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!