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Monday, November 2, 2015

Some people are SO competitive...

Sore winners
There are more dysfunctional work places than bearable ones. I know this because I have met people. I will now go about explaining why we, in Student Development, are not the former, though the evidence may indicate otherwise.

First off, Student Development is the informal moniker for what used to be Student Affairs, but now includes staffs from the Experiential Learning and Career Success and Student Success Centers as well as a few colleagues from International Services and Study Abroad. Basically, we are the ones who serve, support, and challenge our students in so many ways across campus. We are dedicated, hard-working, and professional. We care deeply about our students.

Games of Thrones: The Banners
We have three committees: the Divisional Assessment Team; the Professional Development Committee; and the Social Committee. For our purposes I am going to explain the Social Committee. This is the group that plans our gatherings (end-of-the-year party, Holiday Jubilee, etc.). This year, with the larger Student Development Team in place, that committee decided to split us into four teams to get to know other colleagues from various areas.The idea was to have friendly competitions at monthly lunches. The first was football trivia and October's was a "Minute to Win It" style of games.

It turns out that there are some competitive people in the Student Development area. Apparently, these people, including me (according to some), were split up into different teams. Because it would be rude to name these people I will do so: Melissa Flowers, Jamie Thompson, Stephanie Ackerman, and Lisa Chapa are the worst. It is worth noting that Melissa and Stephanie are from the east coast, so, you know...

There has not been a game yet that hasn't elicited some form of controversy. Apparently dedicated professionals can squabble over the smallest perceived injustices. It is odd to me because every team except mine has found one way or another to cheat. One person used both hands in the stacking ping-pong ball and cup bouncing game, which stabilized what was supposed to be an unstable stack. But it would be petty to complain. We have all gotten over the fact that Wanda Olson's team won the football trivia contest though the night previous, her husband Phil, was in possession of all of the questions. And answers. But karma is a thing, and the same team was shut out in the second competition. Turns out "Blue Steel" lacks a fierce competitive spirit.

Our team, the "Esther Bunnies," is named after our Captain, Esther Kim. It is the most creative team name, though there are apparently no points for that.(Other rejected suggestions: Kim Rats, Kim Dandies, The Fi-esthers, Court Esthers, and Besther.)

While this may be giving us strong connections outside the office, I can say there is definitely tension between me, Megan, and Yvonne on game days. This has become serious. I have to admit to having the shakes as I was (victoriously) stacking lug nuts eight high (on their sides) using a skewer. My teammate, "Brandy the Intern," thought it would motivate me by yelling, "They are all doing better than you," though the careful approach proved the correct one. I don't know if I was nervous about the task, nervous about wanting to win, or nervous about how I would fire my intern.

Who knew that what would bring out the worst in us would also bring out the best in us. But it has. Over the years we have done these really nice events with awards, centerpieces, and words of encouragement and support for how we help our students discover, grow, and become. This year though, there is something different in the air. Competition, complaining, boorish-behavior, a lack of civility, and a keen sense of anticipation for the next game day. Everyone but the "Esther Bunnies" hates me. But I don't care about them. By the end of the academic year we are going to win this thing. Isn't that the sign of a perfectly healthy workplace?

Perpetual Giving

Katie Ogawa chats with a conference attendee.
I once wrote a post about Trinity's over dependence on student Katie Ogawa in campus publications and marketing. She was, of course deserving, but we have many phenomenal students. So I hate to add to the mystique here, but even after graduating in 2014, Katie continues to bring our University the best PR imaginable. On October 31, Katie was flown in from Albuquerque to the Oblate School of Theology "Dorothy Day for Today" seminar. Katie received their first annual Social Justice Advocate Award in the student category. The excellent presentation was made by Chris Plauche of the Catholic Worker House. Check out the introduction and presentation below.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Homegrown Talent

I had a nice dinner with Trinity Alumna Noelle (Stockman) MacGregor (2001) and her friend from Houston recently. Noelle and Lori were here for a meeting and brought Lori's high school senior daughter Alex for a campus visit. Alex would be a perfect fit for Trinity and we would fit her like a glove. Lori told me that Noelle has been raving about Trinity for some time. This is not a new narrative. So many alumni spread the gospel of Trinity to others. More than once I have talked to a student whose neighbor or family friend went to Trinity and pitched it for its wonderful quality.

