kaiyen: pepper

the life and times of Allan Chen

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From Good to Great in Higher Education

I listened to a recent podcast from Higher Digital featuring Jack Suess, VP of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, about going from Good to Great (the title of a fabulous book by Jim Collins) in higher education. The podcast covered many topics, but there was an effort made to tie in the great work done by Jack and his team at UMBC with how they have been able to go from “good to great” as an organization. How this or that initiative made the difference.

This got me thinking about the book and some of its principles, and how I might apply them to our organization at CalArts. I also wanted to take a deeper dive into those principles and apply them a bit more strictly. It’s not just about how an organization went from good to great (and, by the way, I am not claiming we are great. We have gone from “good enough” to “pretty darn good” for the most part, and “okay” to “a better than okay” in other areas. That is not a knock on the CalArts IT team. We are a small team that has had to do with remarkably limited budgets in the past, and are transitioning towards a position of greater efficiency, automation, and other tactics to improve our operations). It’s about whether we have a “hedgehog concept” and how disciplined our (my?) leadership is. Do we have the right people on the bus (all working in the same direction towards the same goal(s))? I want to also throw in there the question of what is our “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) which is actually from Collins’ (and Porras’) book Built to Last.

I want to apply these specifically, not just talk about what we’re doing to be “better” in general. So here goes.

First, what is our “hedgehog concept?” The example I recall from the book is from Walgreens. Their leadership held steadfast to the principle that they wanted stores on corner locations. They would actually close a store in the same complex as a vacancy if it meant moving to a corner. It’s an idea that leadership held onto stubbornly (in a good way – I’ve seen the word “fanatical” used as well) that allowed them to accelerate faster than competitors.

For us, I would say it’s operational excellence/efficiency. I’m not saying we’ve made great strides thus far (and again, I’m not saying we’re “great”), but something we talk about constantly and make investments in is improving the way we operate to be more efficient, more automated, and more reliable. So we have switched our computer setup process to be “low touch” (and hope to make it “zero touch”) such that a computer basically configures itself when we’re setting it up. No need to intervene at all. We are looking at vulnerability scanning tools for information security, and want one that will be automated rather than something we have to manually run every X number of months. Remediation through a combination of automated (sense a theme here?) patching and other tools would be something else we’d look at. This all wraps up into improving our actual operations to be solid if not flat out excellent. That’s our stubborn goal that I’ll work towards with every breath.

Second, do I have the right people on the bus? This doesn’t apply as well to higher education, which has both lower turnover (so voluntary changing of people on the bus) and longer staff tenure (for better or worse) than other industries. But you can modify this a bit – are we all pulling in the same direction? You might not have all top performers on your team, but are you all working towards the same goals? Is the bus heading in just one direction (don’t you love it when a metaphor falls apart?) Importantly, are you all spreading the same message when you “leave the room” where decisions are made? On the former point, I think we’re doing a pretty good job. On the latter, we/I could probably spend more time stressing this point. We don’t need (nor necessary want) consensus, but we should have the same story/message/etc. to tell when others ask. I think we do this well at the leadership level but I haven’t made it a point for the rest of the team.

Third, there is the concept of a “Level 5” leader, one who is both humble and steadfast/determined. This is a tough one to discuss because it’s about myself. What I will say is that I try to be humble, and to be vulnerable as a way of showing I am a human and worthy of one’s trust. I share myself, as a person, so that others know they can share themselves with me. I also work hard to use collaborative decision-making – again, it’s not about consensus, but I want to hear opinions, counter-arguments to mine, etc. At the same time, I do have a hedgehog principle, I articulate my goals clearly and consistently, and I am decisive when I need to be. Hopefully something adds up there.

Finally, BHAG. Again, this is from the Built to Last book but is something that has always stuck with me. What is my big goal out there? It’s somewhere between vision and mission statements. The former is what the world looks like if you succeed, and the latter is the guiding principle(s) for your operations. So my BHAG could be my vision, or it could be something else. Today, my BHAG is to be an organization recognized by others as an exemplar of achieving our hedgehog concept of operational excellence and efficiency. Not that it’s all about the opinions of others or validation, but because when you’re good, others hear about it, and want to follow your lead. I think that’s the best I got right now for a BHAG.

