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California State University Dominguez Hills campus, campus life and campus architecture


the baton

curriculum, organization

This summer the longstantrack-baton-clipart-23ding and widely admired president of my university retired. It was a wistful parting for both sides, but he said on balance he was happy to be handing off the baton to the next runner. He described it as a good feeling, like he’d given it his all, leaving his stretch of the track feeling exhausted but satisfied.

Now when my colleagues and I refer to the president we mean someone else. It’ll happen to all of us.

His metaphor of the baton has stuck with me, and it seems useful even for those of us who aren’t head honchos. It brings to mind a comment attributed to Jonas Salk, about the need to be not just a good person but also a good ancestor, to create something valuable to pass along to our successors.

It also reminds me of a couple of my aunts, who’ve gone about this in different ways. One, whom readers of this blog can thank for her careful copy editing, literally tithes to her local church, supporting its youth camp. She has been doing this every summer for many years.

2014-06-20-10.14.22-HDR-300x225That means nearly a generation of children, by now many dozens of them, will outlast her with lives improved by arts and crafts, purposeful play, and early socialization, all of which she invisibly subsidizes.

My other aunt, a full generation older, was remembered the summer before last in a eulogy delivered by the supervisor of one of her four daughters. That alone kind of amazes me, that her influence touched someone who knew her mostly secondhand, as a filial reflection.

Tower Road in Malta

Here’s what he said about her last summer:

Although I did have the pleasure of meeting her in person and spending a little bit of time with her on a few occasions, I was able to know her mostly through the stories and experiences that her daughter shared with me.


She earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and all four daughters have college degrees. Growing up, the girls all believed they could do anything—it never occurred to them that there was anything they couldn’t do, or that boys could only do certain things and girls could only do certain things. Rather, there were things that needed to get done and you had better prepare yourself to do them.

When the girls were all young, their mom created a neighborhood library where all the neighborhood children could freely share each other’s books, which obviously encouraged them to read and learn. She recently acknowledged that she was very lucky to have a husband who was a career Naval officer, which afforded them wonderful opportunities to travel the world and see and experience many of the things she valued so much. She was an adventurous person and thoroughly enjoyed discovering new things.

And get this: when I asked later for a written copy of the tribute, I saw it went on longer than he did. At the time he was getting too emotional to continue, so cut things short and broke us for lunch.

It was the reflection of a person, the passed-along interaction that remained so vivid to him – really, to everyone in the room – that it moved him. It felt like something bigger, more universal than just knowing an individual; it was knowing her generous mind, her curiosity.

Her life appeared full and spontaneous. But working in higher education, I like to believe her degrees helped her shape a more intentional, self-aware approach to raising her daughters, who would cultivate their own impacts later.


That’s a student learning outcome worth aiming for, developing our students’ recognition that their lives will matter not only in the running, but in the baton.

Image credits:, Our Savior Lutheran Church of Vero Beach, pinterest,,

learning from the worst


If you google the “ten worst American presidents” you’ll see that Herbert Hoover makes everyone’s list. His single term ran from 1929 to 1933. Those years saw the onset of the Great Depression, beginning with the stock market crash only six months after his inauguration. From there it got worse, taking the country and his administration down with it.

coverPeople at the time, and historians ever since, found Hoover unequal to the challenge. Contemporaries held him personally accountable for their misery, calling their squatter camps “Hoovervilles” and the government donations of surplus turnips “Hoover apples.”

Historians describe him mostly as the predecessor and vivid contrast to posterity’s darling, FDR. So I was curious to get more of the story, and have been reading last year’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: the Ordeal of the Presidency. It’s a good read.

Before his term in the White House, Hoover had been known as the Great Humanitarian, the administrative genius who saved Europe from starvation after World War I. Some of the personal attacks on his presidency seem driven by disappointment, that he wouldn’t just deliver on the skills everyone knew he had.


Leading World War I relief efforts among refugee children in Poland in the early 1920s.

So why didn’t he?

Rappleye lays the blame on a couple of things, including the one I’d heard before, Hoover’s stubborn belief in private sector charity as preferable to government action and – against all the available evidence – enough to rescue the whole country. His was the last administration to so wholly reject a role for government in the national economy.

But it’s the second source of paralysis that I find instructive, even for those trying to make things happen in a much smaller context, like an office or a college campus.

For much of this argument and the title of one of his chapters, Rappleye draws on a Walter Lippmann essay from the June 1930 issue of Harper’s Monthly, called “The Peculiar Weakness of Mr. Hoover.” Lippmann wrote:


Walter Lippmann

“This weakness appears at the point where in order to win he would have to intervene in the hurly-burly of conflicting wills which are the living tissue of popular government.”

An engineer and technocrat, Hoover had won only a single elected office, the presidency. He wasn’t a mingler.

The rest of Rappleye’s book bears this out. Repeatedly we see that Hoover was unwilling to share his thinking with colleagues in Congress or the press, especially as his ideas were forming. So people who might have sympathized, countered, or simply helped were shut out.

Instead, he tried solving problems on his own, with the sheer brute force of his ferocious work ethic.

hoover at desk

The second shortcoming fed the first: with no one to serve as sounding board, his faith in limitless private charity went unchallenged.

Over the past ten or so years, I’ve reported to people in positions of varying visibility and responsibility. It’s interesting how closely the analysis from Lippmann and Rappleye lines up with my own experience. All of my bosses have taken their jobs seriously, working hard and over-preparing. These are, after all, people who were so good at school they never left.

But the good ones manage somehow to keep an open mind – and an open office door – even after they’ve studied up. They embrace the unreasoning, very human hurly-burly of democracy. There really isn’t a time when they seem finished learning. By contrast, my least effective bosses have seemed besieged by their own fear of error. For them, dialogue doesn’t nourish so much as threaten. They may sound as certain as anyone, but they’re stingier with eye contact.


