SEAPCO Workshop

Below are President Glasser's remarks from the SEAPCO Workshop event on May 18, 2012.

It is wonderful to be invited to speak to some of my favorite people – teachers. I want to say thank you.  I also want and need to say the obvious: With the exception of parents, no one has more influence over our lives than our teachers do. And nothing more directly influences the lives we will lead than the education we get. As a very wise man named Plato said 2,400 years ago, “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.” I say Amen to that. I also say that if Plato were around today, he would write: “The direction in which education starts a WOMAN will determine HER future life.”

So if I had more sense, I’d sit down, be quiet and let you tell me how you go about influencing your students. But that’s not why you brought me here, is it?

You asked me to look at this book called “Influencer: The Power To Change Anything” and to share with you some of my experiences from my “position of influence.” I am happy to do that, but I must offer a couple of caveats: What works for me may not work for you. Because the nature of our tasks is different. Because our personal styles are different. And because what works today may not work tomorrow.  Circumstances and times change. I went to college at a time when students would rather flunk a class than have their parents call their professors, let alone the dean. I never imagined the day when parental intervention would be so routine that we would invent a name to describe it – helicopter parenting – and an office in the university to deal with it – the Office of Parent Relations.

So while there is much good advice in this book, and I hope I can say a few words that are helpful or inspirational, I would caution that there is no copy-cat approach to influencing others. The authors ask: “Who can’t benefit from learning how to locate strategies that routinely succeed in the face of widespread failure?” That seems a simple question, but I just don’t believe the answers are that simple or the strategies so universally applicable.

One of the authors’ points that does hit home is the importance of avoiding “the serenity trap.” (Don’t you just love that characterization?) Serenity’s not been much of a problem for me. Maybe it’s to my mother’s credit – for she always told me I could do anything I wanted to do, including study law.  I wake up every day with enormous energy, passion and commitment to motivate and inspire, to enhance the university – from the flowers in the quad to the activities for students to the curriculum in the classroom. And where would we be if Lydia Moss Bradley had said, “I can’t do anything. I have no influence. I’m a widow. So I’ll just sit here and cope with what has happened to me.” If I ever were tempted to struggle into a “serenity trap,” I’m quite sure Mrs. Bradley’s legacy would pull me out.

But I have no “serenity trap” to escape. That’s helpful. It’s also helpful to have the backing of my employer.  The Board of Trustees brought me to Bradley to be an agent of change and continues to back me as I strive to make Bradley a university of national distinction. I cannot do this alone. I believe my role is to help my colleagues imagine the opportunities to do great things and then support them when they take the initiative. And if you’ve been on the campus recently, you have some idea of the great things we’ve been doing with our physical plant – the new Markin Family Recreation Center, the new Renaissance Coliseum, the new Alumni Center. The rebuilt Westlake Hall will be six times its previous size when it reopens. Six times! More changes are coming, most notably our convergence center, allowing business and engineering students to share a curriculum that will give them an edge on our competitive globe.

As I mentioned, the backing of my board has been essential to my role as an influencer at Bradley … and so has the backing of my faculty. Most of our important curriculum changes – sports communication, social media marketing, hospitality leadership, the game design major that recently won an honor and made the news – were faculty ideas. I just opened the door and supported what they wanted. And once faculty saw they had someone who would encourage their vision, other faculty members stepped forward with other ideas.  If I hope to influence others, then I must encourage and welcome and applaud those who need to influence me. This is particularly important at a university because our faculty are our biggest influencers. They deliver our educational services to the students, they see them every day, they are the role models and mentors. I’m sure you can identify with that.

This book makes the point that verbal persuasion alone rarely works when tackling persistent problems, and I would go that one further. If any sort of persuasion is to work, it must build on a foundation of trust. To establish trust, nothing beats face-to-face engagement. This is especially true with students. I want them to know me and to have a relationship with me. I begin building that relationship by showing up.

I show up when our freshmen move into our dormitories. I don’t schlep their suitcases, but I do hand out campus maps and water bottles. I go to their plays and have even been known to appear in one. I attend Late Night BU – more about that later. At basketball games I spend some time in the student section. I’ve been a judge in the Bradley Idol contest. I schedule office hours during which I open my door and invite students to come in and vent.

I approach our faculty, alums and parents in a similar manner. I go to faculty lectures. I welcome alums at Homecoming for what we call a “fireside chat” – meet the president over coffee and donuts. Bradley has parents weekends twice a year and siblings weekends. When parents call with a concern, they are promised an immediate response. Our image of a close-knit, caring community is built partially on being responsive to parents. I don’t know, but I would guess that many of you would love to have parents as fully engaged in their children’s education as ours are.

I’ve talked about those who influence me – trustees, faculty, students, parents – but I need to mention another big influencer on campus that you probably know well: peer pressure. “The power of one,” the book calls this, and it makes the point with a chilling story about the influence of   companions on one’s willingness to deliver supposed electric shocks to research subjects. I imagine you find this as disturbing as I do.

You may recall that eight days before I arrived at Bradley, one of our soccer players died in an alcohol-related tragedy. Not much later, another student died in an alcohol-influenced accident. It seemed to me that we needed to try to turn the peer pressure that was influencing young people to drink to excess into the sort of peer pressure that would influence them not to. In other words, we needed to make it cool NOT to go the bars on a Friday or Saturday night. And so we created Late Night BU – a fun, entertaining, alcohol-free celebration at our Markin Center. We’ve averaged nearly 1,600 students for each Late Night BU this year and more than 2,000 for some. That is phenomenal for a campus with just 5,000 undergraduates.  Our alcohol citations are down, and so is the blood-alcohol level of those who have been cited. I believe we have found a way to make peer pressure work positively.

