Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What’s To Be Thankful For?

I have written before about how my college educated status influences how I spend my vacation time. Still true. Am writing on Thanksgiving vacation and have spent a lot of that doing professional work; and also thinking about what I should be thankful for. Not so much “thankful” on a personal basis—I don’t even have to think a minute about that to make that list: my wife, my family, career, good health, beautiful place to live, opportunities to serve my country. No it’s more of the “what’s going on right now in the country” that I have to be thankful for, particularly that I could impress college students they ought to consider as well? But I am having a very difficult time with this exercise.

From the perspective of what might be good for college students, we have just conducted our mid- term elections. And I can’t imagine that these results are going to be good for college students. Clearly the stimulus money is not going to be renewed. We are going to let the states and their finances flounder Herbert Hoover style. This will lead to more state budget cuts and then ripple down to public campuses meaning fewer classes, larger classes, more closed out classes, program cuts, increased tuition and fees, and so on. Not good news for college students whom I have spent my life advocating for.

This same picture is going on elsewhere too. I have been watching the British university students protest vigorously, unlike American students, the recently announced government cuts to higher education in the UK. I am not optimistic that those UK students are going to prevail. They will only do so when they ultimately vote a change of government. Our students though don’t even muster a protest. They don’t seem to have a clue. I can’t be thankful for that.

This forces me to reflect on the students of my generation. They faced great challenges too. But many of them marched and protested. And they won expanded rights and opportunities for students on campuses. They helped end the Vietnam War. They brought down a presidential administration. They helped make the civil rights movement a stunning accomplishment. I say “they”. I should say “we”. I am thankful for what students have done in that era of our past.

But every generation is different. There is no doubt on my part that we have pampered our college students of today. We have courted them like the consumers they are. We have provided them with great opportunities and so many forms of assistance and support, many of which I helped create. These will continue in place, but no doubt in a reduced state for the time being. Our students are going to have to become even more resilient, flexible, adaptable, self-reliant. The international trend is clear: the bankers and brokers have sinned. They took enormous risks with other peoples’ money (OPM). They got rich in the process. They brought down the economies of the developed world. Now we have to restore the banks especially to health and all the other companies which are too big to fail. To do so we must cut other government expenses, cut benefits, pensions, social services, make the poor pay to subsidize the failings and then the continued lifestyles of the rich. We continue to glorify the lifestyle and achievements of the financial services industry which remains the number one employment sector of choice for our very best students. I am not thankful for all this.

I want my students to learn from this. To learn so they can lead, to prevent us from repeating this. I am not thankful for this opportunity, nor for my belief that I am not convinced my students will take this opportunity.

Monday, November 29, 2010

“Find A Good Company and Stick With It”

I recalled those words recently when a very important member of my staff paid me a visit to inform me that she was resigning to pursue a powerful personal aspiration, and one that could not be more American: to start her own business (with her husband). This colleague had come to work with me right after college and graduate school and had spent approximately five years as our employee. And she had done a wonderful job and had come to be absolutely invaluable to us. To her generation that is a very long time. To mine, and especially my father’s, it was a drop in the bucket.

My father worked for his “company”, literally 43 years, in an era when one could easily and gladly do that, in an era when companies had social contracts with their employees. I took my father’s advice and “stuck with” my employer, the State of South Carolina, and especially the University of South Carolina, for 32.5 years on a full-time basis, and now for another eleven years on a less than full-time appointment. I know I was greatly influenced by the values of my father.

Back in the 90’s when I was still working full-time for USC I had another young woman employee come to see me one day to tell me she was resigning. I remember vividly what she told me: “John, I have been with you for four years. Nobody in my graduating class has stayed with the same employer for that long out of college. Working for you is not like the real world. You are too good to people”. So off she went and I actually helped her get a next job with a for-profit employer, a textbook publisher.

Another colleague of mine, who decided to move on after eight years told me: “You would have made a great manager in the 50’s. You expect so much loyalty. You are a real dinosaur”. I admit it. Guilty as charged. I still want to try to provide that kind of social contract for my employees.

Had I to do it over again, I would have stayed again for more than three wonderful decades with USC. But I have to admire these younger professionals who are moving on. Perhaps they are more open to change and new experiences than I was. They are certainly risk takers, particularly to do things like start a new business in this economy. They are more willing to get off the track and experiment with new possibilities, to reinvent themselves. They don’t want to grow into advanced middle age wondering how life might have turned out if only that had moved on early from that comfortable job. They have a kind of courage that perhaps I lacked. Maybe it’s just a different kind of courage. And they definitely know how to teach themselves what they need to learn to be successful. Their technological savvy helps them do this. Their ethos does also. Many of them are what my late friend, Al Siebert, called “The Survivor Personality”. I’m a survivor too, but a different kind of one. I found one thing, got very good at it and stuck with it.

I am not saying one course is better than the other, just different. Having such colleagues is certainly interesting and instructive. I certainly can’t change this cultural inclination to move on. I just have to mentor my younger colleagues while I have them and hope that I am helping prepare them well for the inevitable moving on. We all have to focus on what we can reasonably control in our respective spheres of influence and try to influence accordingly and positively within those spheres.

I consider it a privilege to be a part of such lives as they move in, move through, and move on.