Being @ a Small College

I have often remarked to others that I value being at a small college, and identify as an advocate for such institutions. Heck, when I ran for the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors, which explicitly asks that one not speak only from one’s personal perspective but instead from and on behalf of the entire community, I “campaigned” partially on being able to look through the lens of a smaller institution. There are way more small institutions (sub 5000 FTE students) than large ones, so I was trying to speak to a lot of community members. But what does it really mean to be at a small institution? Well, a lot, actually.

There is scale, and economies thereof. In any department, be it IT, student affairs, marketing and communications, etc., there are simply fewer people doing the same number of jobs. In IT, for example, we have the same burden for information security and privacy as a much larger institution, yet we (at CalArts), do not have a full-time, in-house information security officer, much less an entire department dedicated to security. So we have to get creative and share the burden across multiple staff and use other resources such as “virtual” Chief Information Security Officer (vCISO) services from third party firms, share CISOs between institutions, and/or layer multiple services on top of each other for maximum protection.

We are also very thin in a lot of areas. I do not have the luxury of enough staff to run a 24/7 shop, even for our most critical of systems. We monitor them 24/7 and we act on the alerts we get, sure, but people do need to sleep, and sometimes I’m only 1 deep on a knowledge worker. Sometimes that alert isn’t seen for 8-10 hours, no matter how efficient we are at using instant communication tools. We mitigate this through efforts to shift to the cloud (so someone else is managing our systems), for example, but we’ve run into budget challenges there, to name just one obstacle. At larger institutions, you might have a whole team of people responsible for monitoring the data center, rather than just software (that can easily become out of date as systems change) that are there 24/7 to alert others of issues.

Similar challenges exist for other departments, of course. It’s not just us in IT working at a small institution. Many departments are 1 person deep at best, and several of those are in fact doing 1.5-2 jobs each. If even one person retires or resigns, the impact is disproportionate (many things keep me up at night, and staff retention is one of them, both because I want to know the team is happy, and because it’s so hard to weather the departure of any one of them).

A nice thing about a small college is that most people know each other. I joke that here at CalArts, someone need only say “George” in a sentence and I can figure out which person they mean based purely on context (which is actually only a slight exaggeration). But this can backfire, too. Support requests go to individuals instead of our ticketing system, for instance. Or “personal favors” are asked that break policy that we work so hard to develop and enforce. Sometimes it goes the other way – I find myself wanting to bend my own policy sometimes to help someone that I’ve come to know personally, too.

Another nice/not so nice thing is being involved in day to day operations. On the one hand, I feel I have a good pulse on what is going on in the department. I work hard not to micromanage so I don’t get into the weeds but I know what products we use for what, the general status of upgrades/updates to those solutions, etc. I can answer questions from others (esp. other VPs) effectively. Also, there are few things I haven’t seen before, and seen from the inner workings. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all and I’m definitely not saying that I addressed all those matters the right way the first (or even second) time around, but few things truly surprise me these days. That’s good. The downside is that every single day I get pulled into the tactical and away from the strategic. Sometimes it tires me out and I don’t even want to get into the strategic. I’m just worn out on the day-to-day struggle. Every fire we have to put out leaves me less able to figure out how to avoid ignition in the first place.

These are just some examples. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here. My original goal was to answer for myself the question “what does it mean to be from a small institution?” But then I should I’d share a bit. Would love to hear some other examples.

When Culture Eats Breakfast…

The management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” I think it’s pretty self-explanatory but the gist is that no matter how well you plan out strategy, if it conflicts with culture, then the latter will win out. You have to consider culture when considering strategy.

Now, an obvious question, and the one I ponder today, is what happens when culture runs counter to your needed goals (which is more immediate than long-term strategy, obviously). The long-term answer is to continually tweak culture through messaging, signaling, language, actions, etc., until it allows for the goals to be met. But what if you’re in the moment and find the two butting heads?

I’d like to point out that this example is not about CalArts. It’s something inspired by conversations I’ve had with others, many at different institutions, and debated back and forth with those people.

For example, let’s say you have a policy, borne out of immediate necessity, that recommends but doesn’t require that people do X. Fill in the blank with whatever practice you wish. It’s a recommendation, not a requirement. You do allow, in your policy, for certain parties to make it an ad hoc requirement in certain settings, but you do not put any teeth behind it. You don’t enforce, and provide no recourse for those that need/want enforcement (you can insert various questions about squeaky wheels, minority opinions portraying themselves as majorities, whatever, here, if you wish, but please permit me to continue).