This is a special place. So special, that a number of graduates have become boomerang employees. A quick snapshot reveals that currently we have over 90 employees who graduated from Trinity. They have multiple experiences and stories, but it is very telling to me, that like our network of alumni cheerleaders, such as Noelle, so many talented people just can't get enough of this place. They turn their academic careers into professional ones.

When employers hire Trinity graduates, they almost always gain a superior employee: someone who can see the big picture; a person with social skills; a strong communicator; a person who can dig into the minutiae; a hard worker; and most commonly, someone who is extremely bright. When we hire Trinity graduates we are almost never disappointed. Of course we have tremendous employees who have come from elsewhere. Interestingly, they generally mirror the qualities of the Trinity alumni we hire.

This summer, in a bit of a coup, alumnus Mike Bacon was hired as the VP for Advancement and Alumni Relations. He embodies the Trinity spirit and news of his selection rippled through the alumni community like a tsunami. An insider was at the helm. One reason, besides their skill levels, is that alumni already know us and get us. It takes others awhile to learn and embrace the Trinity culture. It is elusive to define and it is unique. This is one reason why Mike's selection resonated so well.

I have worked here for over 25 years. I have probably eaten more meals in Mabee Hall in the history of Trinity than anyone else. I have probably climbed the tower more times, too. I have sat through more retirement receptions, been in every dorm room multiple times, and likely have more Trinity t-shirts than anyone... ever. But I am still an outsider. Meanwhile, people who have graduated from here will always have something I don't: a Trinity degree. I will always be Ned Stark's Jon Snow. But that is how it should be. Blood is thicker than water, and Trinity's worldwide family is just as robust on campus. We all win when we hire Trinity graduates. A Trinity graduate and a Trinity employee... That's usually an inspiring combination.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Letting Go: ParentTalk

For 14 years the ParentTalk listserv was good enough. In the spring of 2001 the Student Affairs staff put some strategies in place to advance parent engagement. This was in response to a growing chorus of concerns that the only time parents heard from us (Trinity) was when it was time to pay the bill.

Dating back to the expansive Coleen Grissom era, involvement with parents was always a hallmark of the Trinity experience. Back in the days when she was "The Dean" in the 1980's and beyond, she put on what seemed to be a one-person show for parents during a special summer orientation.

By 2001, and after she returned full-time to the faculty, fewer parents were attending in the summer and we focused our attention orienting parents when they were on campus en-masse with their new students in August.This has served us well. We get in front of more parents and in this electronically-paced world, giving up a weekend mid-summer just doesn't work for a lot of parents, especially given our reach beyond Texas and associated travel.

Our multi-pronged approach included a summer newsletter for new parents, a quarterly parent newsletter, a calendar/handbook for parents, and beefed up Fall and Spring Family Weekends. As the internet grew the summer newsletter and regular newsletters shifted to electronic versions that we could publish with greater frequency. We created a pretty good parent Web page (and discontinued the printed calendar - though a printed one-pager is available on-line).

Over the last couple of years a group of us meet quarterly to manage our parent relations. Staff members from Career Services, Admissions, Advancement, Student Involvement, Marketing, and the Dean of Students Office collaborate and coordinate a new multitude of programs including TU-in-the-City; Summer Send-offs; special luncheons; and more. This meshes with our philosophy that parents are partners, not distractions. Additionally, we are pretty clear that we are student-centered unless the issue of a student's success here hangs in the balance. Then we want to hear from parents or we initiate that communication.

Sometimes students don't like this because they want to be independent, though the money their parents spend on them comes in handy. That is an age-old tension between emerging adults and their parents. We do what we can to coach both sides through that.

Our crown-jewel of parent programs we rolled out in 2001 was the ParentTalk listserv. It was an electronic forum (mostly email) for parents and by parents to communicate about issues privately. It was an immediate hit. In the first year we decided to host a ParentTalk coffee on Fall Family Weekend at my home and it became an annual tradition. The idea was to put names and faces together so parents could meet some of the frequent contributors. Very quickly the list was split up as active members and lurkers (as opposed to stalkers). Name tags actually featured everyone's email addresses.

