Radical Individualization


On the very best days, the very best universities treat each student distinctively. Universities are in the business of creating, developing and nurturing human capital. This is true when faculty and staff are hired for their unique skill sets to contribute special value to the institution. Responsive universities will treat students similarly.

The process is complex. No two students begin university study with the same set of characteristics, capabilities or aspirations. As an outgrowth of this high “feedstock variability,” universities perform best when the idiosyncratic characteristics of the leadership, faculty and staff are responsive to heterogeneous students by meeting every student where he or she is—responsibly.

Generation Z may be many things, but there is a surge in the idea of individuality, entrepreneurism and expectation. You get what you earn. It is not greed—Forbes says Gen Z’s are team players—rather, it is what’s right.

There are many manifestations of such a perspective of university life. Because unique faculty and staff work with unique students, the costs of personalized responses to need, ability and aspirations vary dramatically. In fact, radical individualization would mean that no two students will learn exactly the same thing, nor should they pay the same price for an educational experience. Is radical individualization required for fair treatment of all?

The accounting and record keeping process of this approach would be a bureaucratic labyrinth. It is possible that a university with 10,000 students could have 10,000 different pricing structures based on individual student aspirations, commitment, engagement and success. For example, the number of credit hours students take to achieve the 120 credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree varies dramatically. Some students end up with 160 hours of coursework for a 120-hour degree requirement. The willingness of students to accept responsibility for their actions. Surprisingly, students are willing to accept their responsibility in choices, reminiscent of the “Silent Generation.” Institutions should match that willingness to accept corporate responsibility.

If a student takes extra hours because they are interested in subjects not required for the major, maybe that student should pay more for those hours. Public and private resource streams all support a student’s diversified interest on the one hand, or lack of focus on the other. Differential costs are associated with both.

Incentives or rewards for early graduation leading to efficiency in consuming educational resources and efficacy in costs and time-to-degree would recognize focus and completion for an individual. The importance of six-year institutional graduation rates might recede.

Precise calibration of scholarships and financial aid are possible, even if simultaneously challenging for institutional record keeping. The award and management of scholarships are stubbornly unchanging—a student performs in an exemplary fashion in order to receive a merit-based scholarship. A more precise and effective utilization of scholarship dollars might include incentives that stipulate performance bonuses above the general expectations of maintaining a scholarship. Likewise, there could be a diminishment of resource flows based on a lackluster academic performance. This is radical individualization of rewards and effects.

To put the concept in even a brighter light, imagine a university that rewarded performing students with lower tuition and fee charges based on current achievement.  People change. This perspective challenges current views of costs and performance and their calibration in the attainment of an education.

The complexities are beyond this reflection, but the concept is simple. The job of universities is generating human capital. Human capital starts with individuality and grows in response to the arrays of experiences and abilities that students provide to universities, and vice versa. Only sensitive and complex instruments would allow appropriate and fair assessment of a full palette of considerations—the reality of the human condition.

Current views and monolithic processes treats everyone the same, creating cost burdens to both the state and the student. Coupled with the generalized notion that going to college and earning a degree guarantees anything is a debilitating truth evidenced by $1.5 trillion in educational debt. The roadway from campus, littered with pizza boxes, used textbooks, broken aspirations and books of promissory notes is full of potholes. Universities have unintentionally worked to shield students from the notion that hard work, commitment and achievement have great inherent value to individuals and are the foundation of entrepreneurship and innovation that powers communities and societies.

The risks, rewards and benefits for genuine performance should provide both internal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Moreover, external recognition that places material consequence on the differences between success, merely adequate performance and failure is required. The coming generations of students expect that consequences for work and achievement have real impact. This is not to be confused with greediness or self-centeredness, as is often the case. Generation Z’s own passion and pragmatism may be a 21st century reincarnation of The Greatest Generation.

“Wanting to work is so rare a merit, that it should be encouraged.” Abraham Lincoln


Bobby Jones www.gpb.org

Organizations succeed or fail based on their willingness to focus and concentrate. Because of the explosion of data, and therefore the ability to compare, organizations and individuals spend an inordinate amount of time concentrating on “others.” Bobby Jones, probably the world’s greatest golfer, said it this way, “A leading difficulty with the average player is that he totally misunderstands what is meant by concentration. He may think he is concentrating hard when he is merely worrying.”

I purchased a car at a local dealership. I brought it in for a 5,000-mile checkup, a courtesy afforded to me by either the manufacturer or the dealer. An hour after I dropped the car off, I received a text message with a YouTube video attached. The video was a systematic, fully illustrated and narrated description of what had been done to the vehicle. I thought, “This is customer service on steroids.” It may be that dealers have been doing this for some time; however, it was my first experience with an acutely focused concern for keeping the car owner informed, aka customer service.