One option is to put some teeth behind it, but at a monetary cost (hiring staff, building out procedures, possibly investing in new technology to manage complaints, etc.) but, and this is the kicker, it runs counter to culture. The other, more sensitive option, is to stick to not enforcing things because your environment is not aligned with one that involves calling others out, getting people in trouble, etc. The culture is that it’s a free and expressive space without people pointing fingers or accusing each other of things, so tactics (in this case) and certainly strategy is “eaten for breakfast.”

So what does one do? Do you anger many by creating an environment contrary to long-standing culture because of an urgent situation? Do you frustrate and perhaps anger a different population by offering a policy with no enforcement (which is, as a colleague at another institution said, consequently just a suggestion)?

I don’t have an answer, though I’d love one of the 0 people that will read this to make a suggestion. Again, the long-term answer is clearer. Stronger (but not insensitive) central administration that is supportive of but does give way to (what will become) previous culture. Messaging that we do some things for the larger purpose to bettering this or that, followed up by action to that effect (this has worked for us in IT as we slowly shift the perception towards needing to pay more attention to information security). I’m sure there are many other tactics that I am not thinking of even if I wrote 3 more paragraphs about them. But if you’re faced with the short-term, here and now conflict, what might you do?

CalArts VP-IT: 1 Year In

Yesterday, November 23, 2021, marked my 1 year work anniversary here at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), here in southern California (Valencia, to be specific). I’ve observed a lot in this time, many things about CalArts uniquely, and many about art (and design) institutes, more generally. And, of course, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about myself, my leadership style, and my growth over the past year.

First and foremost, I love it here. It’s been a wild ride, but I work with a great team in IT, am part of an amazing leadership group, and work for a fantastic president, Ravi Rajan, that is supportive and understands technology and its role in higher education success. When we meet (any of the aforementioned groups), we make decisions, we address issues realistically, and we just flat out get stuff done. The faculty are tremendous and exciting to work with, the Deans all get it, and the staff are top rate. Everyone cares about success. I had a personal situation which would have forced me to fly back and forth to northern California each week. My absolute first reactions were “I want to be here” and “I still have work to do.” I never actually considered leaving.

CalArts is a unique place. Truthfully, I find every higher education institution unique in their own way(s). But CalArts is even more unique (yes, I know uniqueness is a binary trait, but I’ll bend the rules a bit nevertheless) than most places, in my estimation and experience. CalArts is still a maturing organization in many ways. We have done things “as they come up” for some time. It is not a disorganized place, but process and procedure remain conceptual rather than actual in many ways, and the place is ripe for business process improvement. Even compared to other institutions in the same vein and of the same age, we have a few challenges. CalArts also has a different structure than most places. Despite being small (1424 FTE), we have 6 fairly independent schools (Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater). There is a “collaborative friction” between the schools’ long-standing independence and the centralized services such as IT. We work together and we have common goals, but there is some tension there that is not to be ignored.

CalArts is an art institute, which presents challenges that are different than other institutions. Some of these are high level – the faculty and students are just wildly creative across the board. At most institutions, maybe 10% of faculty are the “wild” ones with the ideas that challenge centralized organizations such as IT. At an art institute, 100% of faculty fall into this category. And the students follow along in terms of the challenges they present with their ideas and questions. Consequently, many staff that support these individuals can push us as well. Sometimes it’s quite a direct connection – staff X is supporting faculty doing creative work, and they must be just as inventive (and understandably demanding) in getting the resources they need. In other cases its a by-product – student affairs (what we call Student Experience at CalArts) exists within a culture where students won’t wear shoes on a regular basis. So how do we get them to wear ID cards on lanyards as evidence they have been vaccinated? It’s not that Student Experience is supporting the students in their iconoclast nature. It’s the reality of the population they serve. I would suspect that other art and design institutes face similar challenges.

Another, much more “in the weeds” example for IT is the annual computer refresh. I have done this everywhere I’ve been before, and it’s usually pretty straightforward. Prep new machine, centralized documents on old machine, move documents to new machine, install new machine. Voila. At an art institute, however, faculty might have filled their hard drive to the brim with media files, and might have 20 truly specialized software about which we could never know enough to properly support. Sometimes we can’t even figure out how to install and configure the license. But we don’t want to give out administrator-level rights to users, and we find ourselves in a dilemma. How do we handle this efficiently (we’re working on it and perhaps a topic for a future blog post)?

