expectations.

And finally from engaging with all of these different groups, I need to understand what defines the UCF experience; what makes us unique and how we can build on that uniqueness to provide a distinctive value proposition.

Yep, that’s a lot to do and I want to get it done in six months or less so that I can move from understanding to action. If it is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that drinking water from a fire hose is a lot harder to do when you are talking. So I plan on doing a lot of listening over the next few months. I will do plenty of talking later.