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Southern University Conference Keynote

 

Prepared Remarks
April 11, 2015

Work smart. Play smart. Live smart.

Good evening. It is quite humbling to join so many outstanding college presidents in one room.

First, I want to thank Judge Starr for inviting me to speak here for a second year in a row.

They say the third time is a charm, so you might have to wait until they invite me back next year to hear a truly awesome speech.

Tonight, I want to share with you my personal experiences and outlook surrounding this year’s theme, which is “Classical Balance.”

Balance is an essential element in our existence. We experience it every day.

Balance dates back to the creation of Earth. As a matter of fact, there was said to be an angel who stumbled into God resting on the seventh day.

The angel asked God, “Where have you been?”

God looks proudly, points down to the Earth and says, “Look at what I just made. I have created this fantastic planet with creatures and landscapes and it is going to be a great place of balance.”

The angel looks confused and asks, “What is balance?”

God tried to explain: “As you can see, I covered a portion of Earth with water, which I offset with land in other areas.

“And over here in these regions of the planet, the weather will be rather hot. Over here, it will be cold and covered in ice.

“Oh, and in this little corner we have a place I will call the state of Washington. It will be a glorious space with beautiful mountains, rivers and streams. And the people there will be modest, intelligent, caring and hardworking.”

The angel is waiting to hear more, and he finally asks God, “Well, what is on the other end of that balance?”

God smiled and replied, “There is another Washington. Wait until you see the halfwits I put there.”

Now seriously, if you step back and look at life through a broad lens you will see balance in action.

We feel it. It is in the tires underneath the cars we drive.

It is in our physical being when we go skiing or skating.

It is in our finances (hopefully) — as we balance our checkbooks.

Balance is in what we hear. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Its appeal is in the song’s arrangement — beginning with a slow, acoustic melody and progressively increasing in tempo and volume with thunderous drums and electric guitars.

Many popular works of art take us on journeys that go from fast to slow, from exterior to interior, from action to reflection.

Even the circus has balance. The beauty and grace of the trapeze artist is countered by the tomfoolery of the clown.

Which brings me to this question: “Am I the trapeze artist or the clown?”

Tonight we will have a conversation on how to juggle our personal and professional lives, and how we can apply that to the broader realm of managing our institutions and universities.

As actors in the world of higher education, it is critical for us to abide by the three following mantras:

Work smart.
Play smart.
Live smart.

And let me be the first to tell you — I struggle with balance every day.

It is an art that I certainly have not mastered.

I admit that I am a workaholic — a workaholic all hopped up on Diet Dr. Pepper who never gets enough sleep.

But after 35-plus years in higher education, you learn a little about balance.
I have gotten better over the years. A lot better.

So tonight I will share with you 10 tips that have helped me ‘Work smart. Play smart. And live smart.’

1. Make time for loved ones

This, to me, is the most important lesson of all.

Too often, we get so caught up in our work that it never leaves our side.

It lurks over our heads at all times of the day, whether at the office or at home, on weekdays, weekends and holidays.

Obviously, this is not healthy, and it impedes on the most valuable assets in life itself: Family and friends.

Within our lifetime, work will always be there.
Even when we are on our deathbeds, some of us will think, “Did I send out that email?”

So, in an essence, work never ceases to exist.

But the physical presence of your loved ones, sadly, is not guaranteed over a lifetime.

My dear wife, Elizabeth, was only 46 years old when she passed away.

We knew, long beforehand, that the fateful day would creep up at any given moment.

For more than 20 years, Elizabeth lived with fibrocystic breast disease — which ultimately morphed into cancer.

One of the ways she coped was through writing. She wrote a book called “The Light Around the Dark” about confronting her own mortality.

There is one line in the book that I remember vividly. We were on a vacation shortly after she found a lump in her breast and she wrote this:

“He is talking on the phone about university business as though immersion in professional work will carry him to a place where this is not happening.”

Here she was, face-to-face with fate, while I, in some ways, tried to dodge the reality.

We must unite with those we care about most. And we must face their fears with them.

To do that, we must put away our cellphones and kick work to the side whenever we are given the gift of precious time with our loved ones.

Our work has time to wait on us. The special people in our lives do not.

2. Master your calendar

Whether you like it or not, calendars have become a necessary component of our day-to-day operations, particularly for busybodies like ourselves.

That reminds me — Robert Frost once said, “By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.”

With the flurry of meeting requests, phone calls and engagements that come through, it is key to balance your calendar.

At West Virginia University, I have a calendar meeting with my top folks every week to make sure I am not overbalancing in one area.

Here is a glimpse at one recent day on my calendar: Breakfast with classified staff, a phone call to donors, a Special Olympics event, lunch with student government leaders, meeting with healthcare administrators, a phone call to a legislator, and meeting with students from the Neurosciences Club.

As you can see, I try to devote equal time to students, faculty, staff and community members.

My calendar is synced electronically, so we can analyze how much time I am pending on one category versus another.

The people you have on your team are crucial to success in this area. You must trust them to help manage your calendar. They need to know you inside and out.

Are you at your groggiest at 2 p.m. every day? If so, they should know so they do not schedule you to perform brain surgery at that time.

Your calendar can deeply benefit from the next tip I have for you.

3. The Power of “No”

“No” is the most powerful word in academics.

How many times have we said ‘yes’ to the wrong things?

There is a hedge fund manager named James Altucher who has penned books about how a well-placed “No” can save you time and trouble.

In his words, you have the right to say “no.”

“No” to anything that hurts you.

“No” to standards that do not serve you.

“No” to people who drain you of your creativity.

“No” to beliefs that are not true to the real you.

The world will not burst into flames if you say ‘no’ once in a while.
And, ultimately, it will benefit you and make your time more valuable.

