I lost a good friend and colleague when Dr. Nasser Daneshvary died unexpectedly of a heart attack last week. Nasser was a teacher, scholar, economist, former department chair, former associate dean, former associate provost, former chair of the faculty senate, director of the LIED Institute for Real Estate Studies and a rock star at rallies to support UNLV. He was by his own account a street-fighter and by my account an excellent cook. He loved Rennae. It is hard for me to imagine seeing Rennae without Nasser, they were a true couple–each others’ biggest fan.

Every university has a few people who by their sheer will and unique character imprint themselves on the institution. Nasser gave his full measure of devotion to UNLV. He was everywhere: in the classroom, newspaper, and journals, at every meeting of substance, and in the middle of every controversy. Like Madonna, he only needed a first name…if you said “Nasser” people knew who your were talking about. My guess is some folks didn’t even know his last name.

It was impossible to be indifferent toward Nasser. He wouldn’t let you. He scared some people, drove everyone nuts at one point or another, and was only underestimated by fools. I confess that Nasser was on my list of seven people of whom I would only meet with two on the same day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed meetings with Nasser, but conversations with him took a lot out of me. Meetings with Nasser were never light, airy affairs even when they involved liquor. He demanded your full attention.

My most memorable conversation with Nasser involved a discussion of the difference between being a “nice” and “good” guy. Nice guys, Nasser explained, tell people what they want to hear. Good guys tell people what they need to hear. Nice guys expect little of people. Good guys demand their best. Nice guys live by others’ values. Good guys live by their own values. Nice guys are liked. Good guys are respected. That discussion was meant to make me a better dean. I believe it did.

Nasser was kind. He held his friends close and would do anything he could for them. If he told you he would do something, it was money in the bank. He was one of my biggest supporters at UNLV and the only person who really understood Mike Clauretie. You couldn’t meet two more different people than Mike and Nasser, but they formed an effective professional partnership and personal friendship.

Nasser led a life of passion, not indifference. He changed an institution and left a legacy. It was a meaningful life lived on its own terms, without fear of failure. It was a life well lived. If you want to honor him, don’t send flowers: do something to make UNLV better.

I miss my friend Nasser. He was a good guy.

Re-Post Wednesday: You are Cute and Cuddly

It’s true. As a student, you are cute and cuddly. Everybody wants to help a deserving student looking to make a name for him or herself in the world. Think about it: People donate money for scholarships so that worthy students can realize their dreams. They volunteer to come speak to classes as a way of “giving back” to their community. And, who doesn’t find it flattering to be asked by some humble (not pushy) youngster to give them advice on how they can grow up to be just like you someday?

You need to take advantage of your cute and cuddliness now because it will not last forever. In fact, you stop being cute and cuddly the day you graduate. On that day, you become the competition. The number of people willing to provide you with their time and insight will drop dramatically. So, now is the time to start to develop your networking skills and execute a plan to meet the kinds of people who can provide you with good advice about how to jump-start your career. The earlier you develop this plan and the earlier you begin to execute it, the bigger the gains you will realize from it.

Fortunately, the College provides you with a variety of ways to connect with experienced people who can give you advice on what it is like to work in their profession, what choices they made that helped them along the way, how they learned from their mistakes and what you need to do now to be successful later. So, in developing and implementing your plan, some things to do include:

Get to know some of your professors outside the classroom by attending office hours and asking their advice. I know they seem like strange creatures, but they are high-achievers who know a great deal about what they research. They love talking about what they do, have seen lots of students over the years and have strong opinions about what makes people successful. Many also have professional connections in the community and can help you meet people you want to meet.

Join one of the student organizations in the College. Do this as a freshman and remain active all four years. Almost every major has a student organization. These organizations tend to focus on career development and frequently have guest speakers from the community who talk about the profession and what it takes to succeed. Go to these meetings, ask the guest speaker questions, and mingle before and after the event. Leaving a good impression with a guest speaker might even bring an internship or a job.

In your junior year apply to be a part of the College’s mentoring program. One of the great things about UCF is that many of our alumni still live in Orlando and are eager to help you get a great start to your professional career. This is not just a matter of altruism, for your success is their success—the more successful UCF alumni there are, the greater the value of their degree. Many alums have volunteered their time to spend a day with a student at their workplace explaining what they do and engaging students in discussions about how they can achieve their aspirations.

Finally, when doing these things, ask the people you meet to identify other people you may want to get to know to help you navigate your career. This will likely open even more doors. If this sounds like a fair bit of work, it is—but the payoff will be large. So get busy. Remember your parents want you to graduate soon, so being cute and cuddly won’t last very long.

