Free and Easy Down the Road I Go


Views of the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, showing Road, ca. 1920-1924

Saying good bye has never been easy for me. I get older, perhaps wiser, and I realize the importance in doing so but it sure hasn’t gotten any easier. Today, I said good bye to my team of Student Services professionals – a great group of folks that I have had the honor to work with for the past two years. As I was heading out, I just had to say good bye in my own way – with lots of words…

I’ve been thinking a lot about my role as Dean of Student Services and what this job has meant to me in the span of almost two years. I can say with a certainty that this has been the best job of my career (both careers actually) and that it has been a privilege to both lead and serve the students, staff, and faculty of our campus.

There have been many goodbyes these past few weeks. If at times it appeared that I couldn’t wait to leave, know that was the product of anticipation for the new and different things that lay ahead, not a desire to depart your company. I have developed rewarding professional and personal relationships with so many people at the college, that the hardest thing of all will be walking out that last day and knowing that I may not see many of you again. While we may keep in touch, the reality of our busy lives will likely result in few future encounters. This is the sad part of leaving, the part I dread, and that which I would normally hope to avoid by slipping out a back door. Alas, I don’t think that will be possible.

You have all had a great impact on my life by accepting me first as a guest of the campus and, later, by adopting me into the family. Yes, my time here was brief, but oh what a grand time it was. I have truly been honored by your support and hard work to serve our students. You clearly have taken ownership of the college’s mission; you are driven by the will to serve our students; you are truly amazing and a gift to all who encounter you. Thank you.

Not so much anymore, but early in my higher education career, people would often ask me why I did what I did. Many months ago, I shared a video from Alamo Community Colleges with you that wordlessly described the reasons. I received another vivid reminder of this just yesterday.

Last night, on the way home, I stopped at a big-box store to pick up a few things for the move. I was standing in line to checkout when one of the store’s employees, a young man, began walking towards me, nodding and making eye contact. As he approached, he asked me, “Community College?” I said, “Yes.” He continued, “You’re the Dean, right?” I again agreed. He went on to say that I had helped him a couple semesters ago to resolve a problem with a class, get a refund on a withdrawal, and ensure that he was registered for the right course in the subsequent semester. He just wanted to let me know how grateful he was and how well he was doing in his classes.

Now here’s the crazy part. I have no recollection of this student. The events he described are the types of things that I’ve regularly worked on and helped students with for the past couple years. None of this was particularly memorable or unique. I was just doing my job. Yet several months later, this student recognized me and made it a point to come up and thank me. What an incredible reminder about how the most pedestrian of our daily work tasks can have a profound effect on our students. This young man reminded me why I do what I do – though I suppose that more accurately should read: did what I did.

My wife has a tradition of sending a weekly message to her team on Mondays (sound familiar? She stole the idea from me). In her messages, she always finds lyrics from a song that connects thematically with the events of the coming week. I figured I would do the same here. While I considered a song from the Sound of Music (So Long, Farewell), Dierks Bentley’s Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go) seemed more appropriate and fitting.

Got the sun shinin’ on me like a big spotlight
So I know everything is gonna be alright

Ain’t no tellin’ where the wind might blow
Free and easy down the road I go
Livin’ life like a Sunday stroll
Free and easy down the road I go
Free and easy down the road I go

If you only get to go around one time
I’m gonna sit back and try to enjoy the ride

I could make a million or wind up broke
Free and easy down the road I go
Can’t take it with you when you go so
Free and easy down the road I go
Someday I know it’s gonna take me home so
Free and easy down the road I go
Free and easy down the road I go

— Dierks Bentley

As I ride off into the sunset, I wanted to leave you with some food for thought, tidbits of wisdom, or as some might say, a bunch of crappy, hackneyed sayings. These are a few of the core beliefs I hold, ones that have been foundational in my approach to life and work:

You have enriched my life and afforded me countless opportunities for growth. Together we have helped untold numbers of students progress on their educational journey and, for many, attain their goals. Keep doing what you do because so many depend on your efforts.