The first group had many colorful characters. Bruce from Colorado was a ParentTalk celebrity and he remained on the forum years after his daughter transferred. Parents led by women named Cory, Diane, and others started vacationing together despite being from California and Maine. The forum had its growing pains. The first challenge was handling differences in opinion. One parent expressed some unhappiness that Trinity was hosting the Vagina Monologues, saying "this isn't what I sent my kid to Trinity for." As I tried to prepare a response as moderator another parent posted "this is exactly why I sent my kid to Trinity." A long culture of mostly civil dialogue emerged where opposite opinions often ended up settling in the center.

The culture continued to grow and included George from Houston whose wife and I had to counsel off the forum. Others stood up to assume leadership roles and even today, and the popular Leslie in Jamaica who has been on the list the longest continue to chimes in despite her daughter being long gone from Trinity.

Students have had mixed feelings about the forum. They worried what their parents were saying about them and sometimes resented that parents were in the know about so much. Some parents went rogue and shared posts with their students who claimed, frequently, that those parents had no clue what their own students were doing on campus. They would be mortified. Mostly, it was a chance to take the most involved, concerned, and angsty parents and let them guide one another and talk each other down.

The most benign posts asked about nearby mechanics (Chevron) or restaurant and hotel reviews. We were one of the only schools to have a forum like this and my colleagues often thought I was crazy: too MUCH parent voice... too MUCH group-think. I rarely saw it that way, except when it came to complaints about food. While students were being painted pictures of bread, water, and raw potatoes I was not beyond taking my phone to Mabee to videotape all of the food options to post as a reality check. (Dean-rage.)

What parents have valued the most has been the moments when they could ask for support. "My kid is lonely/miserable/homesick/failing. What do I do?" And parents responded with empathy and care. The next year the same distressed parents were doling out the advice. It hasn't been unusual for parents of sick kids to see if anyone else's kid could check on them. And they did, including bringing care baskets for the ailing.

Over the last two years parents have asked about changing away from the forum. Facebook was gaining steam as a forum. In comparison to our higher-maintenance, less user-friendly, somewhat clunky list, Facebook offered advantages. Sometimes parents were overwhelmed by emails when a hot topic arose. It wasn't uncommon for somewhat surly dads to contact me about how to "get off this damn thing."

So as the requests for Facebook grew we added a private page this year: TU Parents. My staff and I wagered how quickly this would supplant the still-running ParentTalk. I won. Within days of the roll-out there were over 200 parents on the page. Nary a tumbleweed rolls through the ParentTalk listserv anymore.

I like that people can post photos and links ad that the page is generally private. It is already different though. I don't see the posts being nearly as personal or people being nearly as vulnerable. As an over-discloser I will try to prime the pump from time to time. I like the new format. it is easier for me, has a cleaner and more professional look, and is a forum that is comfortable and familiar to many. I will still moderate it and approve those who request to join (or not - no students allowed).

I don't think I am mourning this shift. It is good to mix it up, to update, and to evolve. But I like what we've had and how it fit with our hands-on high-touch culture here. Like most parents though, it seems inevitable. Time to let go.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Saturday Night Lites

Football is back and the Trinity took care of a tough Sul Ross team 30-12 on Saturday night. Not all the action happened while the clock was running. The new tailgating policy has been successfully rolled out. LeeRoy, the campus tiger mascot celebrated his birthday at halftime (hopefully will have a link soon). And new President Danny Anderson competed in the halftime bat races and made a nice showing of it. I suspect he skipped the tailgate libations, giving him a slight edge.

I got to spend some time with my colleague Yvonne's little boy Phillip. He was very entertaining as we waited in a long line for Powerade at the concession stand. He chastised me for not knowing they had purple flavor, told me he retired from football after one season, and wondered why I got an iPhone as part of my job and his mother didn't. Unfortunately I had to borrow some cash from new VP for Advancement and Alumni Relations, Mike Bacon. That quickly turned into a photo-op I added to his Facebook page. I may have misrepresented the photo as him taking money from a poor young donor. But.. picture don't lie.

