August 14, 2014

UC Management Development System-wide Conference

Thank you, Mary Anne, and good morning, everyone.  Welcome to Irvine.  From this hotel it takes just moments to get to our campus, so with the hope that you will be able to visit the campus while you’re here I also welcome you to the University of California, Irvine.

Being asked to speak at the Management Development Program is a special honor.  One of the best parts of moving from the life of a professor into administration is that I have a chance to spend a lot of time with outstanding staff managers and leaders.

It is not an exaggeration to say that you are the lynchpin of the greatest university system the world has ever known – the vital link between the vision of the academic leadership and the day-in and day-out practices that translate our aspirations into a lived reality. 

I know you will be spending time today talking about the importance of engagement, and your role in facilitating meaningful engagement with our institutions and our mission.

My remarks today, entitled “Passion for the Mission,” are intended as a small contribution to that responsibility, from the point of view of someone who spent most of his life thinking he would never be a manager or have administrative responsibilities. 

Now that I think of it, I may have been a terrible choice as a speaker.  But I will do my best.

As you may know, I came to UCI just over a year ago, in June 2013.  The very first event I attended on campus was the presentation of the staff “Excellence in Leadership” awards.  We hold this event every year in conjunction with the celebration of our staff service awards.  Through the Staff Assembly, staff members are asked to nominate their managers and supervisors for consideration.  Fifteen managers are selected as finalists, and from them three winners are chosen. 

The Staff Assembly receives a lot of nominations each year for the “Excellence in Leadership” awards, which is a great testament to the high quality of our managers.  The nominations often include detailed letters in support of a particular nomination, and I’d like to share with you some of the statements made by staff members about their managers, since it gives us a glimpse of what inspires and motivates our community.

One person wrote about his manager:  “He instills the confidence in each of us to explore new ways of conducting our business, initiate new strategy, and create new methodology to improve our current processes and procedures….  His regard for his employees’ ideas, challenges, well-being, and health creates an environment of high morale…He has created an environment in which each of us feels that we are valued and appreciated for our work and efforts.”

It is a universal experience to want to be valued, isn’t it, and to feel as if we are able to make our own meaningful contributions to inspiring missions.

Another person wrote about her manager:  “She also works as an active mentor and career coach for each of us….  She employs an empathetic approach in her leadership style to help us overcome our challenges and move forward in our development.  In addition, she takes the time to make a personal investment in each of her employees by providing consistent feedback to reinforce accomplishments as well as make improvements when opportunities are missed.”

We want to develop, as people, as professionals.  What can be more satisfying then being in an institutional setting where we feel as if, in the normal course of our efforts, we improve, make more of a difference, matter in the world.

A third staffer wrote that her manager “…recognizes that the staff are constantly making an investment in the university, and she makes sure that the investment is reciprocated…She understands that we are a community of people first, people who need to be treated with respect and dignity, people who ourselves face an assortment of pressures and problems on a daily basis, and people who require various levels of training, support, nurturing, and encouragement to succeed.  Our success, which is considerable, is in no small measure due to her ability to service and manage so well these varying – and sometimes conflicting – constituencies.”

Yes, while we want to matter as individuals, what we crave is the association of a genuine community, of free individuals who, collectively, make more of a difference than any of us alone could make. 

I think everyone in this room would be thrilled if the people we work with made statements like these about us.  I know I would be.  And I know many of you have had the satisfaction of hearing such accolades from those you have led and served.

Respect, development, accomplishment.  It is a very special thing to be in a setting that nurtures these qualities.

This may sound like an observation that is especially designed for managers, but I think it is more universal.  In fact, before I ever imagined myself an administrator, when I was focused instead on transforming the lives of young people through my teaching and mentoring, I had a similar frame of mind about the importance of settings that nurture respect, development, and accomplishment. 

It is the connection between that work, as a teacher, and my work as an administrator, that I want to talk more about. 

Teaching is an interesting exercise in leadership.  The teacher stands there, filled with knowledge, charged with transmitting it to the students.  The students sit there in varying degrees of willingness to listen.  The challenge for the teacher is that it isn’t enough just to tell the knowledge to the students.  The students need to want the knowledge if they are to hear it, to listen to it, to absorb it and reflect on it.  So the teacher has to find a way to get the students to want to learn, and to want to perform, even at levels higher than they thought possible.

I decided right from the start of my teaching career that the best way to get students to want to learn, to engage them, if you will, was to get them to share my passion for the material.  So I was very enthusiastic and very energetic in my lectures.  I shared my excitement over this journey we were taking together.  When I walked into class – sometimes at 8 a.m. in the morning – I conveyed that, from my point of view, there was nothing more important or exciting that we could be doing together than exploring the topic of the class:  the nature of civil rights and liberties, the structure of the American republic, the idea of a constitutional community, where free people get together to identify their touchstone values and then do the hard work necessary to build a real-life community around those values. 