Photo: RU007355 – Martin A. Gruber Photograph Collection, 1919-1924, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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Goodbye Steve

Like so many others yesterday, I heard about Steve Jobs death not from TV or the radio but instead through the glowing pixels of my iPhone and the unobtrusive notification sound I’d chosen to keep me up-to-date on breaking news stories. My wife and I were sitting on the sofa and, on hearing the tone from my phone, I reached over and read the single sentence, “Apple states that Steve Jobs has died.” It was a sad, though not unexpected moment. It was hard not to think of his passing as the end of an era – an era of insanely great technology with a laser focus on usability and changing the world.

I had been an Apple user since the first semester of my junior year in high school. I begged and pleaded all summer for my parents to buy me a personal computer. A friend and I even collaborated on a comic book documenting the value to our education we would receive if our parents got us computers. Of course, what we really wanted was to play games. Our parents though somehow overlooked our obvious insincerity and got us each that Apple II+. Little did either of us know that it was the best investment in not only our education but our future. We both wound up pursuing degrees in technology and parlaying that skill into fulfilling careers.

I feel that I have much to be thankful for as a result of Steve Jobs’ work. Without that first computer, I would have never gone on to pursue my undergraduate degree. Had it not been for the first time I saw the amazing ability of a Macintosh to copy and paste graphics and text, I would have never concentrated on becoming not just a writer, but one with a sense of design. Every 18-24 months I would buy a new Macintosh. When iPods came out, I had to get one of those. Same for an iPhone. And an Apple TV. Not to mention an iPad. My life is surrounded by the works of Apple: the assorted hardware, iTunes, the App Store and I know that these things and others have helped me change the world and help others achieve their dreams. Sure, these things are just tools, but they are wonderful tools. Any craftsman or artist knows that while the tools don’t create the art, having the right tools can sure make the job easier. I feel that these Apple tools have done just that; made the creation of art and industry that much easier and that much better.

I am saddened by the loss of Steve Jobs. Regardless of how some may have characterized his management style, he changed the world and, I believe, left it a better place than when he entered it. This afternoon, someone sent me a link to his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. I hadn’t watched the entire address and was moved by it, especially near the end where he speaks about being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and learning to live each day as if it were the last. Well lived Mr. Jobs. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

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Who’s Got Time to Read 5 Million Books?

Ever wonder what would happen if you could read 5-million books and then analyze trends that occur across all those books? Well, neither had I, but a group of really smart guys from Harvard or MIT or one of those other New England institutions did just that – with the help of a bunch of silicon and Google’s scanned books. It’s fascinating to hear these guys talk about what they did and how they did it – almost more interesting than the results of their research. Plus, you can have fun searching on your own cultural themes.

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Instrument of the People

Ann Richards Rides to Work

This weekend, my wife and I visited the Pecan Street Festival in downtown Austin. We walked the length of the exhibitors, examining all the wares for sale before settling on the important purchases: one bottle of dog beer, one container of pretzels to accompany said dog beer, and one bottle of dog shampoo. No doubt the shampoo may be necessary after cracking the beer and pretzels for our pair of Schnoodles.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of human-oriented items and food. We had a barely passable Gyro sandwich (actually, barely edible) and then perhaps the best green chile pork tacos outside of New Mexico. Add to this a native-Texas beverage served cold in a can and we were prepared for our afternoon activity.

That activity took place around the corner at the Paramount Theatre where Holland Taylor presented her one-woman play, Ann! I was not fortunate enough to have been living in Texas during Ann Richards’ term as governor. I do remember hearing about her from afar and anything that penetrated the self-important, often wacky political landscape of California must have been pretty powerful.

All those I spoke to who attended the play commented both on how well Taylor captured the essence of the former governor as well as how much they all missed Ann Richards. The sense I got from watching matched what I had read: that Richards was tough, feisty, caring, funny, and powerful. Taylor closed the show with a quote from Richards that really resonated for me especially during this legislative season: “I know that life isn’t fair. I know that. We all know that. But government should be.”

