A story about my first week in grad school. As previously reported, I attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for my graduate program in higher education administration. I went to SIU-C sight unseen and I really think that was an interesting choice at the time. While we had internet access in 1995 there was not a whole lot of content online and learning about what SIU and Carbondale was all about, so it was taking a bit of a leap of faith. But I had a great interview, and the situation was just begging me to break free and go out on my own. So, I loaded up my Nissan Sentra and headed to Carbondale.
I rented a place in Murphysboro. When interviewing it was mentioned that many students save money by renting in Murphy, which was like 7 miles from Carbondale. I found an apartment that was furnished and knowing I was moving into a more permanent place after the summer I was not looking for fancy. It worked for me and soon after for my soon to be wife. The only real quirk was that the bed had several broken springs in it and when you slept on it you would slowly roll into the middle of the bed and settle there. When Nicole moved in, we would meet in the middle of the bed and just live there for the night. It was the epitome of living the poor grad student life.
My first week of work was just that, work. I was introduced to the staff and students in the student activities department on my first day and I was taking two classes that summer with my mentor and major professor Dr. Jim Wallace. Here is why my first week was so important to me and how it shaped my entire career.
The first moment was on Thursday of that week. The first event I worked was a weekly outdoor music series we produced call Sunset Concerts. This summer tradition is still going strong in Carbondale and it was a partnership between the Carbondale Parks and Rec department and SIU. We would use Turley Park on the west side of town and every concert a couple of thousand college students and townspeople would gather, interact, grill out, have a beer or two, and enjoy some music in the warm summer air. We had a local band that played rockabilly music and it was great. It was also my first major understanding of loosely couple systems and partnerships to get things done on campus. Loosely Coupled Systems is an organizational theory forwarded by Karl Weick in 1976 and the premise is simple. Colleges and Universities excel when they can form loose bonds of different actors, rewards, and technologies which bring different expertise and purpose to a problem or idea and then are able to build a portfolio of solutions better suited to accomplish the goal.
In this case the loosely coupled system was the need for the Parks and Recreation Department to allow us to use the space for the concert, local police to work with campus police to provide security, the tech crew at our performing arts center to provide production for the event, my office to provide marketing and the band, and countless others to step up and collaborate. If even one of the parties decided to pull out then we would not be able to produce the show. Loosely coupled systems are often dependent on two major items to work. The first is for each partner to be able to contribute a significant contribution to the event or issue. An imbalance can hurt the flow of the event. The second is a previous relationship is fundamental to efficiency. This usually means the parties likely knew each other prior to the project they were currently working on. But they understand that their relationship is temporary. And that is how I have approached my management style during my career, as a loosely coupled system. I try to see each member of my team as a partner in our success and their skills bring a unique contribution to our work as a whole. I learned that my first week at SIU.
The second thing I learned that I take with me every day is the value I place in a robust discussion of student success and how we can help students through an understanding of data and their stories. A dual process approach to understanding student development. In my class we spent one class looking at university level student assessment data. Much of it was like the NSSE data we collect today, and it offered a bird’s eye view of how SIU students interacted and valued student services on campus. My professor then brought in five students to tell their personal stories of working with the same services and their individual perspectives were quite the departure from what the data showed. I created a robust conversation in class about the scale and the personal. As much as we like to have widely applied solutions, we must remember that each treatment impacts students as individuals. This juxtaposition should give us license to think more about the spirit of the solution and not the rule. And that is the second thing I learned that week that I carry with me. Solutions are not monoliths; they are really a ball of clay and we need to use that clay to create solutions that work for all students as equally as possible and that is a good thing. We often think of equity is everyone is treated equally, and I have never really got down with that. I am more of a person who believes equity is the absence of barriers for student success. And this may mean we are flexible with our solutions and think of the spirit of the solution, not the word for word gospel.
I often think about that I have been in this business for nearly 30 years now and that first week had a such a profound impact. And how it created my management style and focus, flexible partnership. That life requires a malleable pathway and none of us can get there alone. So, I often keep track of who my partners are, keep my self ready for other partnerships, and know that one size rarely fits all. More tomorrow.