There’s really no other way to say it. I’m frustrated, concerned, and angry. And it all revolves around a university.
I’ve worked with a lot of schools in my time. Some were progressive and poised to innovate. Many plodded along, hoping that they didn’t mess something up to such an extreme that would lose students. And a few have been dysfunctional (at best) if not just plain troubling.
The hard part is, as much as I want to use this blog to blast away at the thing making me angry, I really shouldn’t. Believe me, I could do it. I could make a really compelling case around the offending parties. I truly could. It’s even in my professional bailiwick – I’m ticked off at a school that is making bad decisions and throwing my name under the bus at the same time. (Or at least at some people at a university.)
I had a long talk with my best mentor last night – my father. If you read my stuff with any regularity, you might remember that he’s a pastor and has been in and around academia for his entire career. My first memories involve going to the college where he was Academic Dean and growing up as he eventually became the interim President at Denver Seminary. He’s also the author of several books regarding organizational strategy and culture, using both is vast experience and his doctorate from the University of Denver in Organizational Communication to promote change.
So I brought up the circumstances surrounding my frustration to my dad. I talked through success after success - retention, enrollment, brand, teaching quality, and more, with school after school for almost 25 years. I noted that I’m almost finished with my own book on higher ed strategies for creating a culture of learning innovation. (I stopped mid-stream on my Education 3.0 book as I felt this infrastructure book needed to come first…) But throughout the book, I use a LOT of reference material – not just citations from credible sources – but also copious notes I take after consultations, speaking events, meetings, and day to day work with university / college faculty, staff, and administrators. I keep a lot of records, including of my work with this particular university...
So, as I have had a bit of back and forth with the school, I have heard several statements that are blatantly untrue. But what’s worse is that I can prove they are untrue. I have documentation and emails illustrating they are untrue. I have similar documentation showcasing problematic issues with attempted implementation of ideas, cultural changes, or product enhancement strategies. I even have comments and “testimonies” from people associated with, or whom reported to some of the folks I’m struggling with, explaining that some of the discrepancies were purposeful while others were not intended, but would look very bad for people still in the mix, which means a scapegoat is necessary. I could produce various types of evidence right now, if I had to.
At the same time, quotes and passages from books like Execution, the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, and the 4 Disciplines of Execution are crashing around in my brain. The dysfunction and hubris is dumb-founding. I’m talking with other people who were involved, either as bystanders or people who put actual time behind some of the work and they are equally dumb-founded.
But of course none of that matters. The school isn’t interested in any documentation, any perspective other than the narrative they are (literally) creating, nor are they even looking at the damage caused by any of it. In other words, none of the evidence matters at all. They are proceeding based on assumptions, invented realities, and no real worry about ramifications. They know best and that is all that matters…
I know this position isn’t new. I’ve had friends over the years whose spouses left them, not caring a lick for trying to make something work. They weren’t interested in another side. They were simply moving on. Likewise, I’ve seen (quite up close and personal) as colleagues crashed and burned, despite great ideas or tremendous ground support. Heck, it’s not really my world, but I was talking with a former DC staffer who explained the career arc of a long-time politician who tried more than a dozen times to get a bill passed, only to have it fail every time because of attack ads, strong-arm tactics, and the like. He retired having never completed that legislation. We all experience situations like this, to some degree or another.
Of course, that doesn’t help much. It still stings. The fabricated stories might sting the most, but equally painful is knowing that outsiders can easily be told that I have “sour grapes.” But it’s not even the point of this blog. Sure, I’m smoldering even a bit more as I write it down, but that’s what I’m trying to write about. How I handle this is important.
I actually have some options. Not a ton (and they know it, which is even harder), but I could do some things to make life uncomfortable for this school. If not the school, I could likely do some damage for some of the players involved. I know things they would surely prefer I don’t know and I have documentation I know they would prefer I not have. I am slotted to speak to 5-7,000 people in keynote addresses before the end of the year, where I could make my case! But that doesn’t take into account something really important. Effectively it forgets the entire reason I do what I do…the harm it might bring to their students.
My reputation is likely going to be fine. Most people will never know what is being said internally and at the same time, from every possible yardstick, the school suffering by their own hands. I won’t have to do a thing to make that happen. While my thoughts and suggestions could have helped them suffer far less, that is obviously off the table. But suffer they will. And who will suffer the most? Their students are and will continue to suffer. For reasons far beyond any recommendation I might have given them, their students are really hurting. So are faculty and staff, in other ways, but hurting abounds. My adding insult to injury wouldn’t help anyone or anything.
So I’m going to take my dad’s advice and let time help give perspective and hopefully also give way to better ways of thinking and doing. My dad told me a story that really hit home. This is a guy who has helped hundreds of churches grow, keep members, and thrive. (I've worked my entire career to do the same for schools.) When he wrote his first book, a lot of the problems he wrote about were completely real. But he’s extremely capable of writing down those problems in such a way that, while respectful, still makes it clear that bad decisions were made. He told me that his greatest regret with that book, despite it having had some success in his circles, is that he wasn’t kinder with his words regarding the real life examples from actual churches and church-members.
So, while this blog has been about as personal a letter as I have written in a long time, likely since my wife was in the throws of illness and we kept getting snookered by snake-oil salesmen dressed as nutritionists and medical experts, this is definitely raw for me. Dealing with such poor leadership is both depressing and frustrating. And while I believe in my soul that I am smack up against incredible hubris and ego, I want to do right by students – whomever they may be and with whatever school they are affiliated – because they matter. At the end of the day, student success should be all that matters to anyone.
Good luck and good learning.