Asking Tough Questions (aka, did I destroy my career?)

Have you had a friend ask a heart-filled, yet incredibly blunt question that made you question everything?  I just did.  I just had a candid, blunt conversation with an old colleague, who asked me a question (I believe) with my best interest at heart, but one that has deep and painful ramifications.  It started innocently enough…

We were talking about my recent transition.  This longtime friend who happens to also be a Vice President at a major US University, talked openly about things I do not need to hash out here with regard to my previous work being a driving force to come back “home” to Colorado.  But all of this led to some bold statements and questions.  I’ll paraphrase, but essentially, he said,

“Look, you have had an amazing run of success.  You have been contacted by Ministries of Education to consult around how to fix higher ed in their countries.  You have talked with Presidents and Chancellors of some of the top US schools about how to drive new initiatives and you’ve successfully presented to tens of thousands of professors, trying to show them that they need to reevaluate their paradigms.  You had the Midas touch.  You then went to a place that was really struggling and despite a lot of opposition, you made lemonade out of lemons.  Yeah, even you couldn’t overcome some of the politics and incompetence, but despite a lack of funding you still created stuff that others were jealous of.  But then, you took what to some will be a step backwards.  Higher Ed won’t care about the conditions or the context, because they only care about being in their club.  You left the club.  And while you are still working for the club, it’s not as a member, and membership definitely has its privileges.  Most academics and administrators will see every year at a company as a year of lost experience.  You and I both know that is stupid, but it’s true.  It doesn’t matter that you’ll see the best and worst of our industry.  It doesn’t matter how good you are at tracking the good vs the bad.  Nobody will care that you have seen what works and what doesn’t.  When we hire a new administrator, they come from within our walls 90% of the time.  There is this awful assumption that if you aren’t one of us, you can’t possibly understand us.  It’s why universities see so few new ideas and so little real innovation – which is where you were really making your mark.  It has less to do with competence, creativity, or impact and everything to do with inside-experience.  So, I ask again, why the hell did you leave?”

There was this huge pause.  I was doing a lot of blinking and furrowing my brow.  He actually said, “Sorry…was that over the top?...Are you there?”

As I said, we had already gone through the negative stuff, in detail, that led me to look elsewhere.  I had actually sought his council throughout my stint and he had told me to leave a year before I did.  He agreed wholeheartedly that the problems and dysfunction were likely not easily overcome and that getting out was in my best interest.  At one point, he used the analogy of a Baseball career: I tried Triple A ball, now move up to the big leagues.  Even if it wasn’t a winning team yet, work with someone who had that trajectory.  But leaving baseball for the announcing booth would likely never see me get back in the game, at least from his perspective. 

Wow.

I realize he isn’t entirely wrong, although I will say that I (personally) know a few Presidents and Provosts who are far more progressive in hiring “outsiders” to come to the table.  The huge jump in “Chief Innovation Officers” in the past few years illustrates that notion as many (whom I know personally) came from non-academic contexts.  But I get his point.  I don’t know many top academic leaders who aren’t insiders, groomed via a specific path and over a long time. 

But as my defensiveness wore off and the adrenaline stopped my ear drums from pulsating, I thought beyond the politics of higher ed.  I thought about transformation, student success, and scale.  I considered things that were important to me.  And finally, I started talking again, leading to a really good (albeit long) conversation, where I told him a story. 

In 2010, a volcano in Iceland (Eyjafjallajökull) erupted spewing ash into the Jetstream. It was so bad that hundreds of flights were canceled across Europe – pilots couldn’t see and radar equipment struggled to cut through the thick haze.  So hundreds of flights were cancelled, a ton of people were stranded, and needing help and support, they had nowhere to turn.

As you may remember, news agencies came out of the woodwork to cover the story.  But their coverage was soon saturated.  There was not much else to say, other than human interest pieces.  But one media outlet – Schibsted, out of Oslo – noticed something.  They started seeing social media and personal messaging sites light up.  People, who couldn’t find help from airlines, governments, or anyone else, started trying to help one another.  The boards and posts talked about where people were stuck, where they needed to go, and how they might get there. 

And people helped.  “I’m driving to X and my car has room for 3 other people,” were the types of posts coming up.  “I can pay for ½ the gas!” was common.  “I’m a truck driver and I have room for a passenger and luggage,” others would say.  “A new ferry line opened up today.”  This was happening across Europe.  But Schibsted took notice and acted on it.  In less than 1 work day, their IT team built an app (on their website) called Hitchhiker’s Central. The premise was simple: allow people to post requests or help with carpooling and ride-sharing information (and more). The app worked and it worked fast.  In fact, the app became so popular, it started being used all over Europe.  But notice something important.  This was a content group, much like our universities.  But content wasn’t what people needed here.  People needed help.  They needed to connect.  They needed crowd-sourced, immediate support so that they could continue with the day-to-day of work, assistance, and even a play. 

