Thursday, August 23, 2018

Opening Convocation 2018

Convocation Remarks
23 August 2018

Welcome to the class of 2022 and to our transfer students, and welcome to your families and friends.

Among the many things that impress me at Susquehanna is move in. The O-Team, first-year RAs, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the Selinsgrove community do such a great job of welcoming and, what’s surely more appreciated, schlepping. Let’s give a hand to those wonderful returning students and staff who have helped you with your initial move in to campus.

To the families in the room, thank you for the roles you have played in helping these assembled students choose to become Susquehannans. You can continue to play a critical part in their university journeys, but please don’t spend too much time on the phone with your students. You can keep track of events taking place on campus through our website. When you do call, be sure to ask about your student’s participation in those activities and ask them to share with you what they thought about those experiences.

We look forward to seeing many of you back on campus for Family Weekend, which is October 26th and 27th.

Students: over the next few days, you will be overwhelmed navigating new places, learning new faces and names, and drinking from a firehose of new information. I don’t expect you to remember much from this event, but I will offer a few things for you to think about as your get acclimated and begin what will be a remarkable intellectual and spiritual journey.

First, a little practical advice: One of the most important skills you will learn while you are at Susquehanna is Time Management. Yours is the most programmed generation in history. Most of you have had nearly every minute of your lives scheduled for you. Now you are in charge, and you are being presented with a formidable list of potential activities and experiences.


Treat your academic schedule like a full-time job. As you build your schedules, plan to use the time between classes to do your course work. The conventional wisdom is that for every hour you are in class, you should be doing 2 to 3 hours of work out of class. If you dedicate the hours between breakfast and dinner to being in class, doing homework, or getting ahead in your reading, and if you engage in that discipline from the beginning of the semester and build it into a formal schedule, you will find yourself able to take full advantage of the lectures, concerts, readings, athletic events, service projects, and social activities we have planned for you.

Second, remember why we are here:

 “Susquehanna University educates students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.”

This is our mission. This is the creed of our community.

You have seen our motto on banners and posters all over campus: Achieve. Lead. Serve. The acme of that charge is when we are able to successfully serve through our leadership. That is the goal of citizen leadership. Our diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world has never needed productive, creative, and reflective citizen leaders more.


As you know from this summer’s common reading, we will be engaging in a year-long discussion on the theme of Resilience. Our conversations will be about how we can become more resilient as individuals, as a community, as a nation, and as a planet.


Resilience is our capacity to recover from difficulties. It is our ability to overcome challenges and adversity.


This topic presupposes that we are going to encounter failure and loss, disappointment and rejection. Well, we all will.


Our universe is subject to entropy: things naturally decline into disorder. As William Butler Yeats expressed in his poem “The Second Coming,” written in the aftermath of WWI:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Yeats sounds as if he is writing about today. Things fall apart. It’s like the line from the old blues song, “Live life like you’re gonna die, because you are.” Now there’s a cheerful welcome to college life, but if you think about it, it is. The song is challenging us to live our lives as fully as we can, to play the hands we are dealt with zeal.


The Liberal Arts provide us with an array of viewpoints and historical perspectives so we can better contextualize and understand the challenges we encounter in our lives.


In anticipation of the myriad inevitabilities we all face, you are here to develop the tools to live your lives as fully as you can, to respond to challenges with grit and poise, and to lift up those around us whose resolve is spent. We are here to combat the intellectual and moral entropy of our modern world.


Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy conclude their book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, with this summary:


The journey toward resilience is the great moral quest of our age. It is the lens with which we must necessarily adjust our relationships to one another, to our communities and institutions, and to our planet. Even so, we must remember that there are no finish lines… no silver bullets. Resilience is always, perhaps maddeningly, provisional… Many efforts to achieve it will fail, and even a wildly successful effort to boost it will fade, … Resilience must continuously be refreshed… Every effort at resilience buys us not certainty, but another day, another chance.[2]


Resilience requires persistence. Resilience requires authenticity.

