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Southern University Conference

Prepared Remarks
April 12, 2014

I am deeply honored to be invited to speak to this outstanding group of college presidents.

I know the theme of this conference is “Presidential Flourishing in the Fast Lane.”

I am not sure that I am living in the fast lane, although all the caffeine in the Diet Dr. Pepper I guzzle does keep hopping for about 20 hours each day.

But I have been serving as a university president for more than 30 years, at what feels like half the universities in this country, so I suppose I have flourished. Occasionally, however, people have felt that I needed pruning.

Earlier this year, I returned to West Virginia University, where my career as a president began when I was only 36 years old. To introduce myself to students, I made a “Top 10” list of the reasons I was glad to be back.

Tonight, I would like to start my remarks with a “Top 10” list for you — my top 10 leadership lessons gleaned from three decades of serving as a college president.

1. Get comfortable with who you are and what you represent.

Early in my first tenure at West Virginia University, a couple of old-time professors came by and said, “You’re not doing very well.” When I asked why, they said, “You don’t look and act like a university president.” So I tried to change and become a little bit more stoic, and what I discovered was that I was miserable and I was also failing. So I just went back to wearing my argyle socks and my bow ties, and I have remained a university president for a long time.

2. Be serious, but do not take yourself too seriously.

You cannot allow yourself to believe all the rhetoric your alumni magazine prints about you. You possess all the frailties of humankind.

3. Have thick skin, “nerves like sewer pipes,” and a good sense of humor.

Criticism is part and parcel of the presidency. It can be difficult to remain calm, especially when you are new to the job. I still remember the first time a student newspaper reporter criticized me. A certain amount of criticism has continued from institution to institution.

Try to learn from the constructive criticism and disregard the rest. As the great Yankee manager Casey Stengel once said: “The secret of managing a ball club is keeping five guys who hate you away from five guys who are undecided.”

And do not let the letters and e-mails that stream into your office stampede you into unwise decisions. You have more information than the letter writers, and if they had the same information, they would probably make the same decisions you do.

Finally, humor can often be a calming influence during tense times.

4. Have passion for your university.

University of California President Clark Kerr believed that a university president should avoid becoming too involved with his or her university. That might have worked for him, but I urge you to have passion about your university and unequivocal faith in the institution you lead.

5. Understand that your experience differs from others’ within the university.

Your institution is like a prism that reveals unique aspects from every viewing angle. You have a great vantage point from the president’s office, but there are some things you do not see. For example, presidents do not have to deal with some bureaucratic encumbrances that students and employees face.

That is why it is important to reach out. Treat everyone in your institution as a teacher, regardless of job duties. It is especially important to enlist students as partners.

6. Do not believe that people will always treat one another with respect.

Early on, I thought this would happen automatically. Unfortunately, on many occasions, my belief proved to be naïve. I changed my passive expectation to an active one: We will treat others with respect. Life is tough enough without having to be around egotistical, abrasive, or duplicitous people.

7. Do not tolerate non-performers.

Great people will not stay at an institution that tolerates sub-par performers. When mediocrity becomes acceptable, great people will leave, and the non-performers will lower your institution’s standards. Do not let this happen.

8. Hire and retain outstanding people.

The ultimate litmus test for leaders is ability to hire and retain people who are stronger than themselves.

9. Respect traditions, but do not let them imprison you. Leaders must look to liberate energies imprisoned by long-held habits, and habits of mind.

“But we’ve always done things this way!” is not an acceptable rationale for anything.

At same time, you must guard against embracing too fervently the catechisms of moment. It is easy to become too fearful of speaking out in ways contrary to fashionable thinking. Do not hesitate to talk about moral values and respect for the human spirit, for honor, for law, and so on.

10. Remember that work is not the highest value in a successful life.

Do not push yourself and your work so hard that you have insufficient time to think, to read, to create, and to share the joy of other human beings. Any achievement without personal growth and the joy of relationships is empty.

Of course, finding time away from work is easier said than done these days.

The truth is, all of higher education is now zooming through the fast lane, careening through unfamiliar territory, dodging huge obstacles in the road, and trying to avoid plunging over a cliff.

And we are taking this wild ride in the unflattering glare of the national spotlight. Critics are eager to tell us we are doing too little. Doing too much. Doing the wrong thing. Doing the right thing the wrong way.