Finally, what about me? What have I learned, in general and about myself?

First, a small institution is a small institution is a small institution. Truth be told, I haven’t run into that many surprises at CalArts compared to other smaller schools I’ve been at. Sure, we have more deferred maintenance on our older building than at Muhlenberg, but it’s about the same as at Menlo. We don’t have the buying power of a larger institution nor the weight to throw around like at a Cal State institution, but that’s nothing new from the smaller schools I’ve been at in the past. We are more selective than other places I’ve been at in the past, and we have a higher profile in many of our metiers. This means that while one company might not want to play ball, another might.

Second, I am finding myself a lot more comfortable in my role. Not complacent nor am I forgetting to challenge the status quo, etc. And I get the jitters now and then and imposter syndrome is always lurking. But, for the most part, when something comes up, I’ve seen something at least somewhat similar in my past, and I can reflect on that experience as I go through the decision-making process on the new one. I might make the same decision, the polar opposite, or something in between. But I have learned, and I think I’ve grown as a leader. For example, we are working on a strategic plan. The last time I tried to do this, I simply bit off more than I could chew; I was too ambitious and tried to write the greatest plan ever. This time, I’m really focused in on one theme, and zeroing in on how we can make an impact within those boundaries.

On the one hand, it’s only been a year. You can lay the groundwork for things in that time, but it’s hard to have everything achieve lift-off. On the other, we have accomplished a lot in this time, and I look forward to what we can do over the next 12 months.

Being a Better Ally (but sometimes failing)

I struggled with the title to this post. It’s too generic and almost seems purposely attention-getting. But it’s also on point, as you will hopefully see. I’d also like to say that I have struggled with writing this for a while now, because it’s a sensitive topic, I’m not an expert on it, and because, well, maybe I’m just wrong in what I’m saying. For all I know what I think I should have done in the situation outlined below is still wrong and I’m still unintentionally supporting some “bad” thing or another.

I’m currently reading Better Allies (yes, I’m at least a year behind on my reading, though I have been getting the weekly newsletter for a while), which is both a book (2, actually) and a movement, and am thinking about a difficult past experience I had. I’ve been debating whether I was trying too hard to be a Knight, an Ally, or just messed up at both, regardless. Either way, the intention was sound, but execution almost certainly not.

My point in this post is, first, to express a relatively recent (within the last 5 years) struggle to be a better Ally and Upstander (see first point in this Code Like a Girl page). My second argument is that it’s just plain hard to know how to be a good ally sometimes, even when we are faced with what seems like blatant actions and words. If anything, I would argue that the examples in the Better Allies book of inappropriate jokes and micro-aggressive discrimination by race are far easier to handle because they are small (but significant) situations. I’m not sure if things are usually more complex in the “real world,” (I use quotes because Better Allies is very much “real” in its examples) but I sure struggled with this one, and for all my good intentions and intentional actions…I did not handle it well.

The not-so-short story is that our IT department decided to do a campus survey – using both a survey instrument and just talking with people – about how we were doing. As an organization operationally (were we doing our jobs), as part of the community (were we being good neighbors), and as a contributor to the culture of the institution (were we being good listeners, supporters, and change-agents towards a positive work place). However, as we gathered this information, we started getting some concerning feedback. We were being told that IT supported a masculine environment that was not friendly to women, for example. Some more extreme examples included that we were blatantly sexist and discriminatory in our departmental culture to other departments.

Not surprisingly, this worried me and the department leadership team. One Director was even brought to tears at the thought that he or his teammates were contributing in such a negative way to a community that he valued so deeply. I expressed that we probably needed to do something, and went home to a restless night.

In what I see now as trying too hard to be a Knight, I acted “decisively” the next day and called a team-wide meeting (I used to call them “all-hands” meetings but now know that that is a term that is not inclusive). I expressed firmly to everyone that these kinds of behaviors and the culture they propagated were anathema to my expectations, and that “that’s not how we do things here.” I used words that were tough to say (because I’m more of a “servant leader” – quite the hot term these days – than a top-down one and tend to choose my words accordingly) and difficult for others to hear. To make things worse, I did this basically right before Thanksgiving break. Which was just plain old bad timing and kind of stupid (I won’t even say bad practice or poor leadership or anything. It was dumb and insensitive).

