Monday, February 25, 2013

How Much Better is Best Compared to Average?

I recently watched a “lost interview” of Steve Jobs. The interview was done in 1995, when Mr. Jobs was busy with his company NeXT. This is one year before Apple purchased NeXT and Mr. Jobs returned to Apple to run the company. It is before the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

Mr. Jobs was asked about Apple and his vision of the future. In the interview I could see some of the natural charisma of Mr. Jobs. I could begin to understand his focus on “content,” as he put it. I think he would say his company and his products had to have a soul; they had to bring the best of what humans have to offer to the table.

One comment he made that really got my attention was about the difference between “average” and “best.” In most cases, he observed, the difference between “average” and “best” makes at most a 2-to-1 impact. As examples, he noted that the difference between an average taxi cab experience and the best taxi cab experience might only get you to your destination 20% faster. The same was true for airplane flights. Moving away from travel, we can imagine that the “best” medical examination or treatment might increase our life span by a few percent (excluding the times we catch something serious early). In fact, it can be difficult to think of a true 2-to-1 multiplier experience. Maybe when we think of retail transactions, the “best” retail transaction experience might make us twice as likely to return to a particular store.

However, one thing that drew Mr. Jobs to software development was the fact that software absolutely shatters this 2-to-1 constraint. The best software, he noted, is 50 or maybe even 100 times better than average software. Anyone who has wrestled with a bad user interface and also experienced a good one will probably agree with this assessment. I know I do.

But this made me think, what about higher education? Is higher education constrained by the 2-to-1 limit?

I don’t think so. I have had an average teacher in a subject and a "best" teacher (i.e., a teaching award winner) in the same subject; and the experience with the "best" teacher was far, far more than two times better than the experience with the "average" teacher. It was better in terms of my learning and retention of the subject matter, it was better in terms of my subsequent engagement with that topic, and it was better in terms of my ability to apply what I had learned later (in some cases, much later) in life. The same holds at the institutional level. I’ve been to average schools and “best” schools. The experience at the “average” schools was largely forgettable. The experience at the “best” schools shaped my life.

So, we have this opportunity every day to be “average” or strive to be “best” at what we do. Which will you choose? Which would you rather be known for?

Monday, February 18, 2013

How to Survive as Senior Associate Dean

In my last post, I listed a number of experiences that would benefit anyone moving into this job I currently occupy. Those experiences are too many and too varied to realistically expect anyone to have them before taking on the job. Of course, I wrote that to give readers a sense of the breadth of issues that come through my office.

So, if adequate experience is not realistic, what is a more realistic expectation? I’m not sure, but here are some things I try to keep in mind.

I try very hard to be fair. Sometimes students think I am biased toward faculty and sometimes faculty think I am biased toward students. When I was as soccer referee, I learned that half of the people at each match generally disagreed with every decision I made. That doesn’t make the decision wrong.

When I make a decision that is particularly upsetting to someone, I try to communicate why I have decided the way I have. If possible, I will let the person know about it before it becomes public.

When necessary, I use the network of friends and colleagues I have built across the campus. Universities are full of very intelligent people. These people are a huge asset.

I try to listen to people. Even when I feel like I know what the person is going to say, I try to listen. Sometimes, just listening resolves an issue. All that the person wanted was to be heard. If you are forming an answer in your head before the person stops talking, you probably aren’t listening as closely as you should be.

I try to distinguish between urgent and important. Not all important things are urgent and not all urgent things are important.

I try to visit the offices I manage at least once a week just to see how people are doing. When I am not delegating a task to someone, it gives that person an opportunity to dictate where the conversation goes. Over time, people learn to take advantage of that opportunity and sometimes that allows me to address issues before they become problems.

I especially try to be honest with myself. If something doesn’t feel right, I try to take the time to re-examine the issue.

I mentioned humor in the last post. I try to retain a sense of humor and be pleasant. I’m not always successful, but being pleasant costs nothing and occasionally pays big dividends.