Your book makes the point that “the great persuader” is not argument but personal experience, and I would agree. I may call it building trust, or showing up, or using peer pressure to motivate, but my style as an influencer is deeply rooted in personal involvement.

That said, there are times – many times, don’t you know how academics love to meet? – when verbal persuasion is necessary. Perhaps because I was trained as a lawyer, my persuasive efforts rely heavily on facts. I try to be straight-forward and fact-based. I believe this works – though I am intrigued by the new research presented by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in “The Righteous Mind,” which argues that if we want to change people’s minds, we shouldn’t appeal to their reason. We should appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions that support our reason. Hmmm. When I use verbal argument, I do try to be passionate about the cause – but also prepared to compromise when I can. I know I can’t expect to get everything I want, but I also know when I am negotiating just how far I can compromise and still retain the essence of what I am pursuing.

For example, Bradley is pursuing creation of a School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. To make this concept work, we need every college on campus involved. My role? To bring the parties together, to make the point that there is something of value here to the students and the university, to urge the parties to work out their differences and find consensus, and to remove roadblocks along the way.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds. This book tells a wonderful story about efforts that finally brought success in battling a lethal disease in Africa when failure previously had been widespread. Although on a wholly different dimension, I was reminded of our success in establishing a sports communication major – an idea that had been on the shelf for some time when I arrived at Bradley. While there were passionate advocates, there were also roadblocks. I began to remove them – first by demonstrating there was an unmet need in the marketplace and then by showing that Bradley had the expertise to fill it. It was important to make the point that this new program would not be a zero-sum game in which some faculty and majors would lose. Sports communication would attract a new group of students – and it has done that – who might not have considered Bradley before. It would provide us with a nationally distinctive major; it would set the university apart. And it has. Just three years into the program, our students have already had the opportunity to intern with ESPN, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Chicago Bears training camp and, most recently, NBC as it covered the Super Bowl. This summer 10 sports com majors will intern at the summer Olympics for NBC. Students from only four other universities across the entire nation have been granted similar experiences. I was part of the persuaders on this one, and I still can hardly believe it. 

As I indicated earlier, our circumstances as influencers are different. Most of the students who come to Bradley have a great deal of hope for successful futures as engineers or broadcasters or nurses or … special education teachers. I am aware that some of the students you teach – and their parents -- have less expansive hopes that might be summarized as the simple ability to care for themselves. Or to be happy. But I am also aware that many special education students have great potential, and it is a good thing we have moved past the time when educators said things like, “Those kids can’t learn – why bother teaching them?”

I think the authors of your book are quite right when they say that influencers must find a way to “provide hope.” When I think about this principle, I am reminded of Brad Cohen, a Bradley alum who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome yet has gone on to achieve great success as a teacher -- and national notoriety when his story was made into a movie. In that movie, the actor playing Brad declares, “Hope is a hard habit to break.” He says this even as his job interviews have dried up and his money is running out. Those who would influence need to inspire hope.

While my influence at Bradley is supposed to be on the macro, university-wide level, I firmly believe in the value of exercising it on the micro level as well. And I think that’s something we all share. Frankly, the most joy in my job comes from individual students.

Three years ago a young, shy, African-American freshman came in during one of my open office hours and confessed she was lonely and unhappy. She didn’t think she’d return to campus after Thanksgiving. We had a long, heart-to-heart talk. There were some tears. I convinced her to stay until the end of the semester and asked her to keep in touch. She did both. We talked regularly. That student is now a junior, and she is flourishing. She has been in our plays and is a leader in several organizations. You talk about having an influence?

I could tell you more stories, but the point I want to make is this: You and I may not – will not – be able to reach every student in our classrooms. But we all can reach one … or two… or ten… or many more as the years go by. I am reminded of the familiar story about the wise man walking along a beach, watching a younger man pick up stranded starfish and throw them back into the sea. During the course of their conversation the wise man points out that there are miles and miles of beach and miles and miles of starfish that won’t be saved. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” he says to the young man. And the young man bends down, picks up one more starfish, tosses it back into the water and declares, “Made a difference to that one.”

I believe each of us has an obligation in our lives to make a difference. I also believe that as we go about trying to influence others, it’s important to maintain our sense of humor, our humanity and our humility. To that end, I am reminded of the wonderful quote that opens Chapter One of this book. It comes from former University of Cincinnati President Warren Bennis: “I wanted the influence. In the end I wasn’t very good at being a university president. I looked out the window and thought the man cutting the lawn actually seemed to have more control over what he was doing.” If you stroll through our campus – and I hope you will – you will see just how much influence our gardeners have.

I began my comments by reflecting on the importance of education. I will conclude them by saying how necessary it is that this nation continue to invest in our young people, kindergarten through college. You have influence with those who represent you in Springfield and in Washington. Use it. Involve your parents. Involve your own college students. We did that at Bradley a couple of years ago, when state scholarships were threatened. We’ll do it again if we need to.  

As I try to remind myself every day on the Hilltop, don’t just think … KNOW … how much influence you have on the lives of young people.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

Thank you for inviting me to Wildlife Prairie Park on this beautiful day. God bless you all for being influencers and difference makers.