The economy has altered the American landscape to a degree unseen in our lifetimes. Government funding for higher education has plummeted, college costs have soared, and student debt is nearing crisis level.

Increasingly, we live in an era of reflexive doubt.

People have doubts about the economy. They have doubts about the future. They doubt themselves. Some even doubt us.

For years, few questioned that higher education was the gateway to the American dream.

As college costs have soared nationwide, the value of a degree has become a question for debate.

Tech investor and author James Altucher put it bluntly when he said: “Not only is college a scam, but the presidents know it. That’s why they keep raising tuition.”

Liberal arts education, especially, is under attack. You have probably all heard variations on this joke:

  • A person with a degree in science says, “How does it work?”
  • A person with a degree in philosophy says, “Why does it work?”
  • A person with a degree in theology says, “Who makes it work?”
  • A person with a degree in liberal arts says, “Would you like fries with that?”

These are tenuous times for universities and colleges, both public and private.

The important message to draw from the moment and the criticism is this:
Three hundred million Americans are looking to those of us in this room for solutions.

We are being asked to provide answers because of the uniquely powerful role that education has played in America — to fulfill our country’s founding ideal of a meritocracy based on ability and action, to sustain our democracy through an informed citizenry, and to right the wrongs of bigotry and oppression.

Recently, I read about a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist named Paul Salopek. He is spending seven years walking in the footsteps of the world’s first risk-takers. In the pages of National Geographic, he is re-tracing the past of the early humans who ventured out of Africa 60,000 years ago.

Along the way, he’s facing obstacles as ancient as heat and dust and as current as the Syrian conflict.

Why has he chosen to endure this 22,000-mile ordeal?

Salopek explained this way: “The philosophy behind this walk is to get readers to focus less on the notion that the world is a dangerous place…to think about the wider horizons, the wider possibilities in life, the trails taken and not taken, and be comfortable with uncertainty.”

Uncertainty is something today’s college presidents know all too well.

But I believe that moments of greatest challenge are often moments of greatest opportunity.

What this challenging moment demands is simply the best of us. What this moment demands is for colleges and universities to exercise their power as the central force in the creation of progress.

We cannot just clutch the steering wheel more tightly, fix our eyes on the road ahead, and hope to ride out this scary journey we are on.

We must take control, and go in a whole new direction.

We must look up from our desks, our computer screens, and our phones. We must think hard about the needs in our neighborhoods and in cities and villages around the world. And have the vision to re-imagine what education can and should look like in the 21st century. And then we must have the will to make that historic change happen.

No more waiting for help from others. No more wishful thinking.

When times are flush, we are apt to spread the wealth around like marmalade.

But tight resources are forcing our hand, and we must make real, strategic decisions about academic direction, about programs for investment and disinvestment, and about how we meet today’s enormous challenges. We must finally learn to say the word “no,” a word rarely used in higher education.

We must be nimble, versatile, risk-tolerant, and innovative. We must create reward systems that prize quality and effectiveness. We must build “transinstitutional” structures that foster collaboration.

The old term “multidisciplinary” no longer does this concept justice. Disciplines themselves will need to change, becoming more flexible and permeable.

Today’s global problems do not fit in neat disciplinary boxes. Our students are not preparing for a future that will demand only narrow sets of skills.

Holden Thorp, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, co-authored with Buck Goldstein a book called Engines of Innovation. They asserted that colleges and universities have a unique capacity to solve problems. Where else, they ask, can you find a collection of spectacularly talented people working across such broad lines of inquiry? However, if we are to be wholly productive, we need to pair that intellectual breadth with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Now, by entrepreneurial they do not mean we all must set down our books and beakers and launch an internet startup out of our garages.

Rather, they highlight the spirit of problem solvers, people with a searching curiosity and a resolute commitment to progress. These are people who collaborate, who imagine, who create, and who are not afraid to fail.

That, I think, is key. If we know the answer before the question is asked, then we can never offer an innovative, original solution. If we stay rigidly married to a structure or set of rules laid down in another era with another reality, we can never adapt to take full advantage of our own capabilities.

In this important moment, in these interesting times, we must go beyond the answers we have always given and the boundaries we have always maintained.

Simply put, I believe that when you take away rules, you add space for wonder.

We must never forget that our schools — all types and all levels — are where the mind and the imagination flourish. We are repositories of human achievement, sanctuaries for the human spirit, and incubators of human aspiration.

