Good-Bye “Sculpting in Clay”

By | June 19, 2015

“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.”
-Lawrence Clark Powell
(1906-2001)

Today I publish my final “Sculpting in Clay” blog post. Thanks to all for allowing me to share my thoughts with you on this forum these past five years — and thanks to the many who have, in turn, shared your thoughts in response.

Anyone at my stage of life and career has seen amazing changes — most of it progress — from the time we entered the workforce. And I’m hard pressed to think of an area that has changed more than communications.

Of course, when I began my career, there was no Internet and no cell phones. In contrast, the students who come to GRU today can’t even imagine a world unconnected.

At the time they were born, only about 1 percent of the world’s population had access to the Internet. In the course of their lifetimes, that number has grown to 42 percent, or more than 3 billion worldwide — with nearly a million more connecting each day.

Most of our favorite apps and websites are younger than they are, like Google (born in 1998), Skype (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Instagram (2010), and Snapchat (2011).

And blogging? Well, the origin of the first blog is murky — several early online journal writers claim the title. But the term “weblog” is generally credited to Jorn Barger in 1997, whose site was called “Robot Wisdom.” He coined it to describe “logging” while browsing the web.

Programmer Peter Merholz shortened the term to “blog” a couple of years later, and subsequently, blogging grew so fast that in 2004 Merriam-Webster declared it the word of the year.

Today, WordPress.com estimates that bloggers produce about 58.7 million new posts each month, and over the same time period more than 409 million people view more than 20.1 billion pages.

With so many choices, I’m doubly grateful you’ve given my blog a few minutes of your time!

Over just the five years since I started “Sculpting in Clay,” CEO use of social media, including blogs, has exploded — from only a third in 2010 to four out of five today, according to research conducted by the global PR firm Weber Shandwick.

They found some real benefits to CEOs communicating in these ways, including that it helps to build relationships with employees, it shows innovation, and it has a positive impact on a company’s reputation.

In fact, my blogs were the main reason University Business magazine in March named me one of the “Top 14 Opinionated Presidents,” based on Maryland-based Phair Advantage Communications’ analysis of more than 600 opinion pieces authored by college and university presidents in 2014.

I’m proud of that — I believe it’s important for leaders to speak out on issues to help guide the conversation and explore solutions to challenges we face. The more and greater variety of voices we include, the better our chance at making the best choices for the future.

As president and CEO of GRU and GRHealth, I have appreciated having this blog as a vehicle for sharing thoughts and strategies, communicating priorities, and sometimes dealing with difficult issues. As I have mentioned many times, keeping our campus abreast of pressing issues and the reasoning behind the problems and/or the solutions to them is critical. And even more so when our university is undergoing the type of transformation that we have experienced in the past five years.

However, I also frequently compare communicating in the academic setting to “throwing a pebble in a tar pit.” When you message something, it can sometimes sink quietly without anybody noticing! And so over the past five years we have used as many means of communication as possible … email blasts, open forums, individual and group presentations to faculty and staff, print, videos, and yes … even blogs.

And so, as I transition to the next phase of my life and career, I plan to continue writing in my Huffington Post blog, so hope you will continue to follow me there.

Lessons from a hard life transition: Learning to see the forest for the trees

By | May 18, 2015

As I prepared my last commencement address as president of Georgia Regents University, it struck me that the graduates and I have something in common: We are all in the middle of significant life transitions.

It goes to show that life is never static, change is inevitable, and transitions will happen throughout our lives. The ability to manage and make the most of transitions is an important life skill. It takes focus, adaptability, perseverance, faith in oneself — and sometimes sheer courage.

I’d like to share a story from my youth — a hard transition that taught me much about surviving and thriving in times of change.

I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay; my family moved when I was only three years old to Pennsylvania, where my father entered a PhD program at Penn State. About 10 years later, we were back in Uruguay, and my father was a physics professor at the university there.

This was the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Latin America was a veritable cauldron of political and revolutionary brew — a far cry from the leafy and calm neighborhood in Pittsburgh where we had moved from.

We soon found ourselves in the thick of riots, protests, tear gas, arrests, kidnappings, torture, and killings. It was during this period that I witnessed the kidnapping and shooting of an ex-minister of agriculture by an urban guerilla group, an event that impacted me deeply and brought home how tenuous our hold on life can be.

Then one day my father was arrested for looking vaguely “revolutionary,” sporting a beard and a Russian Cossack-style winter hat, which was very popular in the U.S. at the time, but which security forces deemed a communist symbol.

So we decided it was time to leave. My father first, to Puerto Rico where he joined the faculty at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (the only land grant university in the Caribbean) and then, when he had collected sufficient monies, the rest of the family followed. A good thing, because shortly afterwards the country experienced a military coup d’état and the prisons overflowed, with more than 10 percent of the population jailed for being a revolutionary, a reactionary, or simply for being politically incorrect.

And in that transition to Puerto Rico we lost all our possessions — but thankfully not our will or willingness to work hard.

My father eventually negotiated a deal with a local land owner who had many acres of property: We would survey 300 hectares (about 740 acres) in exchange for a piece of land. Land served only by a narrow winding road that climbed the mountainside and that you reached by fording a flowing creek. Undeveloped land with no running water, electricity, or phone — and of course no cell phone or internet access!

Survey instruments require a clear view from one point to the next that is being plotted, and the land we were going to measure was basically unexplored.

And so early in August of 1971, when I was about 13 years old, my father gave my brother and me each our own machete — one that soon became an extension of my arm and which I still have today. Off we went cutting our way through the jungle, clearing paths so that we could survey.

Mind you, Puerto Rico is a mountainous tropical island. Fall and winter are humid, hot, and sticky, with the occasional monstrous hurricane. Spring and summer are humid, hot, and sticky, and it rains every mid-day.

For days and weeks, as we worked to measure this piece of unexplored jungle, we climbed hills and ravines. We crossed streams and arroyos. We slipped on banana tree leaves, fallen Seville oranges, and rotting mangos. We slid on the red clay that made up most of the topsoil of the island, until our t-shirts were stained orange, mixing with the brown of plantain tree sap. And we fought off armies of ants, beetles, and tarantulas — all supersized of course!

And we learned many lessons in those hot and humid months. That using the machete requires technique. You want to let the weight of the machete carry the tool forward while you slice downwards and to the opposite side of your body. You need to take care not to chop into a rock or a hard tree, which would twist the blade from your hand and wrench your shoulder, and even more importantly, make sure not to slice into your leg if you miss your cut.

And we learned the value of hard work, the need to never lose hope, and the eternal value of knowledge and skill and even more, the ability to continue to learn.

But what that summer taught me most, as my father, brother, and I surveyed that patch of muggy jungle on the west coast of Puerto Rico, was the need to keep one’s internal compass fully operational and in full use at all times. I learned to literally see the forest for the trees.

After shearing many a brush field, fern, tree, and bush — exhausted, sore, and blistered as I weaved my way to what I thought was my destination, only to find that I was well off the mark — I learned to visualize my destination, my goal if you would, in my head in order to stay on track.

This was an important lesson that helped me understand the need to always strive to see the big picture. To see the larger panorama. Because it is only when you can understand how the forest is laid out that you can craft a clear, efficient path to your goal.

And as we experience crisis, change, transitions, and even grave losses, we need to ensure we keep our goals clear and that we are able to place these within the larger context of our broader environment. It’s a lesson we used to stay on track as we created and transformed GRU and GR Health.

And a lesson I carry with me to this day.