Finally, it was a thrill to see former TU student (and one of my runners) Brianna Timourian (below) on campus. She was a TU student for one year and then transferred to Southwestern, where she is now a junior. It was there, at SU, during Brianna's sophomore year, that she ran cross-country with Danielle King. Danielle transferred to Trinity this fall and Brianna was on campus this weekend to visit her. In other words, they each transferred in different directions. I know Brianna's dad, Derek, who works at Southwestern. He knew my son, Nathan, who attended there. His other son went to TCU and he and my son Aaron started the same year and worked together at the TCU Rec Center during their freshman years. All that to say, Brianna and Danielle report that Trinity's dining services has a slight edge over Southwestern's.

Danielle and Brianna at the game.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Under the Covers

WWJJD? John Jay: lawyer, diplomat, founder
It's been a cover story: locally, regionally, and nationally. The video evidence seems conclusive. Two players from John Jay High School took cheap shots at a referee near the end of a recent football game. What followed was just as absurd. First, accusations that a coach put them up to it (troubling if it is true... and if it isn't), and second, that the referee had made not one, but two, racial slurs, using the n-word as well as telling Spanish speakers to speak English, because "this is America."

By most accounts the referee has an impeccable record. And if he is racist there are better ways to address such allegations. The cover stories of the young men ring false. Sure, we live in an age where abuse of authority and racism seem to make daily headlines. So we shouldn't dismiss the statements of the teens without some review. Indeed, cell phone video is routinely exposing what we often feared. However, anyone who watched this unfold could have scripted how it would play out before the clock hit zero and people ran for cover: video evidence, accusations of racism, lawyering up on both sides, talk radio conversations about criminal charges, veiled allegations of slander, and claims that boys will be boys. These boys, appearing on national television have little credibility, not because of their race, not because of their hair, but because their massaged statements seem manufactured, again by script. The incident video shows two players taking action into their own hands with the subtlety of a Donald Trump insult.But one of the parents claim it is being misinterpreted.

Sadly, we have seen this across campuses too. The racist sing-song from Oklahoma University with the hollow apology and claim that the leader was perhaps drunk, misunderstood and is really a good guy, is one recent example. Like the boys from John Jay, the young men involved were sorry, but were suddenly the victims being harassed on social media. The OU boys hired attorneys and the fraternity may sue someone, because, that's what you do. Never mind that this may be part of the group's culture.

The men at Old Dominion displaying their Daddy Day Care signs were just as brazen. In some ways, they're worse, because they think since they were just "joking" it made everything okay. This culture, the one of misogyny, is what partly underlies the issues campuses face regarding sexual assault. Objectification is no joking matter, and victims everywhere are saying so. Loudly. Unfortunately, in sexual assault cases, there is little incentive for the accused to be truthful. The accused face consequences for policy violations and because they might also face criminal and civil charges, mostly have to hire attorneys and repeat the now common mantra "based on the advice of my attorney I refuse to answer any questions." Suspension is one thing, jail time another.

There are other, lighter examples. For years our students would make up excuses in hopes of being released from the residency requirement. One year a student reported a bed-wetting problem. Word got out and the next year the bed-wetters on campus were lining up at the housing office, documentation in hand. It's not out of the ordinary for students who face our Student Conduct Board for minor alcohol violations to later tell board members they thought they would take their chances by lying. No hard feelings.

Welcome to college, where Web pages tout integrity, global citizenship, service, and scholarly communities, gloss over tales of adolescents behaving badly while maturing into adults. By-and-large, most students are mostly terrific, most of the time (just avoid YikYak). We offer a safe place for students to make mistakes and learn. Some would say it is insular. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with cases of poor behavior. Other times we find a glimmer, when someone takes responsibility for his or her actions. In a recent hearing, two first-year pot smokers were so sweet, so apologetic, and so convincing to the conduct board, that the older students wanted to take them home with them. And the sanctions suggested they were rewarded for their candor. Other times many students are generally reflective about their choices, their reputations, and their futures.

There is frequently incentive to lie, deflect, blame, downplay, and justify.

I don't have any answers to this. It's simply the world we live in, where we spin, we lawyer up, and we dodge responsibility. It happens with high school kids in San Antonio and deflated footballs in Foxboro. There are certainly bigger issues than football. And college. But it all seems discouragingly the same. We made this bed. Now we lie in it.