More to the point:  I challenged my students to work hard and to do their best work.  I told them that, given the importance of these materials, I expected them to dig deep to read and master the materials, to struggle with the difficult debates, and to think their way out of the confusion to a point where they could feel that they earned the right to a hard-won point of view.  I told them that their reward for embracing this task, and working hard to work through these issues, is that they would end up deciding that this was the best class they ever took, precisely because they never worked quite so hard, and with as much passion. 

And it worked.  Every year I would hear from students that mine was the most challenging class they had taken…and the most rewarding.  Music to a teacher’s ears! 

This was my life for a very long time – decades, in fact.  I never imagined that I would go into administration, because I thought the life of a scholar and teacher could not be more satisfying.  When I had a chance to go into administration it seemed a fluke, and I did it as an experiment and a change of pace, fully expecting to learn from the experience and then return to the very best job anyone could have:  a tenured professor at a great research university.

But the world kept conspiring to get me to do other things, and before I knew it, I had moved into serious administration:  first as a department chair, then as an associate vice provost, and then as the dean of a very large academic unit.  It was exhilarating but also a bit disorienting; after all, one of the great things about the life of an academic is that there are very few administrative responsibilities.  Suddenly, though, rather than focusing all my time on students and on writing, I was overseeing a large, talented, amazing staff – dedicated staff who were terrific but still who had to be led and managed and supported and helped and understood and mentored and corrected and all the rest of what goes into moving an office or a team or a unit or a university forward. 

And so how was I to adapt to this new environment? 

Well, perhaps because of a failure of imagination, or perhaps because my life experience led me to no other place, I decided that approach that served me so well as a teacher for decades would work in leading a large and talented group of people.

I have tried, with varying levels of success, to approach leadership the way I approached teaching:  enter a room as the person most excited and passionate about the mission; set the bar high for performance, not as a way to make people anxious, but as a way to underscore the importance of the mission; make yourself available to anyone who was struggling to find their path so that they could reach a higher level of performance; and celebrate the accomplishments of people who dug deep and found a path that mattered in the world.

As a teacher my mission was helping students see why issues regarding American constitutionalism were so important.  So how might we describe the mission of what we do in a way that will motivate and inspire us, and inspire the people around us?

Here’s what I genuinely believe about our mission.

We have the privilege of working for the greatest public university in the entire world.  There is no other public institution of higher learning anywhere that compares to the University of California.  Not in the quality of faculty.  Not in the caliber of students.  Not in research.  Not in service.  Not in importance.  Not in any area. 

And in this country, no public university has meant as much to the development of its state as the University of California has to California.  Our ten campuses have provided the intellectual capital and technical know-how, the basic science breakthroughs, the new products and new technologies that have driven California’s economy to being one of the world’s powerhouses.  There is not one industry in California that has not benefited from the work done at the University of California.  There is not one person in California who has not benefited from the work done at the University of California.  I can’t even imagine what California or our nation would look like if the University of California had never existed.

So, yes, working for UC is a great privilege.  It’s also a great responsibility.  Every day, on every campus, people are making life better for other people.  This is the ultimate mission of the University of California – to make life better.  It might be by showing a good teacher how to be a great teacher; it might be by helping a patient through chemotherapy; or by finding ways to lessen our use of water; or by introducing a young mind to the timelessness of Shakespeare; or by providing advice to a nascent business; or by doing any of the countless other things that we do every day to make life better, here and around the world.

I genuinely believe that the modern research university is the greatest force in the world for human progress and enlightenment.  We all know that there is too much darkness in the world, but we are true to our motto, Fiat Lux, let there be light.  There are still too many places in the world where the mere intention to create schools for people is met with kidnapping, rape, murder, and so we cannot take for granted what we do here, together.  There is no more noble work we could do together, and every one of us plays a vital role making this noble work possible.

The success of the university rests on our shoulders, and on the shoulders of everyone we lead, we mentor, we support.  And so, as we go about our daily affairs, focusing on the particular tasks at hand, I hope you will help all of our colleagues see the bigger picture, appreciate the historic significance of our mission, feel that sense of wonder that institutions such as ours exist in the world and depend on us to realize our promise to humankind. 

Another day at the office; another chance to save the world, heal the world, enlighten the world.  So, let’s get to work! 

Thank you for participating in this great and noble enterprise and thank you for helping to lead it.  I look forward to our bright future together.