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.

the news from Austin

student success

assessing HIPs

(Click on the title slide above to download a copy.)

This is a presentation I made to this week’s meeting of the INSPIRE affinity group hosted by Texas A&M. The group – initiated by the provosts of the Southeastern Conference – began collaborating on student success a couple of years ago. Since then they’ve been working on getting high-impact practices to more of their students, at a very large scale.

The INSPIRE conferences are an interesting community of practice. There’s no web presence or newsletter, and although these universities serve hundreds of thousands, meeting attendance is capped at around 65. Most participants are in offices of student engagement, often unofficially straddling multiple divisions. (During the introductions you hear the phrase “dotted line” more than once.) Typically a university sends a team of three.

In other words, these are people who work as clearinghouses of innovation at their home institutions, at the forefront of institutional integration and change.

And they’ve gotten to know each other. They speak in professional shorthand, cutting right to the field’s current inquiries into community building, or resource allocation, or evidence of sophisticated student learning.

longhornWhen they get together, you notice that for this work just framing the questions can be hard, but also extremely satisfying.

Plus, I sat on a bull.

fixed versus growth mindset

curriculum, student success

Lately I’ve been obsessing about meta-cognition, the way we think about our own thinking. In some quarters this is called an “intra-personal” skill, grouped with things like controlling your own attention, switching intentionally among tasks, and regulating your emotional responses to stress.

microscope analogy

Such mindfulness, the cultivated awareness of our own neuro-cognitive activity, has a couple of benefits. For one, understanding the quirks of our own intelligence makes it easier to learn the next new thing. For another, people who know themselves well are often easier to be around and work with. In this sense, the intra-personal facilitates the interpersonal.

It’s become my recent obsession as the impacts of computing and robotics get clearer. We used to tout the benefits of college in terms of knowledge acquisition – major in x, then master the details of x, then go sell yourself as an x-ist until you retire.

The tacit assumption was that any other positive results of your time in college – for example, a fuller engagement with the civic life around you – was a kind of collateral benefit, determined largely by things beyond the curriculum, like your personality.

But as the content knowledge of particular subjects becomes ubiquitous and free, and as we automate the routine parts of most careers, the different learning outcomes of college are getting reordered. These days the highly valued outcomes have more to do with creativity, drive, and getting along.

So then isn’t that what we should be focusing on?

But before we scuttle all our 100-level Intro courses, we may want to distinguish carefully between “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.” The whole enterprise of formal education, from daycare to doctorate, is based on the latter. We assume people can learn, so we educate them.

In the student success mainstream where I swim, growth mindset is all the rage. Assuming anything is fixed strikes my peers and me as backward, invidious, and even harmful.

Yet whether we like it or not, we have to make useful distinctions among the different styles and rates of learning we can reasonably expect from our students. Some things will forever be out of reach, just as the NBA will never go recruiting for short people. The story of our potential is mixed.


The assumptions behind our criminal justice system are similarly tangled and contradictory, as our reasons for punishment hold people individually accountable, but then disproportionately incarcerate the impoverished and insane, conditions over which the convicted have little control.

Our departments of “correction” – a name that implies a growth mindset – administer life sentences and capital punishment, tip-offs to an underlying fatalism.

unfairMuch of the U.S. legal system dates to the 13th century, interestingly around the time the west founded its universities. For an absorbing account of how those structures have slipped out of step with what we now believe about human conduct, potential, and accountability, see Adam Bonfornado’s Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice.

So which one is it? Can we learn to get along, to better direct our conduct toward ourselves and others, or can’t we? Where should we draw the new line dividing the things we can teach from those we can’t?

However appealing we find the tenets of growth mindset, I know firsthand that there are limits. In my case, I have a catastrophically weak sense of direction. I know of only two people whose inability is as bad as mine, and it’s more serious than it sounds.

To Walk A Confusing Path

My wife gets frustrated when I can’t find my way back to a room we were just in, or don’t know how to get to a road she drives us down every weekend. She thinks it’s a question of attentiveness or effort (growth mindset), and of course she’s right. But I also know it’s more complicated, because for me that minimum effort is a lot greater than it is for others. I simply lack the internal magnets and gyroscopes the rest of you take for granted.

I can work around this limitation – I’m better than most people at reading mall directories and roadmaps, for example – but I also know I will never be a good field botanist, or hiker. To deny that would be foolhardy, and possibly fatal.

microscope analogy 1What we don’t yet know is how much we already rely on such workarounds in other walks of life, and how many disabilities we hide even from ourselves.

In other words, we’re still figuring out where to draw the new line.

If college learning is going to catch up to societal need with a new emphasis on the explicit development of intra-personal and inter-personal skill, then we’ll need a better idea of what’s even possible.

learningTo figure that out, I think it’s helpful to look at very long term learning outcomes from college. The Gallup Purdue Index is one early stab at this, aiming to get beyond starting salaries to look instead at long-term measures of well-being like health, happiness, and satisfaction with life, across very large populations of graduates, to ask what college is getting right.

Another early example of this new approach is in a recent book from researchers at California State University Northridge. A team of faculty and staff spent ten years – incredible in our context of administrative turnover and instability – soliciting the views of four cohorts of freshmen about what helped them succeed at various stages of their college careers.

A surprising number of the respondents named the research project itself, and the routine of regular interviews each semester where they could think about their own learning, and how they organize it. In the words of one:

It would help me think about, okay, who really made an impact on me in terms of the professors, and how did it kind of sculpt how I see things and how I can move forward.

I think it’s likely that very long-term and large-scale datasets, like those in use at Purdue and Northridge, will help us understand which neurocognitive capacities can grow, and which ones defy the tools of education.

Image credit: Daily Mail; Wes Hardaker, Captured on Earth Photography