Archive for January, 2013

This week I announced that I will retire as vice-chancellor at the end of August. In January I will begin a new adventure as senior fellow in strategic and international communication in TCU’s John V. Roach Honors College and Schieffer School of Journalism. This comes after 46 years of association with one university, and after several months of deep reflection on an incredible lifelong odyssey. 

A high school counselor once told me I probably was not college material, and that I better decide where I wanted to be in 5 years and set some specific goals to get there.  Then, in junior college I met two teachers who opened the door to a world of ideas and helped me clarify my strengths and weaknesses. From that moment on I decided to focus on communicating ideas, and tried as best I could to minimize the consequences of my limitations. I never actually set  firm goals and specific objectives.

When I arrived at American University in Washington I thought I might consider the foreign service.  But I became involved in educational broadcasting, and soon decided that becoming a radio and television producer would be my future.  But then as a graduate student I got involved in teaching and fell in love with the thought of immersing myself in a subject matter… media and communication studies.

Arriving at TCU I told some colleagues that all I wanted to do was teach and that I could not understand why anyone would ever go into administration. Then after 8 years of teaching I was challenged to help bring some innovative thinking to our evening college, summer school and non-credit programs, and surprised myself by taking the job.  Later, another opportunity in central administration presented itself, this time with the challenge of bringing new thinking to communicating the institution. After adapting integrated marketing ideas to the academy, I found myself back in Washington in a government affairs position living out the observation, “What goes around, comes around.”

The lifelong career lesson learned for me was that setting specific goals could have been very limiting to my finding  opportunities I never imagined.  When I focused on what I did well, and minimized my limitations as best I could,  opportunities appeared that I would have never planned.

Truthfully, I never thought about what I am now about to do until several months ago. Last fall I taught a colloquium with some of the best honors students on the planet, and still another new opportunity appeared. So here we go again.

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It is easy to forget that even commonly used words mean different things to different people. Words evolve in meaning over time, and are also used in different ways in other cultures. They have been my business for over 40 years, and yet I still can forget how difficult it is to achieve clarity.

“Compromise” is one of those words.  It is a very negative word for many people.  It can mean you lost the argument, and are giving up your beliefs. But to others it can be a positive word, and mean you have reached a viable solution where everyone can go forward.

“Taxes” is another one of those words. For many paying taxes is a privilege. It’s what goes along with living in a society that builds and maintains roads, provides fire and police protection,  and establishes many other quality of life enhancing social services. For others,  however, it’s taking away their hard-earned income.

Still another such word is “capitalism.”  For many it means out-of-control greed.  It enables the few to enrich themselves at the expense of others.  But to many others it’s a word that goes hand-in-hand with freedom and opportunity.

“Democracy” to some means that the people at large make most decisions by majority vote. But to many others around the world it means various levels and kinds of participation in government. For example, it can mean being able to have “some say” in the process. But it also can mean participating  in a limited voting  process that is likely to result in establishing a dictatorial style leader.

Operating from the perspective of a clear “ideology” was pretty much a positive thing in the past. You always knew where someone was coming from on an issue. But today being an ideologue means you are an  “extremist”.  And this largely has been the consequence of a mean-spirited polarized political environment.

Even in higher education the term “church-related”  has different meanings. To some it means an opportunity to explore what you believe as a part of your education. But to others it means, “Those people will tell you what to think!”  

Words take on meanings from how we use them. Whatever they mean today they are likely to mean something else tomorrow.   Running a “deficit” to one person is synonymous with bankruptcy. But to another it is merely a necessary management process!  No wonder successful communication is so incredibly difficult.

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Observing the current debate on gun ownership leads one to conclude that all debating can accomplish is polarize and paralyze situations. 

A CNN promotional message got my attention this week when I noticed one of the reporters featured in it essentially said that encouraging debate was a primary objective of their coverage.  On the surface, that can sound really  positive. Who would not be inclined to agree that the more we debate issues the more informed we become?