Finally, I try to remember that there are many things I have done in the past that I didn’t know how to do before I did them. In other words, we all have things to learn when we move into a new position with new responsibilities. It is important to learn and not repeat your mistakes. I feel if you do this and try each day to make your environment a little better than you found it, things have a way of working out.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Wanted: Senior Associate Dean – Experience Preferred

I have been thinking recently about the many aspects of my job. Here is a list of the experiences / education that I think are relevant. It helps to have:

A reasonable research record so that you understand what is involved in publishing research in a widely recognized, high-quality academic journal. This is critical in evaluating faculty needs.

A teaching award so that you understand what is involved in innovative teaching. This is also critical in evaluating faculty needs.

Some background in organizational behavior, so that you can manage the personalities in an academic environment. You deal with a wide range of faculty types (from the adjunct to the eminent scholar) and a wide range of staff (from the student worker to the accomplished veteran who has been with the college for decades).

You also need some understanding of leadership – at least some notion of various leadership styles.

Some knowledge of accounting, so that you can understand budgets.

Some knowledge of communications or advertising, so that you have some facility with persuasion. A popular misconception is that a dean has the power that a CEO has. This is not true.

You need to be able to create decision models and conduct analyses of many types.

It is good to understand public administration, so that you can understand legislative processes and how a legislative agenda is likely to affect your college.

You need some understanding of the law. FERPA only begins to scratch the surface of what you should understand.

Medical training would be good, so that you can evaluate a student’s request to drop a course for medical reasons.

Some of the students I see have significant troubles. An education in social work will help you deal better with the ones who struggle with dysfunctional families. An education in mental health will help you identify the ones who are depressed or schizophrenic (more common than you might think).  

An education in criminology or forensic accounting will help you identify the ones who are executing a financial aid fraud.

An education in religious studies would help you understand the importance of the many religious holy days that you must evaluate when students request excused absences from exams.

Education in at least one humanity discipline and one science discipline will help you interact with your colleagues on campus.

You should have training in project management.

A study of systems would be good, so that you appreciate how the research, teaching, outreach, and administrative subsystems interact.

One thing is certain: you don’t stop learning when you take this position. Also, you need to have a good sense of humor, because some days you just have to laugh to keep your sanity!

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Parents Didn’t Go to College

I’ve dealt with students this week whose primary excuse for bad behavior or poor performance seems to be that they are the first generation in their family to go to college. Their argument: they don’t know any better.

My brother and I were also the first generation in our family to go to college. While I got a few tips from my older brother, the age difference (seven years) was such that he was out beginning his career by the time I started college, so we really didn’t talk much about it. That really doesn’t matter.

My parents didn’t need a college degree to teach me that I’m expected to do my own work.

They didn’t need a college degree to teach me that my education was my responsibility.

The fact that they didn’t have college degrees never stopped me from going to the library in those pre-Internet days to seek additional sources of information on a topic with which I was struggling.

My parents never had the opportunity to ask a college professor a question when they were growing up, but that didn’t prevent me from determining that office hours are a good time to get clarification on issues that are confusing.

My parents never completed a term paper, but that didn’t keep them from teaching me that putting off work until the last minute is not a good idea.

My parents never had a college course where different components of the course were weighed differently, but I learned how to compute my grade so that I could always know where I stood in a course.

We certainly should recognize that being the first in a family to go to college may mean that a student has a unique experience. We may need to help that student get off to a good start by making our expectations clear and providing accessible resources. In the long run, however, we do not help the student who turns this opportunity into an excuse for bad behavior or poor performance.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Opening Week of the Semester

As the first week of the semester draws to a close I thought it would be good to review what I’ve dealt with. The first week (and also the last week) is not typical of other weeks in the semester. The first week has its own character. Yet, it has been a typical “first week.”

Although I was involved in meetings related to fundraising, building a new building, updating our graduate online classes, and the expectations we have for our doctoral students when they teach or conduct research, this first week really revolves around getting close to 6000 students into classes.

There have been miscellaneous questions about classroom scheduling, syllabus requirements, course cancellations, and the availability of teaching assistantships.