For almost 25 years I have seen colleges and universities fail when it comes to any kind of holistic approach to the student experience.  It doesn’t matter if it’s on-ground or online, students feel disconnected.  (Heck, staff and faculty typically feel disconnected…)  When someone needs help, it often feels like there is none.  When someone is poking around on a computer at 3am trying to find support, there often is none.  Why?  Because education is a people business.  There are only so many hours in the day and only so many channels by which to communicate.  Students, faculty, and staff can go hours, days, and sometimes weeks before receiving help.  And that help is needed across the spectrum, not solely in the academic arena.  Support is absolutely key for academic issues ranging from remediation to logistics, but students are not just academic widgets in a machine.  They have needs around finance, transportation, degree navigation, career services, and so much more.  They also have massive needs in terms of social support, mindset, stress, peer connection, and figuring out how to develop work-life balance effectively. 

But we (yes, we…) don’t offer much of that across higher ed.  If we do, it’s usually in one office, with one or two people who have to be 1) identified, 2) available, 3) capable, etc.  So we end up with students wandering the halls (both literally and digitally) searching for connection. 

In 2013 I was in Australia, speaking at a conference where Government leaders were being informed about the future of education by a myriad of speakers and groups.  Whilst there, I saw Deakin University (possibly the most innovative university on the planet) presenting a solution to help this connectivity problem.  It was a platform that connected everyone and everything.  My only issue with their usage was that it was “alongside” their other applications and tools, rather than front and center.  But I brought that (cheap) solution to Saint Leo and vetted it.  It seemed to be the only solution of its kind, with other portal replacements just acting like a prettier version of a page full of links.  My team agreed it would help us with dozens of issues across the entire organization, giving new insights, new ways to communicate, and new support mechanisms throughout the entire student lifecycle.  It became the “glue” for Lions SHARE – the award winning, next-generation learning “eco”system we built, connecting multiple systems yet feeling like a single experience to our staff, faculty, and students.  That company was Ucroo and that product was their Digital Campus.

Was the implementation perfect?  No.  Despite a truly stellar team of competent, forward thinking, highly communicative people, we had holes in our implementation.  As I noted before, there were some politics and dysfunction that I was simply unable to overcome.  But where it did work, it was quite something.  Beyond anecdotes and crowd-sourced support from students helping students (although I still have screenshot after screenshot of positive comments) we saw a statistical significance toward term over term retention by users.  In fact, when we finally turned off our old portal, we saw 97% of unique logins from our population use Lions SHARE every week (vs the 55% of unique users who came into the existing portal).  We saw communication experiments see a 350% increase in messages opened.  And in the end, we created something that dozens of other schools inquired about.  Many of them are now actively pursuing the building out of such systems. 

Which leads me to my point.  Why did I transition back to Denver, joining a commercial group and building the Institute?  Yes, things were declining where I left, but far more important to me was something else.  I had proven I could do something I set out to do – impact education at scale.  While there is no part of me that believes change and disruption to be synonymous with technology, I do believe change at scale is impossible without it.  So my team and I created a system, that if implemented correctly, will impact more enrollments, higher retention, and even alumni affinity.  Dovetail a platform like this with cultural cohesion, effective practices in teaching, and student-centric models of support, and transformation will happen.  And I (possibly quite naively) want to share that with the world.  I don’t want to help a small pocket of students, I want to help as many students as possible.  So, joining the “glue” platform team seemed like the most beneficial thing I could do for a sector I am so committed to.  Meanwhile, creating the Institute then gives me full license to help others create the same kind of hyper-connected system, while pushing the most effective practices in administration, IT, and faculty development, allowing me to make unbiased recommendations around things I have studied and implemented for more than two decades, all-the-while proposing new solutions that come out every year.  I keep up with this stuff voraciously.

Will I one day go back to a formal position in Higher Education?  I have no idea.  I’ll continue teaching as an adjunct and continue working with educators at every level, within every department.  If I do seek another “formal” education role, will they “let me back in” anyway?  Again, I have no idea.  Quite honestly, if any school is so short-sighted that they can’t see the informed power of working across multiple institutions in terms of what to do and what not to do, I’ll have to live with that.  Meanwhile, will I live out my dream of assisting dozens / hundreds of schools create systems that will help teachers teach better, student support be more comprehensive and timely, and help schools succeed in terms of cost and quality?  I hope so.  It seems I’m picking up where I left off before, but only time will tell.    

Good luck and good learning.