That quote made me think about the sacred trust each of us have in serving the public. While we are not elected representatives, our roles, our jobs are to serve the students of our community. You hear the terms “knowledge worker” or “information economy” and both couldn’t apply more aptly to our work. None of us manufacture anything or craft anything with our hands. Instead, we are the instruments of the college, here to help our students understand the policies, navigate the processes, and be successful at achieving their dreams. We all are guides, and coaches, and cheerleaders. This was made quite clear Friday evening when our Student Life organization threw a party for students to celebrate their accomplishments.

As we move into summer, we know it’s going to be busy. I encourage my staff and everyone else to take a deep breath, find your center, and dive-in to help all who come to us seeking assistance. We need to partner with our students in constructing a new and better future. Our efforts not only help our students, but their families and our community as well. Every day, we help make the world a better place.

Photo: Texas State Library and Archive

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Digital Revolution on the Streets

The thought struck me over the weekend just how much the world has changed as I watched live coverage from Cairo on the fall of Mubarak and his 30-year regime. This wasn’t the first public uprising in North Africa this year, Tunisia holds that title. Rather, Egypt is significant for its vast size and population, not to mention that it has a political history stretching back almost 7,000 years.

What struck me about the events in Egypt was the genesis of the people’s revolt against power and how a small number of young activists leveraged technology and the Internet to spread their message and mobilize a nation. The older generation in power (Mubarak is in his 80s after all) reacted by trying to shut down the Internet, not truly understanding the resourcefulness of youth, who grew up in a digital domain, to circumvent such governmental interventions. This may have been the largest revolution that was lead not with a gun but with a cell phone.

I’ve always been fascinated by the digital nature of younger generations. Mine was the bridge generation. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, pausing at the end of each line to throw the carriage back to the start of the next line, but wound up typing my high school essays with a word processor. I learned to be digital while those that came after me were born digital.

However, it’s important to realize that age alone is not indicative of technological acumen. While we may assume that many of our younger students have a solid understanding of how to use their cell phone, we cannot assume that all younger students will be conversant in the various technologies employed in their education. Because of this, and also because our students span the range of generations from high school aged to senior citizen, it is important to remember that not all will be comfortable with the technology we expect them to use. Electronic student IDs, email, online course catalogs, and online registration can be intimidating. It’s important to have people available to help students learn these tools and overcome their fear.

Higher education continues to move towards the use of more technology to serve our students. This movement is driven by our need to serve ever more students as well as a need to help control costs. Many institutions have already done away with grade distribution by postal mail and we will continue to see email used in lieu of postal mailings which provides significant savings in both postage and materials. Other methods will also likely be implemented in how we capture and track information related to students.

To help keep these changes in perspective, I like to read through the Mindset List created by Beloit College. Each fall, they identify the “cultural touchstones” of their incoming freshmen (traditionally aged students, 18-years old) as a means of helping faculty and staff better understand what cultural references will and will not make sense to the incoming freshman class. The list helps to remind me just how quickly things change.

While technology does not provide the answer to all problems, it is important that we embrace technology and understand its application in our environment. One thing you can count on is that, regardless of what we plan for, something different will emerge and we will constantly find ourselves having to adapt to changes in our work context.

Photo: New York Public Library, ca. 1770-ca. 1880

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Politics and Change

Doin' that guv'ment thingChange can come from almost any source, either from within or outside the college. Every other year, Texans gather to discuss what is best for the state and plan for the upcoming biennium. As residents of Austin, we’re likely more attuned to this than others elsewhere in the state. Yes, I’m referring to the gathering of lawmakers for the 82nd Texas Legislature and 2011 is shaping up to be an interesting year.

Working for a public institution of higher education, we and our students are directly impacted by the decisions of our state legislators. Every session, dozens of House and Senate bills get introduced that affect education. Many of those bills never make it out of committee or to the floor for a vote. However, those that do have the potential to change what we do and how we help our students pursue their education. Recall that TSI (the Texas Success Initiative, formerly TASP) was the result of legislative action. More recently, the six-drop rule was mandated by the state as was the recent requirement that course syllabi be located no more than three-clicks from the home page.