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot allow this transformative moment in our nation’s history to shatter the system of education that is the envy of the rest of the world.

As presidents, we must be the advocates for the value of higher learning.
I firmly believe that expanding economic prosperity in this country depends upon expanding the size of our imagination. Because imagination today is what steel was 120 years ago—the very building block of progress.

The great fortunes of the world were once forged by muscle and sweat in the mills. Increasingly today the great fortunes of the world are amassed from products of the mind. Smokestacks were once the metric of prosperity. Today, it is the college bell tower.

We live in an era when ideas will be the catalysts of virtually all future economic progress.

When critics question the value of a degree, we must make the reality clear: It is more important than ever to possess the knowledge and skills acquired on a college campus.

For people aged 25 to 32, the earnings gap between college graduates and those with a high school diploma is higher than ever. According to Pew Research, millennials with college degrees made about $17,500 more in 2012 than their peers with only high school diplomas earned.

Having an educated populace is also more important to our nation’s future than ever before. To produce the skilled workers our country needs, colleges and universities must graduate about forty percent more students by 2020, according to a McKinsey & Company report.

Professions that have not traditionally required a degree are now finding they must rapidly keep pace with new technological advancements and evolving levels of expertise. This includes the critical thinking and complex reasoning skills honed in college. Industries from insurance to nursing to manufacturing are increasingly seeking college graduates to meet the demands of a fast-changing global economy.

When we talk about a degree’s value, we often focus on the STEM disciplines — whose importance can hardly be disputed. But I prefer to stand in support of the STEAM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts, broadly construed.

The hard sciences produce results we can see and touch. But the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, because they have effects that are no less real, and no less central to our advancement as a people.

A few years ago, I was in Beijing visiting faculty, students, and alumni and meeting with officials in industry and government. I was asked to meet with the Chinese minister of education and expected a brief photo-op and gift exchange, nothing more. Several hours later, I was still sitting at his table. What I recall most vividly is this: The education minister most wanted to know how American colleges and universities taught students to think, not just how to know. What he was getting at is how to move well beyond rote knowledge.

Quite frankly, the question left me scrambling. How to explain the ways our children grow up believing, truly believing, they can be anything they want to be? The way the best of our K-12 schools foster a child’s native inquisitiveness and facility for making connections among disparate subjects. How to explain a mind that is open, a spirit that is free, a college classroom that is exhilarating—and a country that has never known anything else.

So if a college education is indispensable, the challenge as I see it is how to make it more accessible.

The first step is to get more people — young and old — onto the right path toward a quality college degree. The next is to track and ensure our students cross the finish line.

I lead a national Commission on Higher Education Attainment that is working to open the door of opportunity to more students.

In this effort, we must see our fellow institutions as allies, not opponents. Sharp elbows and zero-sum thinking are utterly useless in the work to fuel our country’s resurgence. There is infinite room in American higher education for improvement, expansion, and collaboration. And always room for greater effectiveness.

We must reach out, as never before, to others of good will and common intent. We must initiate wholly new kinds of collaborations that extend our missions more completely and effectively to every corner of our nation and beyond.

The choice, it seems to me, is this: Reinvention or extinction. And extinction is not really an option because too many people depend on us.

Public or private, two-year, four-year, research, and liberal arts — each of our institutions has a sacred responsibility. We are America’s future — intellectually, socially, culturally.

Booker T. Washington once said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

Washington once lived in my current home state, West Virginia.

He moved there with his family in 1865. He was nine years old, a newly freed slave, and he went to work with his stepfather in the local salt mines.

His mother knew he had bigger dreams, though. She bought him an alphabet book.

For years, he rose at 4 a.m. each morning so he could practice reading and writing in the hours before his work-day started.

At age 17, Washington walked 500 miles from Malden to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He convinced the headmaster to admit him, and he worked for the school as a janitor to help finance his education.

As you know, he went on to become the first leader of what is now Tuskegee University, and built into a leading institution.

He paved the way for other African-American leaders who would go beyond his efforts in fighting for legal and social equality.

Booker T. Washington is a testament to the power of education.

He is also a testament to the drive Americans have always shown for overcoming obstacles—for, literally, scaling mountains.

As I said earlier, I believe that moments of greatest challenge are often moments of greatest opportunity.

We have mountains to climb, as college and university presidents. But I truly believe that the best days of American education lie ahead of us on the other side of those mountains.