Derrick Brooms, author of the article “Black Men Emerging,” in our common reading, will be on campus next month. In that reading, we learned about the student Deondre who adopted “I don’t care” and “I’ll just do me” as coping mechanisms to navigate his college experience in an environment in which he did not feel fully included. We must strive to be a campus where such strategies are unnecessary, but we will each encounter circumstances of exclusion in our lives, and embracing a mantra to be our best selves in spite of the ignorance of others is wise. Striving to be our best selves is always the right choice, but in the face of adversity we must constantly remember to sustain that commitment. It is also important to remember that Prof. Brooms noted that a positive racial climate improves the social adjustment and academic performance of all students. [3]


Resilience requires a diversity of thoughts and experiences. Zolli and Healy stated that “Resilient cultures are rooted in diversity and difference and are tolerant of occasional dissent.”[4]


Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan, has coined the term, “Cognitive Diversity.” He has shown that the ability for communities or crowds to be accurate in their decision making requires that they either be a collective of very smart people, or they need to be people of average intelligence with a diversity of experiences and ways of thinking. By extrapolation, we as a community become our best as a constituency of both smart and cognitively diverse individuals.[5] This is what we need to develop the collective resilience required to move us forward as a community and a nation.


Our campus theme last year was “Conflict.” Conflict and diversity make us stronger, but they often also make us uncomfortable. We must have the moral courage to be uncomfortable so that we can move toward becoming our best selves.


Courage and bravery are not the same thing. Often the only difference between bravery and stupidity is who’s telling the tale. Courage, on the other hand, is deep. It is built upon faith and wisdom, and fundamentally, it is selfless. You are here to seek wisdom and to develop the moral courage to become leaders of significance, to become resilient, and to cultivate resilience in those around you.


In the words often attributed to Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Susquehanna is a place where students who take full advantage of the opportunities they find here are truly transformed for “productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.”

I am hopeful that in this place you now call alma mater, you will cultivate the wisdom and courage to provide the resilience needed to make and sustain the change you most wish to see in the world.

Welcome and good luck!

[1] Yeats, William Butler: “The Second Coming (1919),” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, revised second edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996.
[2] Zolli, Andrew and Ann Marie Healy: Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, 275-276. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
[3] Brooms, Derrick R.: “Black Men Emerging” in Perspective on Resilience: Susquehanna Common Reading 2018, 112-136.
[4] Zolli, Andrew and Ann Marie Healy: Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, 210. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
[5] Page, Scott E.: The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, revised edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Music and Leadership

Music and Leadership

Recently, I have had a cluster of conversations with people who expressed surprise that a musician would or could be a university president. I usually first respond by asking what the appropriate college major is for the role, which becomes a great platform for the ways a liberal education prepares our students to be adaptable and to become leaders.

Having enrolled in a professional undergraduate music program, I frequently half joke with our students that I spent my college years in a practice room and that I have been catching up on a liberal-arts education ever since then. The truth is the music-school curriculum was in many ways a specialization embedded within a deeply interwoven framework of diverse knowledge and skills—liberal education. We learned physics through acoustics and Pythagorean scales; we learned literature through analyses of lyrics; and we learned history as the shaping influences of our art over time. We also developed a range of transferable skills that have continued to prove themselves valuable in a variety of professional settings.

The following is an updated version of an essay, “From Practice Room to Board Room,” that I wrote for Inside Higher Ed. The original was published on 20 December 2006.

During the first few weeks after I was first appointed Chief Academic Officer at Sweet Briar College (fifteen years ago), many faculty members made appointments with me to offer advice, encouragement, or to inform me of some promise made decades earlier by some by-then-dead bureaucrat whose pledge I should have felt beholden to honor. Among these visitors was the chair of our Business Program, Bill Hostetler. For a few days prior to our meeting, I turned over in my head a dozen possible demands that I would have to deny. When the meeting arrived to my surprise, he entered my office with a stack of management textbooks teeming with labeled post-it-note tabs. This man was armed.

He began what I expected to be his pitch by telling me that I had quite a challenge in front of me, and that institutional dynamics are difficult to reshape. I then realized that he did not desire anything but to help. He had carefully identified and annotated the critical passages on effecting cultural change within organizations. “I’ve marked these because they will be necessary for you to be able to get anything done,” he said, “and these are concepts with which you are probably unfamiliar.” I replied that I really didn’t have any management training. “Are you kidding? You’ve been preparing for this job your whole life.”