Hoover in the last year of his presidency, at the Nine-Point Prosperity Conference.


So then what’s the answer? Welcome people in, leverage the strength of the group, and understand that human interaction is what keeps the engines from seizing up.

The day really never comes when you outgrow needing others.

Image credits: Cornell College, Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. WorldNet Daily, Wikimedia

the business continuity planning committee


girl-looking-scared_1392078When I joined my present employer a couple of years ago I reported to the president, and I had no staff, no budget, and no deadlines. A dream job.

But things change, people leave, and the next thing you know you have a regular job title. There are processes depending on you and students affected – things you care about and want to make work. Over time the responsibilities grow, but seldom shrink. Not a new story.

What I find noteworthy is that the more of the campus I interact with, the more conservative my roles become, whether I want them to or not. This has me on unfamiliar ground.

A recent example of the new me: as of last November, I am rostered on my university’s Business Continuity Planning Committee. My cell phone number and reporting lines are now part of the university’s defense against disorder.

189_Cathedral_San_Salvadore_after_EarthquakeThe idea that I’d be on such a group is laughable, after so many years of calling for, in effect, a Business Disruption Planning Committee. I’m thinking of the morning after the Big One, and as we pick through the rubble I’ll be the one asking “Now can we get rid of the credit hour?”

Another dissonant role for me is fiscal. Before I taught in college I made independent movies, which is one long night of destitution. In the CSU Office of the Chancellor years later, I behaved pretty much the same way, scratching around for grants and carry-forward to promote innovation on the fringes. I’d spend everything I had and then go ask for more; secretly, my comfort zone is still insolvency.

But lately I’ve had to think in longer timescales, and recently caught myself using the phrase “prudent reserves.” Kill me.

Even in the months since the committee appointment prompted this realization, I can’t seem to shake this new caution. It’s unsettling; I thought I had more time.

And at levels of the org chart above mine, Business Continuity is an even greater slice of the job, maybe even the main one.

podium empty

Last April I got the opportunity to speak with a couple of illustrious colleagues. One is president emerita of no fewer than three universities; the other retired last year from running the country’s largest public higher ed system. They remain important thought leaders and were there shaping a large national project, but also noted that people’s attention is now harder for them to get. One said, “And it’s especially poignant to lose that bully pulpit, because now is when I can finally speak my mind.”

It’s as if we can either call for change or call the shots, but not both.

So then how do we get better?

Well, slowly. I’ve come to think of business continuity as a facet of shared governance, a brake on executive prerogative. Ideas are tested not only across constituencies but over time.

Institutional stability empowers our successors, who will decide whether to perpetuate our ideas or reject them – the same way we do now with those of our forebears.

It’s humbling.


just for fun


Steve and Monica

Last week my brother Steve and his wife Monica paid us a visit from Chicago.

While they were here, he and I finished a 7-minute movie we started making in 1984. It’s in two continuous shots, taken 34 years apart. You can watch it by clicking on the title frame below.

Come travel through time with us.

sensing the tide


title slide

This is today’s presentation to graduate students in the Collaborative Online Doctorate in Educational Leadership (CODEL) program, offered jointly by the California State Universities in Fresno and Channel Islands. You can download a copy by clicking on the image of the snorkler.

They asked me to talk about approaches to academic leadership, a very fun subject to think about. These are some of the first students to enroll in the program, so for them learning to lead may be a little redundant.



bring them all

student success

History of ACADEMIC DRESS 1Before I worked in higher education, I shared the popular impression that selective colleges are the best ones. If your admission standards are high and you turn most applicants away, then you’re doing something right.

But the deeper I get into this world, the less I feel that way. Giving an imperceptible boost to the well prepared just isn’t very satisfying – even though I’ll concede it should be. After all, the prestigious universities are educating our next Nobel laureates, our political leaders, our CEOs. Edifying them can bend the arc of history.

But if it’s improved trajectories you’re after, then low-barrier, access-oriented institutions are where it’s at. Our students haven’t always pictured themselves in school, let alone college. Some choose us because we’re a pretty good school, not too expensive, and sure to get them out of the privilege bubble while they’re still students, and mistakes are cheap.

Others, maybe the majority of our students, face economic and personal insecurity. A surprising number are homeless. A few have been incarcerated. Across our graduating classes, the degrees are unusually transformational, and everyone can feel it.

California is more generous than most states, but still doesn’t adequately fund its public colleges and universities. Mine is one of the few campuses that can still find space for all eligible applicants, and it’s a distinction we cling to, a point of pride while others have started to say no.

This past weekend was commencement. Few get to experience that from a platform party, like I did. Here’s what it looks like:

20180518_181252 cropped

20180518_181249 cropped

Things you notice from up here, facing out:

  • We have a lot of students.
  • They are diverse. I mean, stunningly. All variety of names, ages, phenotypes.
  • We average around ten supporters watching for every graduate who crosses the stage. That’s more than I saw when I taught at an expensive private college. This day is a big deal for our students’ families and their supporters, often the culmination of unseen struggle. One family kept cheering over the next dozen names.

All year long, we cultivate the euphoria of this weekend. It celebrates the possible, the amazing. And it persuades a fair number in the stands that maybe they should give it a whirl.

One more observation from this weekend: through sheer good luck we’re next door to L.A.’s Stub Hub arena, which means we can feasibly include as many family members, neighbors, and supporters as our graduates want to invite. This year we just about filled the stadium.

It won’t last forever, but for as long as we can manage it we’ll have the same message at the end as the beginning.

Bring them all.