I say that I was being a Knight rather than an Ally because it was only later (though at least right after the all-team meeting) that I offered to meet with everyone individually and to express more deeply my desire to erase these kinds of cultural contributions at a systemic level. I was trying so hard to be action-oriented and make an immediate difference that I didn’t think about how to make a deeper, lasting one. So I failed there.

What happened next, as I dug deeper into the situation, was where things both got interesting, and embarrassing. As we looked closer at he comments, we discovered that he specific words being used were not as damning as I had feared. They pointed at things we could do better, but there were not, in fact, any specific examples of us being discriminatory to the point where should have acted as I did, with the immediate calling of a meeting and drawing a line in the sand. I want to emphasize that again, because I don’t want to diminish the fact that legitimate complaints were being made. But we didn’t have a smoking gun here. Which leads me to my second failure.

My second mistake was that I was too quick to bold action. If I had simply but emphatically said in IT leadership that this wasn’t okay and that the directors should spread that message to their teams as per their individual cultural norms, that’s one thing. I could have made that my first move. If I had waited until after the break, that would have been more sensitive, certainly. But if I had simply waited in general, I would have realized that I was trying too hard and over-reacting. I had gotten the information somewhat second-hand, after all – people looking at and somewhat interpreting surveys of what others said. But I reacted like I had just been handed what looked like a bomb and had simply and hastily thrown it back from whence it came without taking a second glance.

Again, my point is not that Better Allies is misleading in presenting what I feel are more clear cut examples. If they were in fact clear cut then they wouldn’t happen nearly as often because those wishing to be good Allies would catch them all the time. Micro-aggressions and discrimination by all manner of aspects happen all the time, without question, and they should be called out. I am writing this because it’s an example of how I, personally, struggled, despite my goal to be a good Ally, and it’s an example that I chose to share, even if it makes me look stupid or anything else.

Maybe I was in fact right to have tackled the problem head on (don’t let it slide, right, even if it was Thanksgiving break coming up). Maybe sentiments expressed even mildly should be taken as if they were a bomb dropped in my lap, because those kinds of concerns and actions, whether big or small, should be treated the same.

I write this post because, even though I try so hard, even though I read the books, even though I get the newsletter(s)…I still struggle. I still get things wrong. And I still think about it every time I’m asked to make a decision on almost any issue of any kind today. But I will keep trying to be an Ally and Upstander. I will keep reading and refining. And, surely, I will keep making mistakes now and then.

Digital Transformation vs. Transition

During a recent presentation about the mass transition to Zoom/online-based classes in Spring 2020, the term “digital transformation” was thrown around. Now, admittedly, it was a very short presentation – 20 minutes – and encompassed the experiences of 3 institutions/systems to boot. So the presenters did not dig deep. But the clear implication by some was that by going online, teaching (and learning) was transformed. There were comments about how the intense crucible (my words) of switching to online in the spring necessitated transformation.

I…don’t know how I feel about this. First, transformation is thrown around in a lot of industries, and higher education is no exception. Second, transformation is about changing how you go about doing your work, not just morphing it from one form to another. As someone working with faculty (I am one step removed, however, from direct interaction), I regularly see and hear about courses that were airlifted from in-person design to virtual settings. Little to nothing was changed in the course. Lectures stayed the same, grading methods did not change, and engagement tools were not put in place above and beyond a discussion forum in Canvas or something similar. I would argue that this is not digital transformation. It was not the crucible of pressure changing the way we teach. It was just teaching the same material and using the same methods but in a different format.

Similarly, our work hasn’t necessarily changed that much. We still have meetings like we did; they’re just online. We still communicate generally as we did; we just do more email. Etc. If anything, we’ve regressed a bit. We used to be able to have “water cooler” chats or just walk down the hall for a quick question. Those 10 minute chats have become 30 minute (because that’s the standard shortest length in Outlook) meetings with agendas. One exception has been the digitization of forms on campus – in many cases, a business process efficiency discussion takes place about the form, and a new methodology is born. But even in those cases sometimes it’s just taking a paper form and making it electronic. That’s not transformation.

I would argue that this is digital transitioning. It is taking what you’ve done before and just moving it into a different form or delivery method. It is not fundamentally changing the way one goes about doing work.