Universities must focus on their ultimate purpose—providing quality educational experiences, and guiding purpose is geography. One challenge of distance education is its disconnection, which may lead to a lack of concentration on geographic needs. The best distance education has been, and will continue to be, attentive to institutional geography. At our university, faculty who teach online also teach on-campus courses. A geographic concentration and attention to student aspirations is conveyed, over the internet, to those engaged “at a distance.” A natural outgrowth of this focus is a genuine care for individuals. That care will transcend all locations—caring is caring. Students want to attend caring institutions. Good teaching is good teaching.

West Texas A&M University is located in a distinctive region of the state of Texas. For our university to thrive, and any other institution for that matter, we must see geography as a great strength. Deliberately focusing on the needs of the Texas Panhandle and its people creates quality experiences for students. In the midst of an ongoing long-range planning process, our goal is to become a regionally responsive research university. Such a goal will require a Bobby Jones style of focus and concentration. Worrying about where we stand will not get the job done and a loss of concentration will rob us of our greatest asset, something we have that no other institution does…a home in the Texas Panhandle.

As we move towards our future, we will focus sharply on five or six areas of interest—a focus that will provide a unique experience for our students and faculty and a single-minded determination to serve our region first. These areas are under development at this time. A specific response to distinct characteristics of the Panhandle region will lead to a narrow and razor sharp single-mindedness for all programs, but particularly graduate programs. Such attention to geographic forces and human needs will provide immediate benefits.

Wind – We live in one of the most consistently windy regions of the United States. Amarillo, the closest and most important neighbor of Canyon, Texas, is one of the five windiest cities in America. Tough on hairdos to be sure, but distinctive in the opportunity our location provides to understand wind energy and the science and policies for its effective use.

Beef – The U.S. leads the world in producing beef. Moreover, no region in the United States feeds and produces as much beef as the Panhandle and high plains of our state—about one third of the total U.S. production within a 100-mile radius of Canyon.  With the leadership of people like Paul Engler, cattle on feed became big business in the Texas Panhandle. He was among the first class of inductees into the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame.

Water – One of the most precious resources to the survival of man is scarce in the Texas Panhandle. The agricultural heart of the nation, of which the Panhandle is a significant part, is one of the ten most challenged regions of the country for “water scarcity.”

Rural Communities – The heart of the Texas Panhandle, home to dozens of small communities, relies on Amarillo and Canyon for cultural, human and community sustenance. The cultural context of this constellation of communities revolves around the Interstate 27 corridor, connecting Amarillo and Canyon. The region expects West Texas A&M University to cultivate appreciation for the human condition and its expression provided by the arts. A special focus on the history of the Texas Panhandle comes alive through the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

These areas of interest and others, such as teacher preparation and human health and engineering, all focused on geography, will serve as the basis for guiding West Texas A&M University forward.  Our circumstances are challenging and unique. Principles of focus and concentration, applied without exception, are the genesis of progress.


Travel and Education

First international student exchange created

Americans are becoming more insular. Universities value international exchanges and study experiences for the benefit to students. IES Abroad and other study-abroad organizations encourage learning abroad because of the many identified, positive outcomes. A lack of understanding between different people groups is probably the root of many challenges of contemporary society. The genesis for international experiences comes from the idea that understanding “others” is invaluable in becoming an educated human being. In addition, such experiences have economic benefit.

The idea that someone must leave the United States in order to experience “others” is not true. “Humans of New York” presents a variety of people, values, ideas, thoughts and perspectives, plus the trials and challenges of life, all on a 23-square-mile island purchased for 60 guilders — or about 24 dollars — from the Canarsee tribe of the Lenape people.

As an unapologetic American exceptionalist, I believe a world awaits the interested observer within our borders. Alexis de Tocqueville was correct in describing America as an exceptional nation. G. K. Chesterton said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. . .” We as a nation are founded on the concept of freedom of belief: principles ordained by an understanding of the sovereign God, yet tolerant and welcoming of many viewpoints. International travel is indeed exciting, but every aspect of the human condition can be found right here at home, if we but look.

AmeriCorps provides opportunities to disconnect from the familiar and engage the different. The variety of perspectives and things to see is rich in the United States. Although they must actively be sought out, the traveler’s discoveries affirm the United States is an exceptional nation, filled with aspirations from every continent, usually within spitting distance of one’s home.

For a better understanding of the notion of a free society and its foundations, the northeastern colonial hub of the United States in the environs of Washington, D.C., and New England provide an appreciation for the foundations of a free society. The roots of the revolution — an appropriate national government, the beginning of industry and trade and the opportunity for personal growth — are still present in homes, places of worship and work and in town squares of the great American cities of the Northeast.