It turns out he was right. My discipline is music with a specialization in conducting. The longer I have served in administration, the more I believe my conducting training has provided me with the most valuable preparation for my current career. The following examples are not a claim of mastery on my part, but rather observations of the transferability of leadership skills from one field to another.

Time management: Of all college students, musicians are generally the best time managers. From the very beginning, they are inculcated with the need to practice no matter what other competing responsibilities arise (This is also true of student athletes.). The great music pedagogue, Shinichi Suzuki said, “Practice only on the days you eat.” This is the creed of most successful musicians. Conductors have the added need to run efficient rehearsals. Ensembles have a fixed amount of rehearsal time to prepare any performance, and in the case of professional groups, time really is money. Decisions must be made instantly. The conductor’s practice time is score study and rehearsal preparation: the better the preparation, the greater the likelihood that these split-second decisions will be good ones. The conductor’s performances, in a very real way, are the rehearsals. Concerts are a public presentation of the results of the rehearsal.

Strategic planning: The conductor must plan the season, each program, and the individual rehearsals with a complex set of goals in mind. Concert seasons must satisfy board members, cultivate ticket sales, and accommodate the repertoire of visiting soloists. Concurrently, works chosen should educate and enrich the players and the audience. The conductor must navigate a balance between challenging and comfortable works, and must do this with a goal of using these works to make the ensemble not only sound their best in performance, but also improve through the experience. With limited resources and rehearsal time, it is imperative to know where the difficulties will be and how they can best be overcome prior to each rehearsal.

Triage: One of the most important skills for a conductor is the ability to triage any rehearsal situation. The term triage comes from Napoleon’s medical corps who divided the injured into three categories: those whose injuries can wait for treatment, those who need immediate care, and those who cannot be saved. We continue to use this term in medical circles for the process of determining who should be cared for first, not whom we neglect and let die. It is the more modern version to which I refer musically. In rehearsal, the conductor must prioritize what must be fixed first. In most cases fixing the right thing will lead to the automatic correction of a number of correlated errors. The same is true in management, picking the right thing to fix can cause a host of other problems resolved themselves.

Listening: Every leadership text and workshop indicates that two of the most important tools for effective leadership are good listening skills and a sense of humor. The latter is self explanatory, good humor is a fundamental component of a good life. Listening is more ambiguous. Musicians are taught to listen in some unusual ways. We learn to distinguish aspects of pitch, rhythm, harmony, melody, and structure, but we also learn to listen to inflections. Those qualities within music that many consider communicative can teach us to listen for subtext in our conversations with others. Timbre and nuances of tone often betray what speakers are thinking despite what they say. Like the next step in a rehearsal, this helps us to choose the questions that will bring necessary truths to the surface. Additionally, conductors strengthen their discernment of counterpoint and balance, learning to create a hierarchy of competing voices.

Letting your players play: I believe the most important transferable skill is learning to let your players play. In rehearsal, the effective conductor helps his or her players to know what to listen for and with whom they should communicate musically at any given section of a work. The conductor teaches the players to listen to each other. In performance, the conductor must still shape the large structure of a piece, but if he or she has done the job right, the players “have their heads.” This is more than just not micromanaging; it is creating an environment that allows collective artistry to flourish, which is a much richer product than the dictates of an individual no matter how talented that person may be.

There are interesting similarities between an orchestra and a college faculty (and surely many other working communities). The constituents have all spent their lives training as specialists in a common enterprise. The members of an orchestra believe they know as much as the person leading them, and they are convinced they could do a better job. In many instances they are correct, and most of them would like the opportunity to prove it. Faculty members often feel the same way but they rarely want the job. They do not want to give up their teaching or their scholarship. The conductor has the advantage of still making music and giving concerts, but the conductor is the one musician who doesn’t make a sound.

Comparing the roles of provost and president through the conductor’s metaphor: the provost must co├Ârdinate more detailed rehearsals, and the president must listen and respond to a more diverse collection of voices. For the conductor, the reward is helping the players to function as an ensemble and inspiring them to play better than they believe they can. This same reward awaits a leader who is willing to listen carefully to the faculty and staff of a university and let them play.


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