Now, please bear in mind that I am not criticizing faculty at all, even though it sounds like I am. Even just switching to a new environment is incredibly difficult and challenging, and I am not one to speak as to whether it is possible to transform on any timeline, much less the one under which we operated, both in spring and over the summer. I am not faculty, nor do I teach a course in my current capacity. I actually have no problem, per se, with a digital transition. I have a problem with calling it digital transformation.

The “heat of battle” does not create transformation. The pressure to go online in the spring and now in the fall does not mean transformation, and stats as to whether we are or are not using Zoom do not support (nor dispel) this notion. The stats in particular are neutral. They are what they are; nothing more, nothing less.

This long preamble leads to a set of simple closing comments. Digital transition is…painful but not complex. Digital transformation is incredibly difficult. But is also incredibly crucial. How should we change the way we work from yesterday to today’s world (trying not to say “new normal” here, because there is nothing normal about it)? How should we morph our processes? What new kinds of emotional intelligence are required of us, as leaders, under these conditions, when the most we can do is show a headshot of ourselves in a Zoom box or send an email to express that concern and sensitivity? I don’t have even my own answers to these (yet? – check back with me later). But I do believe there is a difference between digital transition and transformation, and that we need to be looking deeply within ourselves and our organizations for the latter, and not getting caught up in the hype of the former.

From CIO to AVP: 6 Months Into a Non-Lateral Move

In September of 2019, I started as the Associate Vice President for Academic Technology at Cal State Northridge (CSUN). In this role, I’m responsible for a bit of a mix of areas, but they include instructional technology, accessibility, data & analytics, and user support services (help desk and classroom support). My previous 2 jobs had been as a Chief Information Officer, in charge of all of IT. Even the job before that, I was essentially the CIO of a law school. So I’ve had the full portfolio under my purview in the past. This was a significant non-lateral move for me. I’m 6 months in now.

I was very purposeful in this transition away from the CIO role. Yes, I had worked hard to get to be a CIO. But I wanted to get back to the west coast, and a lot of major opportunities are at large state institutions. Certainly, the majority of small liberal arts colleges are on the east coast. But I didn’t have a background at other kinds of institutions, much less large public ones specifically. And obviously becoming a CIO at a 35,000 student institution from a 2,200 student one wasn’t going to happen. So I made an intentional move from CIO to AVP.

It’s been…interesting, in a lot of ways.

First, over the years, my management style had evolved into a very hands off one. This felt a necessity as a CIO. I’m still an AVP (there are two AVPs in IT here at CSUN) so it’s not as if I’m in the weeds everyday, but I am more involved in daily operations on a personal level than I was before. I delegated a lot as a CIO. Maybe that was just my style, or was the culture of the institution. Maybe others in the same jobs would have been more involved. Maybe my style was even “wrong.” Whatever the reason, my style has become what it is, and I find myself questioning whether it is 100% appropriate here at CSUN. I will say that there is a bit more of a culture of involvement and hands-on management here at CSUN, from what I’ve been able to discern. In all honesty, I’m not 100% sure how to modify my style just yet.

Second, I’ve been reminded that my place in the department is different than before, in completely respectful and proper ways. I’m not in charge. I’m also not acting as if I am, but I have sent off a few messages bringing up matters that might be of higher-level concern, and been told, again in a respectful way, that that’s the purview of someone else and that that’s the end of the conversation. There was a security issue, for instance, where I suggested to the interim CIO that we might want to act more aggressively than was indicated by others. I was told that’s someone else’s call.

That’s perfectly fine, of course. But it didn’t end my unease about the decision, to be honest. But…it’s not my call. So I just swallowed the pill and moved on.

Third, and this is the positive one, I can really focus in on key things that I care a lot about. I have at least some experience with each of the areas I lead/manage, and extensive knowledge in some of them. I can really dig in and sink my teeth into the issues they are facing, and have in-depth conversations about solutions. This was not always the case as a CIO, where the breadth of responsibilities was much broader. I was weak in some areas. I was very open about it, and asked lots of questions so that I could make sound decisions, but I was never going to become a networking expert or be able to do ETLs from a SQL database.

So I’m 6 months in, and the obvious question is “what next?” What will I do next to be a more effective manager and leader? How do I keep moving forward?