If you are always saying “Yes” and “Maybe,” you have no balance.

And the ‘power of no’ can set you free.

4. Rely on routines

If I ask you to name major causes of stress in your professional life, you might say things like bureaucracy, heavy workloads or terrible colleagues.

You might not say, “having too many decisions.” This, however, can be a pervasive cause of stress.

When we make decisions — whether we are hiring new employees or choosing between white or whole wheat — we create a state of mental tension.

One way I have tried reducing my volume of decision making is by relying on routines.

If you have something that needs done every day, do it at the same time every day.

Have the different parts of your day planned out ahead — whether it is picking out your clothes for the next day or bringing in a lunch.

This leaves time for you to make the big decisions that matter.

For example, if you are focused on hiring the best candidate for a key position, your mind will not be interrupted by, “Should I go grab some tacos or eat a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine?”

As President Obama stated nicely in a Vanity Fair interview, “You need to focus your decision-making energy.

You need to routinize yourself. You cannot be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

5. Do not sweat the small things

This tip ties into relying on routines because we simply cannot expend our energies on the insignificant.

I am a man who looks at the big picture. I am all about big. Big visions. Big actions. Big ideas.

At West Virginia University, we are in the process of launching the Center for Big Ideas, which will showcase innovation and solving the world’s most complex problems.

Going big leaves an impact because obsessing over the small things can impede progress.

I used to sweat the small things. But I learned quickly not to do that. After 35-plus years in higher ed leadership, if I sweat the small things, I would be dead.

6. While you should not sweat the small things, make sure to sweat – and exercise.

This lesson also goes back to routine. Every morning at 4:30 a.m., I get up and roll over to the Rec Center to work out.

That is my quiet time, believe it or not.

Because, seriously, how many sleepy-eyed college students do you think are going to use the Rec Center that early in the morning?

Working out allows me to clear my mind and prepare for the day. I usually do between 40 and 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, followed by either an upper-body or lower-body workout.

I am sure you can tell by my domineering, physical stature.

When you think of all the mental exhaustion experienced on a daily basis, we owe it to ourselves to care for our physical well-being.

We spend nearly every waking second of the day trapped in thought. Therefore, 20 minutes at the gym or jogging around the block is really only a drop in the bucket of a busy day.

If I did not carve out that time to exercise, I would fail to function effectively throughout the day.

7. Simplify systems and structures.

Since returning to West Virginia University in 2014, I have carried with me a wallet-sized card that lists six personal leadership goals.

You can tell I am obsessed with lists, right?

One of those goals on the card reads, “Simplify University systems and structures.”

Universities are complex places, and what we tend to do is make them more complex.

Simplicity is the best way to get an ordered result. This card I carry with six leadership goals is not complex.

It does not have an addendum. I did not call a meeting with 20 of my colleagues to brainstorm ideas for the card.

It is simply a list of goals.

We tend to lard up our missions and goals by trying to include everything but the kitchen sink.

I figure, if I cannot run a university on a card of this size, then I am not doing it right.

8. Balance your university.

That being said, it is extremely important to balance the interests of your university.
Today’s world of higher education places too much emphasis on STEM.

Now, of course, the STEM fields play a critical role in advancing our nation to the next levels.

But our smothering love of STEM makes us neglect the other academic wonders that shape the core of our institutions.

What about the arts? What about accounting? Journalism? History? Sociology?

We must not forget these other valued fields that complete the university puzzle.

If we only talk STEM and not STEAM, we lose the battle at the beginning. We are not a real instrument of change.

9. There is a lot you CAN control.

What do I mean by that?

Well, to say your life is out of your control is a copout. That is what other people want you to believe so they can have an easier time getting you to do what they want.

Yes. You are at the end of the food chain. You have all of these different voices and special interests hitting you from all angles.

That is mere perception.

There are many things in life that are outside of your control. But do not let that fool you into believing everything is out of your control.

Here is the reality: The life you are living is almost entirely by your own design.

You have made choices along the way that led you to the road you are currently traveling.

Do not let your journey be hijacked by those whose motives do not suit you and your university.

You must maintain control of the steering wheel.

10. Give yourself the extra attention you need and deserve.

Finally, we have reached the last tip, and you may have noticed some common themes woven throughout these remarks.

One is to stay true to yourself.

Resisting and ignoring your own feelings and emotions does not serve you – or anyone else, for that matter. It can lead to stress, illness, confusion, broken relationships, and bouts of depression.

One of the worst habits you can acquire is that of self-neglect.

To some extent, we are all guilty of shrinking ourselves.

Refuse to shrink. Take up as much space as you need in your own life.

Give yourself permission to meet your own needs, and honor your feelings and emotions.

A well-balanced you leads to a well-balanced life that is remarkable and productive.

Conclusion

There you have it, my friends. Answers to all of life’s problems in under 30 minutes.

Seriously, I hope some of these techniques can guide you through the mad maze of life as they have for me.

I talked a bit about self-awareness this evening in achieving perfect balance, but I want to leave you with a call for collaboration.

Living fully and serving well should not be a selfish conquest.

The perception of higher education as a whole is off balance.

Our country and its leaders continue to gleam over the true value of what we have to offer.
They have turned their backs on science, slashed our funding, and undermined our impact on society.

As I stated last year, all of higher education is careening through unfamiliar territory, dodging obstacles in the road, and trying to avoid plunging over a cliff.

If we fail to stand together, we will take that plunge.

Instead of tumbling over that cliff, we – college and university presidents – must trust each other, latch onto that ledge, and climb the mountain.

As a united front, we can return balance to
higher education.

That is, if we work smart, play smart and live smart.

Thank you.