Message from the Dean – March 4, 2019

First some good news:

The work we do at our performing arts venues continues to be appreciated and respected around the area. Edmond Sun readers have selected the UCO Jazz Lab for two SunShine awards as “Best Place for Live Music” and “Best Concert Venue” while also selecting Mitchell Hall Theatre as the “Best Place for Live Theatre.” All of this year’s awards can be seen in this week’s paper as well as online.

Now a story:

In the spring of 1978, my parents moved from Minnesota to Michigan. My dad, who owned a construction company, was feeling the pinch of a downturn in the housing market, and took a position as a carpenter foreman at Andrews University. My parents packed themselves and all our worldly belongings in a moving van, leaving me at Maplewood Academy, a Seventh-Day-Adventist boarding school. I spent my 16th summer making roll-top desks at the Harris Pine Mills furniture factory where I joined a handful of fellow, sawdust-covered, adolescent seasonal workers. Child labor laws were looser back in the 1970’s. We bunked in the academy dormitory, scarfed down breakfast at the school cafeteria and grabbed a pre-made sack lunch before being bussed to the factory for our shift. The bus returned us to campus after work, where we spent unsupervised evenings engaging in teenage mischief. The schedule was pure blue-collar, daylong shifts, two breaks and lunch. We worked for minimum wage, minus 50% deducted straight to the school bill. The labor was repetitive, but for a teenager suddenly on his own, there was a heady, euphoric sense of independence. That December, I visited Michigan for Christmas. My dad used a green 1974 Camaro as a lure, and I bit, moving to Michigan to live with my family again. At the halfway point of my sophomore year, I took on the identity of “new kid” at Andrews Academy, driving myself to school every day in that green Camaro, hoping it would function as an enhancement to my dating potential.

While standing in the cafeteria line at my new school a couple months later, I was surprised when the Principal, Dr. Orrison, invited me to attend a leadership camp. My previous leadership experience was probably best described as “ringleader”, and frequently involved skirting or breaking an extensive list of boarding school rules and policies. Back at Maplewood Academy, shortly after I transferred to high school in Michigan, a pair of my cousins and our entire friend group were suspended or expelled for an incident involving an excess of Southern Comfort during a school sanctioned ski excursion. As John Bradford aptly said, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” When singled out as a potential leader at my new school, I was proud, but baffled. Principal Orrison identified nascent character traits in me that were previously undiscovered, or unremarked upon. He looked beyond my teenage penchant for vagrancy and sarcastic disrespect for authority, and encouraged maturation without berating me for past failures. There was power in having that potential recognized. It expanded the perception I possessed of my own abilities, and became a magnetic north for my internal compass.

The study of leadership types and effectiveness has become a cottage industry in the last decade. There is an abundance of literature dedicated to the maximization of leadership potential. Numerous sociological studies examine the advantages of various styles of management in corporate and educational settings. In fact, a helpful faculty member sent me a link to a recent New York Times article on this subject, titled “When the Bully is the Boss”.

I greeted the opportunity to read this particular article with a degree of defensiveness because it examines the management styles of notoriously harsh, volatile, and high-handed bosses. Naturally, I hope faculty and staff identify me as helpful, encouraging, fair-minded and positive, but self-perceptions are frequently inaccurate. One study includes a telling list of common traits possessed by leaders who emerge organically within a group.  These comprise a healthy ego, a sense of entitlement, and the moral conviction necessary for decisive decision-making in difficult situations. With time, the traits that are essential for successful leadership can breed overconfidence and an internalization of the belief in one’s superiority. Boldness becomes recklessness, confidence becomes conceit, and the boss becomes a bully. According to the article, there is no evidence that tougher bosses achieve better results. Less “demanding”, more “nurturing” are ingredients to long term success, along with a dollop of patience and a large helping of empathy. Achieving that mix is now on my rolodex of leadership goals.

Every teacher is also a boss. Similar to administrative leadership, effective teaching demands both a healthy ego and self-confidence, with the attendant dangers associated with those attributes. Our students are works in progress. They will overreact, under-react and behave in unfathomable ways. Exasperation with these foibles easily leads to impatience. In spite of conduct that may seem disrespectful, inexplicable, or maddening it is our job to scaffold our students from where they are, to where they can be. During the 30 years I spent teaching, I often remarked that my essential function was to turn 18-year-olds into 22-year-olds. It is a tricky and demanding job to help young adults make that transition. The anecdotal evidence I have observed demonstrates no proof that teachers who “demand” excellence are more likely to achieve it than professors who “nurture” it. I am thankful for the teachers and administrators who patiently overlooked my adolescent faults and encouraged me to succeed, and I am grateful for current colleagues who inspire CFAD students to realize their potential every day.