I think the first thing is to take a hard look at my management style. One of my directors is still new and getting up to speed so I’m working a lot with her, but overall I need to decide if I want to be more hands-on with decisions and strategy. There is definitely a craving for certain things from various people in the group, and because it is a more focused team I need to recognize that I need to respond to those needs in a different (and faster) way than I might have in the past. I need to be less contemplative (though no less intentional and careful, of course). I also need to adjust my communication styles. CSUN is very email averse, it seems. If I were CIO, I could change that culture, at least in the division (not that I want to, just saying I could). But that’s not the situation now. I need to meet more often with people (I’m doing a lot more walking now). Please know that I wasn’t “Mr. Email” before, but the sentiment against sending a lot of messages is quite strong here.

Those are just my initial thoughts. Still cogitating.

A Month on Safari

This post is about photography, a break from my usual (but infrequent) professional missives.

Back in October, I was fortunate enough to go on a 3 week vacation through Africa. It was an amazing experience, to say the least. We covered 6 countries (South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) across 19 days.

First lion we saw on the trip

Before going, I did a ton of research on cameras, lenses, how to get around weight restrictions (33 lbs, including carry-on), etc. I asked a lot of people about what they recommended. Some suggested renting big honking lenses like a 400 2.8 and cropping or a zoom like a 200-500 5.6 (which is 5 lbs all by itself). Many strongly recommended renting the latest and greatest cameras, such as the Nikon D850, with it’s 47MP of resolution. For the most part, I got lots of recommendations for the fastest lens from Nikon only or the highest resolution that I could get. I didn’t get a lot of compromise.

In the end, I decided on a less expensive and lighter (4lb) zoom lens but with more reach – the Sigma 150-600 5.6-6.3 – and sticking with my own Nikon D600 (24MP) with an additional rented D610 (which is basically the same camera but with a new shutter mechanism). I had a 24-120 4 on the D610 that my wife, who excels at landscapes, primarily used.

I learned a lot of interesting things while photographing. First, every millimeter counted. I was almost always shooting at 600mm, and even then when I was post-processing I still had to crop. The first image, of the lion in the brush, is cropped quite a bit to bring him to the center of attention. I was zoomed in similarly on the following few images. And, again, lots of cropping.

Having a lighter weight lens was a big deal, and you don’t have to buy only name brand. It might be only 1lb, but I had heard that the 200-500 was quite heavy. The close up of the lion below was handheld, and I took a lot of photos of him (meaning I was tiring out my arms as it was). Plus, even at the slow end, the 150-600 was only a 1/3 of a stop difference, and I’ve already mentioned the point about needing that last 100mm, so it was a good trade-off I thought. Both lenses had high speed focus and vibration control. And the Sigma was very sharp. as you can see from both the lion and elephant pics below. I didn’t need a Nikon lens, which was hundreds of dollars more, to get great results. It’s a reminder that Sigma, and Tamron and Tokina for that matter, can make great lenses.

I also learned that there is something to be said about being really familiar with your camera. I knew my D600, and all the controls on the D610 were the same. Yes, I could have learned the D850 and had almost double the MP to work with, but my wife, who is a tremendous photographer but isn’t technically inclined, might have struggled a bit if I wasn’t there to help, on a camera I knew already and could adjust quickly.

Also, there is nothing “wrong” with my D600. It’s not as if it’s lost resolution in the 7 years I’ve had it (24MP then is 24MP today, as far as resolution goes, for the most part). It’s not as if it’s worse in low light/at high ISO (a necessity with a slower lens when we were doing game drives towards dusk). Yes, I could have cropped more with a D850, and that might be the one thing I wish I had changed, but I”m still 99% happy with the results I got with the D600. And I admit that I’m ecstatic as the results even with cropping. 24MP is still a lot of resolution, even today, in the world of newly-announced 61MP cameras.

My favorite photo? That’s the one of the leopard at sunset below. It’s shot on a 7 year old, 24MP camera, with a third-party, “slow” lens at maximum focal length, and at ISO 3200. And I think it’s beautiful.

Full gallery is on flickr.

The Higher Ed Domino Effect

A recent article in the Chronicle about various attempts to measure the possibility of failure of private institutions had me thinking about things in a slightly broader perspective. The article itself was about a “Doomsday list” (as they described it) from a company that used a bunch of publicly-available data to say which schools were in financial trouble. Obviously this stirred up a huge amount of controversy, including threats of legal action against the company from named schools. The data eventually was not released.