Of course, we had a number of students who absolutely had to get a particular class at a particular time. In most of these cases, the student’s procrastination is to blame. In other cases, resource constraints (e.g., room availability or reduced faculty and staff) have created situations where we cannot offer enough classes to meet demand.

I saw several students who were dismissed last semester and whose request for readmission was denied. Even in a college as large as ours, we actually look at each and every one of these cases. In most of these cases, the student’s grade point average is too far below the required minimum to reasonably expect that the student will be able to raise it enough to stay in good standing. In some cases, it is mathematically impossible. I hear promises and guarantees that the student will make all A’s and all will be well. It comes as quite a shock to some of them that I base my decision on past performance. I hope this is the wake-up call they need to begin managing their education, and their lives, better.

We dealt with some tragic situations, too. I had three students who had to cope with either a parent’s unexpected death or catastrophic illness this week. Suddenly, these students have emotional and financial pressure that we would not wish on any young adult. In most of these cases, the students show uncommon grace and I am proud of the way members of our faculty step up to accommodate the needs of these students.

As the semester begins, I look forward to working with the President’s Council – our student group of student organization presidents. I hope all of our classes go well. I hope our students show up prepared for class. I hope the students push the professors to be better teachers and the professors push the students to be better learners. I hope our professors draw on the research they do to add more value to our classes. And when life gets in the way, I hope the students and the faculty make good decisions.

If these things happen, it should be a good spring.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Oh, the stories I hear!

Happy New Year!

Last year was very hectic for me and my blogging suffered as a consequence. One of my new year’s resolutions is to get back into the swing of things here. Generally speaking, I’ve tried to create posts that would provoke some thoughts. That will continue, but I’ve also decided to broaden the topics I cover. In other words, I’m going to also give you a glimpse into the issues that find their way to my office. To get things started, I thought it would be insightful to post a few of my very memorable student / parent interactions from the past two-and-a-half years.

There was the young lady whose mother called to inform her professors that the student would miss classes for a week while recovering from a minor, yet significant, surgical procedure. After some checking, I determined that the young lady was not a student at Florida State. That wasn’t what mom and dad had been led to believe for the past year or two.

There were twins who stopped by to ask if it was possible to get an “F+” instead of just an “F.” They thought mom would be less upset about an “F+.”

There was the young man who emailed that he probably would have done better in his classes if he had been as focused on them as he was on gambling this semester. Could he have another chance?

There was the young lady who told me (in December) that she wanted to turn in all of her work at the end of the prior summer semester, but her professor had refused to take it. Now, she wanted to drop the class (six months later) to remove the “F” on her transcript. I told her to email the work to me and I would consider the request. Based on her reaction, I am not surprised that I have not yet received the work.

There was the young lady who told her parents that we changed the rules on her in the middle of the year. Now she had to take another course in the spring and would not be able to graduate in the fall. Her parents complained, to the president’s office no less, and the matter was referred to me. After some checking, we found out that the real reason the young lady would take classes in the spring was because of the failing grades she had earned in the fall.

One student stopped by to determine whether he could get an “incomplete” grade in his courses. I asked about his circumstances. Well, he had missed some child support payments and “that usually leads to spending two or three weeks in jail.”

Of course, they aren’t all knuckleheads. There’s the young man who was in an accident that left him 100% deaf. He has worked extra hard to recover and keep up in his classes. Now fitted with Cochlear implants, we expect him to graduate and be successful.

There’s another young man whose grades were suffering because he was overly-involved in mentoring and volunteer activities. We talked about how he would be better able to do these things if he took care of his own needs first. He’s learned to manage his time and is doing great.

There’s the young lady who had no idea what major to choose and ended up in one that was just a bad fit for her. She presented herself in a professional manner, made a case for why we should consider her for admission to the business school, and followed up with more information when we had questions. We gave her a chance and she has shined. She will do well.

And finally, there is the President’s Council. This council is composed of the Presidents of the various student organizations. These students are focused, mature, and destined to do well in whatever career paths they choose.