With a looming budget shortfall upwards of $25 billion, you know there’s going to be lots of discussion on how to cut costs. No doubt, there will be plenty of ideas that will circulate and we may find these ideas disconcerting. For instance, the House appropriations bill contained several items that could negatively impact community colleges, their students, and, frankly, all of us. These included approximately $226 million dollars in community college funding cuts among which were the proposed closing of four colleges – Brazosport College, Frank Phillips College, Odessa College, and Ranger College.

This is our democratic process. Elected leaders meeting to discuss how to best serve the residents of the state. As the debate occurs, we will likely hear many different proposals about how Texas can meet the needs of our people and how we’re going to pay for it. This process can produce a lot of uncertainty and anxiety as our legislature moves through the process of debate to the point of making decisions. I encourage you to follow the process and stay informed of what is happening. Likely, there will be many rumors and, perhaps, some stories not rooted in fact. By keeping yourself informed, you will be better equipped to know what’s really occuring. Here are some resources you may want to consider for keeping up-to-date on legislative actions related to education:

While there is a lot going on in the state legislature that can impact us, try not to let those efforts affect how we serve our students. In the end, it truly is about helping others achieve their goal of a college education. As Dr. Stephen Kinslow, President of Austin Community College, puts it, “We put the legs under people’s dreams.”

Photo: Library of Congress, 1914

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Dress as Instruction

A recent post by Neal Raisman provides a good example about the importance of college faculty and staff choices for what to wear as a means for helping to establish a more meaningful environment for learning. Raisman talks about how the difference between student and instructor that used to exist prior to the sixties has blurred since that time as faculty have taken on the same, in his words, “slovenly” clothing choices of students. His point is that dressing like a student does not change the power dynamics between instructor and student but it does mean that we must try harder to get students to take education seriously. An interesting take on dressing to match the profession for which you teach.

Photo: Smithsonian Institution, 1946.


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New Year’s Innovation

Happy New Year and welcome back to campus. I hope you had a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Cheryl and I had a great, albeit busy, break visiting our families and friends in California. In addition to the typical holiday activities, we had the opportunity to work on a Rose Parade float (cutting moss and gluing seeds…it’s really a lot less fun than it sounds), stroll with all the interesting characters on Venice Beach, and wander the Santa Monica pier with visitors from Wisconsin and Texas.

With the new year, people often make resolutions for the things they’re going to change. I used to do that. With all good intention, I would identify those things I was going to do better, more, less, or not at all. Usually, within a month, if not a week, those resolutions would all be shot and I’d wind up wallowing in self-pity. So, several years ago I resolved to do away with resolutions. That was one I could actually accomplish and I’m happy to say I’ve been successful in keeping that resolution ever since.

Instead of resolving to do something, I now mark the end of one year and the start of the next as an opportunity to look back on what’s been and to plan for what will be. I encourage you to do the same thing. Consider what’s happened in 2010 and what we have to look forward to in 2011. While I’ve not been with the college for a long time, I’ve been here long enough to see a new mascot unveiled (on our campus too!) and to see citizens voluntarily vote to tax themselves allowing us to add two more campuses. I’ve seen several campuses, including Northridge, go solar. I’ve even experienced both network and power outages on campus. Among all of this, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with and getting to know you.

As I continue to learn how the college works and how we do things, I take the opportunity to also consider how we may be able to do things better. You’ve heard me say it and you’ve read in my messages repeatedly that I encourage you to consider new and better ways to serve our students. I can tell you that these are challenging times, but then every leader says that about every period of time. Yes, we have economic concerns that affect our whole country. Yes, we are pressed for space. Yes, we have more students wanting more classes than we have available. None of this though is new.

What I’d like you to do is consider all of this, call it our work context, and think about how we do things and whether there may be better ways to accomplish our goals. Two recent articles from very different sources have sparked my thoughts on innovation this week.

The first, Access, Innovation and “Colleges for the 21st Century”: Interview with Peter Smith, is an interview with Peter P. Smith from the Higher Education Management Group blog. Dr. Smith is, “the founding President of the Community College of Vermont, former  Lieutenant Governor of Vermont , university Dean at George Washington U, Founding President at Cal State at Monterey Bay, Assistant Director of UNESCO, and now the Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development for Kaplan Higher Education.” This is a guy who has been around and seen higher education from the administrative and policy levels. One of the things that stood out about Dr. Smith’s comments was the certainty of his belief that change is coming to higher education. He wasn’t going so far as to say what sort of change, but he indicated that it will be happening rapidly and that existing institutions will have to adapt “or yield to still other new institutions and programs….”