But I am reminded of how even mainstream journalists delighted in reporting the extremes of the republican primary debates. They argued they were only reporting what was being said. But admittedly it made exciting copy for the daily news, and so the extreme viewpoints were endlessly repeated.  

Looking at it now, does this not raise the question : Did such reporting play a strong role in creating the very polarization they were reporting? In other words, have we reached a point where we must be extreme in our rhetoric in order to gain the media recognition necessary to succeed?  Do we find ourselves in the classic “chicken and egg” predicament?  

In my younger days I produced both radio and television public affairs programs and found that the easiest way to design a compelling program was to invite two extreme thinking people to debate. I also found that when we examined issues more thoughtfully it simply was not “good television.”  The medium of television likes simplicity and conflict, and with few exceptions makes intelligent discussion feel boring.

I must conclude from this current gun ownership issue that debates certainly do clarify positions! But once clarified, it’s also clear that a much different circumstance is required in order to find solutions. Research tells us that the media determines the topics we talk about. And we now know  24/7 cable is capable of fine-tuning extreme points of view. But we have yet to find a useful medium for taking those viewpoints and moving them to solutions.

The consequence of this polarized atmosphere is that compromise has become a dirty word, when it realistically is the only way to move forward. When are we going to learn that debate is only one important step in the democratic process?  The next is to form a task force to find a compromised way forward, and then to adjust the details later from what is learned. 

We have a big problem with gun violence in the US, so let’s do something… and then go from there.

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Communication history teaches that new technologies can be game-changers, but old ones never completely go away. They merely change roles, or accommodate the new circumstances.

Massive Open Online Courses, now called MOOC’s, have recently appeared in higher education. Initially they have taken the form of courses offered online to the world by star professors, and mostly for free. And surprisingly to many, prestige institutions such as MIT and Harvard entered the arena early. Are they really intending to provide a free education to anyone in the world? Or are they merely seizing an opportunity to achieve worldwide visibility at a time when world rankings are beginning to attract attention? Or are they using these courses to attract applications for their residential programs? Or are they primarily collecting market behavior data that can be sold or used in other ways? Or, are they experimenting with all of the above?

Some say MOOCs will bring a level of revolutionary change that could render residential institutions obsolete. Certainly, at minimum the game has changed. Start-up companies are already producing and distributing these courses, and some of these companies are for profit. Most of their course have been non-credit, but that will change. And free is likely to change as well. These ventures certainly plan to succeed. 

At first, the main attraction of basic online courses for institutions was that they were cheaper to produce and administer than traditional classroom education. And, of course, a reduced price is a major benefit to many students, plus the convenience of taking courses from any location. The problem, however, was that they often lacked academic quality and became monotonous over time. And that lack of satisfying interaction and socialization led to a high number of drop-outs.

MOOC advocates assert that technology innovation and computer effects will solve both the quality and socialization problems. And by adding a star professor, they argue you will have an integrated product that will indeed challenge the very survival of residential institutions. Admittedly, technical quality can be achieved. But it seems to me that  higher costs and the need to find more revenue will present the same challenges now faced  by other online startups that also began as free. And in the final analysis, we also cannot overlook the very large number of students and parents that still prefer a more personal living and learning educational setting.

My recent experience with undergraduate honors students suggests that some high quality online courses will be eagerly accepted, and that the appropriate use of technology in other courses is already expected. The star professor is occasionally welcomed too. But there is also a demand for live, talented, and well-educated teacher-scholars to function as expert learning and discussion facilitators and mentors. In other words, there remains a big demand for the total collegiate experience. Sorting out one’s beliefs, discussing lessons from history, exploring ideas from art and literature, debating political issues, learning from fellow students, and developing lifetime relationships, all are vital parts of a complete educational process.

But let’s not be naive about this. There will be a market for MOOCs. They already changed the game in higher education. While they will not eliminate the residential university experience, they will bring  new thinking about how that experience can be enhanced.

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