Earlier this month my wife and I attended a musical theater performance on campus by Baruch students from And then there was us. This incredible two-hour production featured students from various disciplines – international business, marketing, psychology, journalism, arts administration – all of whom acted and sang with a passion no less convincing than the professionals. The original music was created by Tony Award winning artist and playwright Stew Stewart.
There are so many dimensions of this experience that have been thrilling and inspiring for me. First, it was the very first time that musical theater had been incorporated into the Harman program – the production brought together two major programs to achieve something remarkable. Second, you might be surprised to learn that the show started life in an online Stew course taught in the spring of 2021, with him actively collaborating with Baruch students in the creative process. As you can imagine, this was no ordinary online course – the in-depth exploratory component shows what is possible when you engage students in a form of experiential, research-driven learning. Third, the show depicts young New Yorkers living their lives from a wide range of perspectives with vivid, raw emotion. Stew put it perfectly: “These students are living their young lives on this heavily lit pandemic stage, trying to figure out what theater could mean in these openly theatrical times. It’ll give off a quintessentially New York vibe, just because it’s made up of so many different voices crammed into a small space all trying to express what it feels like to be alive. Finally, we often talk about taking advantage of Baruch’s location in the heart of New York, the cultural capital of the world. Students and faculty collaborating with a Tony Award-winning playwright to create an original musical theater production seems to be a pretty compelling example.
As I watched the play, I thought about the theatrical metaphor I used in my May blog “A Dress Rehearsal for the Future”, where I encouraged our community to adopt a fresh and exploratory mindset. as if we were actors participating in a dress rehearsal for our future. I realized that student production was a prime example of the kind of adaptability and fresh mindset required to make our future shine. The Harman program and the drama faculty worked heroically not only to create, produce and direct the show, but also to build an environment where students could rehearse, have a safe place to play, interact with the audience (we were all seated on stage), and the experience, I am sure, one of the most significant learnings of their stay in Baruch. When I spoke to parents after the show, what this meant for the students was clear: with all modern technology and innovative tools at our disposal, education is still fundamentally a high contact business. Our students know, feel and seek this deeper level of engagement.
If it’s easy to make the connection between the theater metaphor and a theatrical production, what does that really mean for the rest of what we do? Let me take the metaphor a step further with the “main script” of our play.
Shared vision for the future
Baruch will begin their institutional strategic planning process next year, as our current plan will expire in 2023. As a community, we must first develop a common ambitious vision, which will serve as the main storyline for our play. We need to establish a narrative, a story that resonates with the essence of Baruch that helps frame all conversations. To begin the process, I ask two fundamental questions for our reflection: What makes us different? Why is this distinction important?
In my opinion, Baruch differentiates himself by making stellar academics accessible to everyone. Stellar Academics are made by world-class academic-teachers who have an integral vision of the process of knowledge creation, appropriation and dissemination. Our employees, working together in a transparent manner, create transformational opportunities for our diverse students and alumni, for career opportunities and lifelong fulfillment comparable to any leading institution, something we are known for. as a national leader.
This distinction is important. Imagine a baby born in New York City this holiday season to a low-income immigrant family, with parents who have multiple jobs to make ends meet. Growing up, this child can see young people in the subway with backpacks and college sweatshirts and think, “I wish I could be like them one day, but my parents will never afford it. It is essential that this child knows that if he works hard and does well in school, he will be able to attend the best college and fulfill his dream, just a few metro stops away. They will not receive an education that is just “good enough” for them, but rather as good an education as anyone can get.
This is what sets Baruch apart. The very existence of such an opportunity, for everyone, is crucial for a just and equitable society. We need to figure out how to live up to our own expectations of what it represents and how to maintain it, which brings me to the next topic.
Operational and cultural performance
In order for us to grow and sustain what we do and what we stand for, we need to challenge ourselves with the highest level of operational performance so that we can discover and maximize opportunities and extend our impact. To do this with integrity and accountability, we will need to establish a data-driven organizational baseline and set ambitious but achievable goals.
Most importantly, and in addition to our operational performance, we must aspire to exceptional cultural performance that compels us to do what we do in an inclusive, empathetic and equitable manner. Mental fatigue and morale issues have been widely reported in higher education, and Baruch is no exception. Managing transition and transformation thoughtfully and with empathy should be built into the foundations of our game.
“No money, no mission”
Seventeen months after starting my presidency, I have developed a deeper understanding and a great admiration for the ingenuity, dedication and perseverance of the Baruch community. I also realized that there just weren’t enough resources to allow us to perform at the highest level. It is quite remarkable that the College is able to function at the level it has – with streamlined staffing, constant and persistent budget cuts and declining public funding. Unfortunately, chronic deprivation of resources may have induced a predominant side effect, which one of my colleagues calls the “scarcity state of mind”. While the scarcity mindset is born out of the desire for conservation and survival, it also limits our imaginations, making us less than what we really are. Going forward, we will need tangible ways to increase financial resources to support and sustain what we do. We will also need clear and transparent approaches to translating financial results into the institution’s mission as we set long-term transformation goals.
It’s time to act
All higher education institutions emerging from the pandemic are having similar conversations. There are those well-endowed institutions that have enormous strengths to harness in planning for their future, and there are institutions that are, or will be, on the verge of survival. We are neither.
Just like the students of Baruch, we may not have the inheritance and the trust funds, but we have the confidence to know that we got here by working hard, and we have the intellect and the fire in the belly to chart a future that’s bigger than others think we can. We have learned that each step counts a little more when you don’t have much to fall back on, that there is no time to waste, and that you will have to scramble to overcome adversity. . We know we will be successful because we have the talent and the urge to be the best.
Everyone should be involved
My metaphor for the dress rehearsal was to get everyone involved and embrace a new exploratory mindset as we look to the future. This state of mind might be the best antidote to the state of mind of scarcity. But how? All levels of our organization should engage in thinking about innovative change in order to realize our shared vision. Mechanisms such as Satisfaction survey and design thinking offer tangible ways for us to engage stakeholders in self-determined change and transformation. These are proven approaches that garner input from a wide range of stakeholders and allow ownership and accountability for improving ideas. Taking this approach with fresh eyes allows us, as a learning institution, to function with flexibility and resilience over the long term and helps us to emerge stronger from our challenges.
Main script for the game
When I was a child in Taiwan after WWII, the island was very poor. Median household income was a fraction of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. However, the system was (and still is) established so that everyone had the same access to a rigorous education that set high expectations, regardless of social status and wealth. Today, this tiny island – a third the size of New York City – is America’s ninth-largest trading partner, and nearly all high-tech products depend on Taiwan’s semiconductors. With more than 30 universities in Taiwan ranked among the top 500 in the world, the importance of accessible and high-quality higher education cannot be underestimated.
I am not saying that a national education system is the best option for America because there are a lot of flaws, and I have experienced them firsthand. What I am saying, however, is that there are concrete examples that when every citizen has access to rigorous and quality education, whatever their social status and wealth, society as a whole benefits.
Due to the hard work of those who came before us and the ingenuity of the Baruch community, we are in a unique position to demonstrate what sets us apart from our peers – the only ‘elite college’ that has 37 times more students at the bottom 60% than the top 1%. We have shown that quality education does not have to be a luxury, but rather something available to anyone who is willing to work hard to achieve it.
And for me, there is something exciting and inspiring about it as the main storyline for our play.