A Year of Magical Thinking

At a recent Jazz Ensemble concert of student performances, I noticed that Anthony Florez was the faculty member leading the event. Matt Shevitz had usually been front and center. Matt showed up later to show his support, but Anthony was the leader of this concert.

It struck me that this is what happens when you hire great people. I had nothing to do with the management of this Jazz Concert (which, by the way, was outstanding. I encourage all members of the HWC community to take advantage of the weekly Jazz performances at 11:30 on Tuesdays in the Student Union.) Anthony, a newly hired faculty member, stepped up. He and Matt saw a need to arrange for our students to perform, and Anthony led the way. No administrators were involved. No presidents had to intervene. People stepped up, did what they thought needed doing, and created a little magic here at the college.

Today is my one year anniversary at Harold Washington College. I came here because I thought I could make a difference. I wanted to help our students be successful. I was afflicted by a bit of magical thinking, a type of delusion about what influence I could have on the HWC community.

A year in, I ask myself what have I accomplished? I started my year by aligning our operating plan and budgets with the goals of reinvention. As the year went on, I tried to learn as much as I could about what we can do to make students successful. We have improved our satisfaction rates during registration, giving students a better feeling about the college as they start their academic careers (taking our dissatisfied/highly dissatisfied ratings with registration from 33% to 11%). I asked for data about potential graduates, and directed efforts (undertaken by wonderful faculty members) to call almost 600 students who have 60 credits or more and are on the brink of graduating, to encourage them to take the courses necessary to graduate. I have attempted to foster a culture of serving our students with respect by making my expectations clear, by chartering a Service Excellence committee to develop standards of conduct for interactions with students, and by highlighting our collective and individual successes and failures to serve students well. We increased the number of tutors to better support our students’ academic efforts.

And yet. And yet. I am overwhelmed by how much I have not done. By how much is left to accomplish. By how much more I want to do for our students. The gap between where our students are and where I want them to be causes me physical pain. For every success story I meet, for every student who makes me feel so wonderful about why we are here and what we are doing, there are so many more who have left us, who dropped out, who gave college a try and for uncountable reasons did not continue.

I have been driven this first year, some may say afflicted, by this magical thinking, that not only could I make a difference, but I needed to accomplish it now, today. A year in, I reminded myself of one of the most important leadership lessons: no one can achieve great things by him/her self. Professor Florez’ example drove this home.

In my first year, we have hired or promoted forty people. I have interviewed every one of them, along with over 100 other candidates who aspired to join HWC. In every interview, I have asked how their job will support the goals of Reinvention and student success. One financial aid advisor candidate’s response almost brought tears to my eyes as I could feel the passion she had for helping our students succeed. These forty people join the 188 full-time and hundreds of part-time employees who show up every day to help drive student success.

It is my hope that these forty new people have been afflicted by magical thinking of their own, and that they have joined us with the belief that they can make a difference and drive us to support greater student success. My heart fills when I see examples like Anthony Florez creating opportunities for our students, CAST members contributing their time for CASTivities, Assessment Committee members and SIT members and Faculty Council and the Disabilities Access Center and advisors of the academic, financial, veterans, international, transfer and wellness types,  janitors, registrars, admissions, bursars and business officers, engineers, security officers, payroll processors, switchboard operators, testing and computing center overseers, student activity coordinators, mailroom and loading dock, OIT, HR, reprographics, writing lab, tutoring center, researchers, legal clinicians, food sanitation issuers and taxi instructors, CNAers, building services, career planners, librarians, 10KSBers, CDAers, directors and deans and associate deans and VPs and administrators and presidential assistants and most of all faculty who put in that extra time and effort to contribute to our goal of making our students successful.

And so, a year in, while the challenge seems as great as when I started, I am buoyed by the support, often unseen and perhaps seemingly unappreciated, from all that our team does to serve our students.

Thank you for the most magical year of my life.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

3 thoughts on “A Year of Magical Thinking

  1. Thanks Don! For everything you’ve done and your kind words about Tony. It is truly great to have both him and Mick Laymon on board. They are doing wonderful things with our program and HWC!

  2. Happy Anniversary Don! I hope you have given yourself, or will give yourself, time to celebrate the occasion. So far, so good. May there be more celebrations to follow.

    BTW, nice piece of reflective writing. We should encourage our students to follow your lead instead of writing those stuffy papers for midterms.

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