The second article was a post from Fast Company, 10 New Year’s Resolutions for Innovative Teams. The short, annotated list of “resolutions” neatly collected several sound practices for innovating change. You can read the descriptions yourself at the referenced link, but here are the ten resolutions:

  1. Do something new for the first time
  2. Think big and do small
  3. De a connection engine
  4. Be relational not transactional
  5. Celebrate and communicate your successes
  6. Speak the language of innovation clearly
  7. Prototype with simplicity and speed
  8. Do research differently
  9. Be a global citizen
  10. Pick a fight

I encourage you to consider ways to help and better serve our students. Have a wonderful new year!

Photo: Library of Congress, 12/29/1907

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Winter Break

Today’s the last day campus will be open. It’s time for a much needed and much anticipated break. Without the discipline of going to work everyday, I likely won’t be updating Collegial Change until January. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday and a great New Year. See you in 2011!

Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida, ca. 1964.

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Goodbye Delicious, Hello Diigo

If you haven’t heard yet, Yahoo’s plans to “sunset” the Delicious bookmarking service were recently leaked and created a flurry of concern and commentary on the Web. I’ve always worried a bit about entrusting my data to the cloud. Having lived through the birth of the Internet and the Web, I’ve seen hundreds of promising companies/services/sites flameout. First rule, check the feature set and be sure that there is a way to create local backups, export your data, or best yet, both. Luckily, Delicious had a method for exporting my bookmarks, comments, and tags. I did so yesterday and imported them into my brand new Diigo account.

Not heard of Diigo? Neither had I until last Friday. I read about the pending demise of Delicious and decided to investigate what options were available. It had been a couple years since I’d bothered to look at bookmarking sites, so I figured what the heck. I found the usual suspects – Reddit, Digg, and something called Furl. I knew I didn’t want the first two, but I decided to check out the last. Searching for Furl, I couldn’t find anything (and I don’t know what happened to it or who may have sucked it up). However, I did find a reference to importing your Furl bookmarks into a service called Diigo. So, I followed that link and discovered Diigo. Wow, here was what I’d been wanting to do with bookmarks and web content but never knew that there was an online system to make it happen. I signed up and began playing with the system. Wow! Here was a tool that allowed me to not only bookmark the sites I found interesting but to annotate, highlight, note the parts of the page bookmarked that was most interesting. A High Input’s dream. I was so happy, I sent the following note to the Diigo staff this afternoon:

Dear Diigo-

Until about 36-hours ago, I’d never heard of you. I was content to use Delicious to capture a few bookmarks every now and then. I didn’t make use of a lot of the social aspects of the site, but found it useful to store links. I’d also been using Evernote to capture web snapshots if I needed/wanted to keep the information on the page along with the link and description.

When I read about the pending Delicious flame out, I figured I better scout about for another tool. I found Diigo almost by accident. At first I thought it was a misspelling of Digg.

As I began to view the various pages of the site, I became excited by the potential of bookmarking combined with highlighting and notes. Diigo would allow me to replace Delicious (a priority at the moment) and would also allow me to combine some of the functionality I’d been using Evernote for and add the benefit of highlights and notes.

I was a bit concerned when the response time to display pages was so slow, but then I attributed that (rightly it seems) to all the other Delicious castaways jumping ship. I was so intrigued by the feature set and, convinced that Diigo was not fly-by-night after having researched some of your history, I made the commitment to purchase the Premium package. You said that I would likely get some priority on my Delicious import (which was already 24-hours+ and still waiting). You were right – my Delicious bookmarks imported within 10-minutes of my upgrade to Premium. Best of all, they were perfect.

Thank you for providing such a great tool. As I head back to college for the third time in my life, I’m envisioning Diigo and I becoming great friends and colleagues in my research efforts.

If you haven’t taken a look at Diigo, do yourself a favor and check them out. I think you’ll be impressed.

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