To more deeply understand the value of tenacity and hard work, entrepreneurism and risk-taking, one could spend time in the American West. An appreciation for settling a challenging landscape, for raising food, for extracting minerals and for bracing against the elements would follow like the shadow of a tree at high noon. While there are many examples, the Panhandle of Texas seems a good place to start.

The importance and values of traditions and the cultural contributions from practiced religion are alive in our nation. The Deep South provides a vivid opportunity to see the intersection of family, religious life and community at work — presenting an especially powerful picture of how faith influences life.

Cultural distinctiveness in a melting pot is possible and evident in any major city on the West Coast. See what happens when nationalities, languages, cultures and customs coexist — and at times collide — in close quarters. Horace Mann’s appreciation for Manifest Destiny made popular the admonition, “Go west, young man.” New York may be the cauldron where the stew was first cooked; however, it is but one example of many. American metropolises provide a platform to comprehend cultural variety and the thread of commonality that bond people together.

The point of all this is to remind ourselves that experiencing the range of America is an important function of the educational process. Traveling the globe provides the chance to absorb both the differences and similarities of various cultural perspectives. However, it is possible to find the variety of the human experience within 100 miles of almost any place in the United States. It does not require a Boeing 747.

I was admonished in church long ago to “grow where you are planted.” That does not necessarily mean to stay put, but to understand and value where one is within this exceptional nation. On a five-day walk, multiplicities of the human condition and the commonality that binds us together will be uncovered.

As I have previously written, “Emily Dickinson, writing in her upstairs bedroom with only the fortification of family and familiarity, touched the world mightily for generations. She understood deeply rooted cause and effect human emotions common to all souls and was able to express those relationships through the prism of her outwardly small world. An international audience that crosses every geographic and cultural divide harmonizes with her sensibilities of the human condition. She was a contributing citizen of the world community from a second floor bedroom.” And this all occurred in an “internetless,” seemingly insular society.

It is not travel that opens the mind or its lack that makes one narrow, but sight.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com.

Sticker Price

This Old Ford: 1948 Ford F-1 – Stefanie Rico

If five people go into the same Ford dealership and buy an F150, each will pay a different price. The cost of the new vehicle will be determined by the buyer’s ability to negotiate, the salesperson, color, options, trade-in, interest rate, choice of cash or credit, weather and a host of other factors. We expect those deliberations and the variety of outcomes as part of doing business in a market-driven exchange of value for goods or services.

The complexities increase markedly when value is almost wholly dependent on who is buying. This is the case with an education. Sticker price is nearly meaningless as an indicator of value. If one student has access to scholarships or Pell Grants and another does not, the costs vary dramatically. The dorm room selected, food plan and numerous other options influence total cost. Even the major chosen will drive the cost up or down. In some majors, differential tuition—a premium paid because of the personnel, equipment, facilities or other aspects of study—will drive prices up. This is understandable in fields such as engineering, medicine, law or business. However, even fields such as anthropology or history (usually with lower starting salaries) may have premiums associated with the cost of the degree due to requirements such as international travel or special study experiences not usually factored into the cost of the degree.

The most important element in the cost/value equation of a university education is the student. This does not make the student a customer in the typical sense, not for a split second. Similarly, attending a church does not make someone a saint.

An education provides opportunity. While starting salaries vary by career choice, how an individual uses the history degree may have a significant impact on lifetime earnings associated with it. More importantly, “satisfaction” with the result of the lifelong experience rests not on the degree alone, but how the recipient utilizes the insights and knowledge gleaned when earning the degree.

If you don’t like the F150, you can trade it in for a GMC Sierra. You may lose a few bucks in the exchange, but in the end you’re satisfied, and you chalk up the lost resources as experience. This is not the case with a university degree. The investment of time and the magnitude of the cost amplify dissatisfaction when expectations and aspirations go unmet.

The values of various educational outcomes are the result of how a particular learning experience is used. For example, a graduate with a BA in history, typically a low paying field, may decide to use that educational experience and insight to become an attorney, a physician or an engineer. Or maybe, just maybe, they want to teach history in their home high school. I have seen multiple examples of each of these and countless other “turns in the road,” all exclusively dependent on the individual rather than the degree earned. This is not the case with the pickup truck. If two people—no matter their intellectual capacity—aspire or dream to buy the same truck, it will be of equal value the day after. The buyer has little impact on the value after “cutting” the deal.

This is not the case with an education. Ultimately, in terms of satisfaction, fulfillment and earning capacity, the value of the degree will be different from case to case. The recognition that students provide added value is increasingly difficult to explain in higher education. As a society, we have commodified educational outcomes. A money-back guarantee, a five-year, 75,000-mile warranty and the notion that a product has value independent of its user—the degree as a consumer product—all create significant challenges.