But, in a broader sense…having worked at a small, liberal-arts college in the northeast, facing stiff headwinds of changing demographics and the realities of discount rates and admission pools, I started thinking about the domino effect of failed schools. Muhlenberg College is actually in a very strong position – it’s not a top 50 school, and it’s certainly not Bates or Williams or Amherst – but it has a solid endowment and an excellent reputation on a regional scale and a notable one on a national scale. It’s in a relatively healthy situation. But the fact is that there are a lot of institutions in that geographic and demographic area competing for the same students. Many of them are in fact in worse financial situation (at least on the surface, using the same partial-story-telling metrics like admit rates, discount rates, endowment size, etc.). This post isn’t really about Muhlenberg. It’s about the large number of schools like Muhlenberg.

Let’s look at discount rates. While it’s scary to think of an institution at 65%+ discount rates and it’s hard to imagine such measures being sustainable, the fact is that if an institution is discounting that much, that means they are offering a huge amount of aid to prospective students. This pulls students to those institutions, in these days of incredibly high tuition, and away from other, arguably more stable institutions. Rankings don’t matter if the first financial aid offer is 65% of sticker. The more stable institutions begin to face more and more pressure to meet class size, and then they suffer. The only ones left that are having a good old time are probably the top 25 schools (not even 50 is good enough) and that small handful of truly elite institutions.

But 65% isn’t sustainable. That’s just a slipper slope to higher and higher discount rates to make class size. We know that. So the healthier-but-not-affluent mid-level schools end up in a waiting game for the less healthy institutions to inevitably crack under the pressure. Then the competitive landscape changes, and there is less pressure for recruitment and making classes. It’s a terrible thing to think of – waiting for competitors to fold – but it’s the truth, as far as I can see.

I have no great conclusion to this post or line of thought. It’s just a sad reality right now. Can mid-level schools hang on long enough? Is the writing really on the wall for those schools with high admit and discount rates (and other metrics)? And most of us know that the writing is not bold enough yet to know when the dominos really will begin to fall.

The Latest from Moody’s – TL/DR – Not So Good

Moody’s released their higher education credit outlook report (IHE article, too) yesterday. This is the second year in a row that it’s been a negative rating (used to be “stable”). I found a few interesting points in the report. A quick summary is that low net-tuition revenue growth continues to make for a bleak forecast, and that expenses should outpace that revenue, to boot. We’d have to get to a 3% increase in revenue to get level again, and to get to a stable rating. Privates are forecast to be a bit better off than state schools. The full report, which is for subscribers only, is a lot more illuminating, but I’ll reference information in the linked article only.

Labor remains the biggest cost for higher education institutions, up to 75% of total expenses. A professor at U Wisconsin Madison says that it’s just the “nature of the beast” that it takes a lot of staff and faculty to run a higher education institution. This is completely true, and Baumol’s Cost Disease speaks to the fact that economies of scale are extremely difficult in labor-intensive industries such as higher education (massive oversimplication). If you want an 11:1 student to faculty ratio, you have to hire enough faculty to achieve that result. Faculty salaries go up. Labor expenses go up. There is no way to use scale that doesn’t erode that student to faculty ratio. It’s like trying to make a musical quintet more efficient in labor. You can’t have a 5 piece band with 4 people.

If this truly is the “nature of the beast” then we need to be asking some hard questions about our business model. I don’t mean that in the “higher ed should be run like a business” kind of way – just how we get things done. None of these questions are all that new – different channels for delivery (online), for instance.

There is another part about how colleges and universities are expected to “control those costs in the coming year.” This is about cost containment. Or, in most cases, cutting costs. But that’s a simplistic analysis, too. What if you’ve already cut things to the bone? What if there are few remaining efficiencies to be gained? At this point, I’m slicing a few thousand dollars off our phone bill and calling that a win (there are loads of other places here at the College where we can save money. I’m not the only one trying to contain costs and I’m not saying that all costs have been trimmed. We are not perfect. My point is that this isn’t a winning strategy forever).

It’s an interesting time in higher education, to be sure. Certainly reports such as Moody’s cast a negative forecast on things, but there are a lot of exciting and positive things happening, too. How we react to the forces identified in reports like these will partially determine where we – as an “industry” and as individual institutions – will find ourselves in the coming years.