Slaying the BEAST

I have heard a lot over the past month about the state’s STEM initiative.  That the governor and legislature are particularly interested in funding the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) believing that they are the keys to economic diversification and prosperity.   A similar discussion was occurring in Nevada when I headed east.  It is easy to understand why government policy makers are so enamored with the STEMs: They are the fields most likely to create ideas that will lead to scalable businesses employing thousands at high wages (someone working in nanotechnology is way more likely to do this than someone working in hospitality).

The problem is that while there are many gifted people with terrific technical skills operating in the STEM disciplines, few of them understand the market.  I remember a conversation I had with Tom Lester, the long-time Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Kentucky about the source of innovation.  Tom proudly proclaimed that innovation starts in the lab.  I smiled and said: “no, it starts with a consumer’s need.  No engineer would have invented the iPod. it doesn’t have enough buttons on it.”  We both laughed….me more than him.  But my point was that innovations that don’t meet customer needs don’t have a bright economic future.  If you want to create successful scalable business, you need to understand what the consumer wants and how you can wrap a business model around that need that will turn a profit.  It doesn’t just happen by itself.  The world is littered with worthless patents.

If government policy-makers want to use academic institutions as engines of economic growth and diversification (and they should), they need to think in terms of slaying a BEAST. This BEAST (Business, Engineering, Applied Science and Technology), like the mythical Cerberus, has three heads.  (I can’t take credit for this acronym I’m stealing it from someone, I don’t remember who.) One head is government policy that invests too narrowly in STEM and fails to understand the role that business thinking plays in evaluating the marketability of new ideas and successfully bringing them to market.  The second head is the silos that separate the disciplines in universities that hamper dialogue and discourages risky collaboration. The third head is the human desire to stay safely in your comfort zone and only talk and work with people who are similar to you.  To slay the beast and reap the benefits of economic dynamism and diversification through investment in higher education, you need to cut off all three heads.

It can be done. I experienced the returns to such an enterprise first-hand when I was at UNLV.  Rama Venkat, who is the Dean of Engineering, had run a senior design competition for almost a decade.  Rama is an entrepreneur masquerading as a Dean of Engineering.  But despite his passion, none of the projects from the senior design competition had ever seen the market.  One day over lunch, Rama and I decided it was time to pair those engineering students with some business students who would help them understand market opportunities and how to build products the market wanted.  The result: In the first year, two of those projects formed LLCs.  In year two, three teams created LLCs and drew the interest of venture capitalists and wealthy donors.  This is another benefit of slaying the BEAST: it will attract private investment and lead to the best kind of public-private partnerships.

I saw a glimmer of this at UCF this week when I visited the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy’s student project presentations.  There I saw right brain and left brain people (artists, programmers and production people); working together to create video games that didn’t just kill deformed hyenas, but taught vocabulary and in one extraordinary instance made most of the people in the room cry.  Industry people served as judges and the commercial potential of the projects went far beyond GameStop.  I venture to guess that teaming those aspiring gamers with some business students (and maybe some from psychology too) would produce amazing economic results in short order.  The good news is that Knights have been slaying beasts for centuries.  Next to rescuing fair maidens, it is what they do best. Just saying….

This Simply Won’t Do.

I believe the best education comes when you get a chance to sit down on a log and have a conversation with someone who has interesting stuff to say. It is in those moments of exchange that ideas come to life, assumptions are challenged, experiences shared and people transformed. Without this sort of dialogue learning is ephemeral, only superficial memorization of facts and theories: Let’s call that a PowerPoint education.

So, it is with great concern that I reviewed our most recent results from the National Survey on Student Engagement. Relative to seniors at our benchmark institutions, UCF College of Business Administration seniors reported high levels of academic challenge and a supportive campus environment. But far too few students have meaningful interactions with faculty or engage in co-curricular experiences: Less than half of our students discussed a grade or assignment with an instructor; less than a quarter talked about ideas from the readings or class with a faculty member outside the classroom; less than fifteen percent say they experienced a culminating project, exam or thesis; less than five percent say they worked with a faculty member on a research project. I could go on, but you get the point.

If you are a student, I will not let you hide in the back of the classroom. If you are a faculty member, I will not let you hide behind lecture capture. If you are a department chair, I won’t let you hide behind budget cuts. If our value proposition rests on the high returns to face-to-face learning, we need to make sure it happens…all the time and everywhere. If we don’t figure it out, on-line formats are going to eat our lunch.

So, I’m looking for ways to create more opportunities for students to sit on logs and talk to faculty without breaking the bank: Digital, Styrofoam or wood logs; during breakfast, lunch, dinner and after-hours. If you are like me and want education to be transformative, not transactional, I want your ideas. How can we get more faculty and students talking to each other, working more together, and creating a culture of engagement? I know incentives are important here too…so suggestions for carrots and sticks are also welcome.

Warning: If you don’t help me generate good ideas, I will just have to implement the ones I come up with on my own. Accepting the status quo simply won’t do.