The proof of this thinking is that various states are at work to make college education “free.” The consumer perspective in this policy is clear. Dismissed in this thinking is the investment of the student and the value that investment carries. All of that said, universities should do everything in their power to lower costs and increase value.

The sticker price of an education can never be looked at independently of who’s doing the buying. It is incumbent on universities to be transparent with students and families about the nature of a university experience. To assume that two students who sit side-by-side in every class for their entire undergraduate experience would have the same earning capacity and fulfillment over their professional lifetime is a fool’s errand.  Yet, without understanding the variability in human commitment, energy, insight, creativity and determination, that is exactly what we do when we disregard student contribution to the value of the degree.

Whatever the sticker price, or the potential associated with a particular degree, the ultimate value lies with what the holder does with an educational experience after it has been driven off the lot.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com.





Originally published March 26, 2013.  Slightly updated and worth a second look.

Real leadership liberates, never limits: it unleashes people to work with passion. Effective universities recognize that strength in academic programs exists on the ground, with engaged faculty, staff, and students working towards common university goals.

Good managers empower their employees to do well by giving opportunities to excel; bad managers disempower their employees by hoarding those opportunities…Micromanagement restricts the ability of micromanaged people to develop and grow, and it also limits what the micromanager’s team can achieve, because everything has to go through him or her.  Mind Tools

This reflection is not high-minded academic thinking; it works at the local McDonald’s franchise, and hardware store; at the mom and pop grocers on the corner, and at GM, IBM, and ADM. It could work in the statehouse too, but bureaucrats, pen-pushers and politicians pilfer purpose, too frequently by design; almost always for self-protection and self-preservation; too rarely for progress.  Little has a greater impact on effectiveness and efficiency in an organization than management’s willingness to trust and delegate. A lack of delegation steals the life and spirit of those who toil for students, and without them, there is nothing. No trust.

Staffs, clerical workers, assistants and advisors of every stripe imaginable are the front lines in putting a face on a university. The face cannot be given from marketeers…it must come from within and from the “neighborhoods” in which work is carried out: colleges. The university’s face is joined to the campus spirit because there is a fit between responsibility and authority. Without that fit, people give up on the work. Micromanagement becomes a form of theft as initiative is drained from those who labor.

My good friend, who has spent his entire life in apple orchards, would agree. Hire good people to work the trees and let them ply their craft. Teach and lead them, but you can’t cut every branch yourself. Simple leadership and management: no mysteries.

At another level, micromanagement robs the life of an enterprise because those who should be concerned with vision and the pronouncement of the value of the organization to the greater community are consumed with details. Leaders who major in the minors and are driven by the fantasy of complete control can’t lead.

Micromanagement robs an enterprise simultaneously from the bottom up and the top down. The intended effect of micromanagement — precision, cadence, and near perfection — is impossible to attain and creates frustration from above. Discouragement from the bottom up occurs as those who want to work become disenfranchised and fearful of taking risk. Without risk, attainment of quality is impossible.

All micromanagers suffer from some form of perfectionist thinking, or a lack of confidence in those with whom they work, leading to the deadening effect of sapped individual initiative. Initiative correctly managed makes organizations come to life. Micromanagement in any form paralyzes purpose, progress, and performance as fear drives decision-making.

Micromanagement comes from leaders who fear failure. The perpetual goal of the fearful leader/manager is to make sure that he/she can’t be accountable for anything but success. Only confident leadership is willing to accept blame when organizations sputter. The blame game, a cousin of micromanagement, likewise robs initiative, and has the opposite effect of attaining perfection and quality. Fear of reprimand by a micromanager stymies energetic workers and drives initiative out the door.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business, micromanagers are “control freaks.” This evidences itself as unwillingness to delegate, reluctance to hand out creative tasks, and a constant hovering over those managed. Frequently these traits are followed by an immediate retraction of a duty or task at the first sign of faltering.

On the other side of the coin, Larry Popelka, in Bloomberg Business Week’s “In Praise of Micromanagers” cited luminaries Steve Jobs of Apple, Larry Ellison, Oracle’s leader, and Bill Gates. He even threw in Walt Disney. I would argue that each of these leaders engage toward purposeful ends, believing details important to excellence. German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is often credited with the thought, “God is in the details.” Maybe, but that does not mean that micromanagement makes God, or the details, better.

I bet Jobs, Ellison, Gates and Disney would agree.

Leaders and innovators share ideas and vision with people at work in response to goals for progress. It is not about protection, face-saving, self-preservation or the avoidance of responsibility. But the crafty micromanagers have spent a lifetime at it, and make it look like leadership: an elegant, self-serving deception only revealed as organizations falter on the precipice of failure.

Our most effective universities, businesses, corporations, and government organizations need leadership that empowers people to work, not fret, and to grow as they labor. And then organizations thrive.

Like a well managed orchard.