Earlier this month, my wife and I attended an on-campus musical theater performance by Baruch students of And Then There Was Us. This amazing two-hour production featured students from a variety of majors—international business, marketing, psychology, journalism, art administration—all of whom acted and sang with a passion no less compelling than professionals. The original music was created by Tony Award–winning artist and playwright Stew Stewart—and, get this, the show was written in collaboration with six Baruch student-playwrights as part of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
There are so many dimensions of this experience that were thrilling and inspiring to me. First, this was the very first time that musical theater was incorporated into the Harman Program—the production brought together two great programs to achieve something remarkable. Second, you may be surprised to learn that the show began its life in an online course Stew taught in Spring 2021—with him actively collaborating with Baruch students in the creative process. As you can imagine, this was no ordinary online course—the profound exploratory component shows what is possible when you engage students in an inquiry-driven, experiential form of learning. Third, the show portrayed young New Yorkers experiencing their lives from a wide array of perspectives with vivid and raw emotion. Stew said it perfectly, “These students are living out their young lives on this starkly lit pandemic stage, trying to figure out what theater could mean in these overtly theatrical times. It will give off a distinctly New York vibe, simply because it consists of so many different voices crowded into one 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 City, 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.
While watching the play, I thought of the theater metaphor I used in my May blog “A Dress Rehearsal for the Future,” where I encouraged our community to adopt a fresh, exploratory mindset as if we were actors participating in a dress rehearsal for our future. I realized that the student production was a great example of the kind of adaptability and fresh mindset required to make our future shine. The Harman Program and theater faculty worked heroically not only to create, produce, and direct the show but also to construct an environment where students could rehearse, have a safe venue to perform, interact with the audience (we all sat on the stage), and experience, I am sure, one of the most meaningful learnings of their time at Baruch. When I talked to parents after the show, it was clear what this meant to the students: With all the modern technology and innovative tools available to us, education is still fundamentally a high-touch, high-contact endeavor. Our students know, feel, and crave this deeper level of engagement.
While it is easy to draw the connection between the theater metaphor with a theatrical production, what does it really mean for the rest of what we do? Let me follow the metaphor a bit further with the “master script” for our play.
Shared Vision for the Future
Baruch will begin its institutional strategic planning process next year as our current blueprint will expire in 2023. As a community, we first need to develop a shared aspirational vision, which will serve as the master script for our play. We need to establish a narrative, a resonating story for the essence of Baruch that helps frame all conversations. To begin the process, I pose two fundamental questions for our consideration: What differentiates us? Why is that distinction important?
In my view, Baruch differentiates itself by making stellar academics accessible to all. Stellar academics is achieved by world-class scholar-teachers who take an integral view in the knowledge creation, appropriation, and dissemination process. Our people, working seamlessly together, create transformative opportunities for our diverse students, and alumni, for career opportunities and lifetime fulfillment comparable to any top institution—something for which we are recognized as a national leader.
This is an important distinction. Imagine a baby born in New York City during this holiday season to a low-income immigrant family, with parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Growing up, this child may 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 be able afford it.” It is critical for this child to know that if she or he works hard and does well in school, they will be able to attend the very best college and have a shot at their dream—just a few subway stops away. They won’t receive an education that is just “good enough” for them, but rather an education that is as good as anyone can get.
That is what sets Baruch apart. The very existence of such opportunity, for anyone and everyone, is crucial for a fair and just society. We must figure out how to live up to our own expectations of what that stands for, and how to sustain it, which leads 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 we can discover and maximize opportunities and expand our impact. To do so with integrity and accountability, we will need to establish a data-driven, organizational baseline and set ambitious but attainable goals.
More importantly, and in addition to our operational performance, we should aspire to an exceptional cultural performance that compels us to accomplish what we do in an inclusive, empathetic, and equitable manner. Mental fatigue and morale issues have been widely reported across higher education, and Baruch is no exception. Managing the transition and transformation thoughtfully, and with empathy, must be built into the underpinnings of our play.
“No Money, No Mission”
Seventeen months into my presidency, I have developed a deeper understanding and a great admiration for the ingenuity, dedication, and perseverance of the Baruch community. I have also gained a realization that there are simply not sufficient resources for us to perform at the highest level. It is quite remarkable that the College is able to perform at the level it has—with streamlined staffing, constant and persistent budget cuts, and shrinking public funding. Unfortunately, the chronic resource deprivation may have induced a prevailing side effect, which one of my colleagues calls the “scarcity mindset.” While the scarcity mindset is borne out of the desire for conservation and survival, it also limits our imaginations, making us less than who we truly are. Moving forward, we will need tangible ways to grow financial resources to support and sustain what we do. We will also need clear and transparent approaches to translate financial outcomes to the institution’s mission as we set transformational, long-term goals.
The Time To Act Is Now
Every higher education institution emerging from the pandemic is having similar conversations. There are those well-endowed institutions that have tremendous assets to leverage as they chart their futures, and there are institutions that are, or will be, teetering on the brink of survival. We are neither.
Just like Baruch students, we may not have the inheritance and trust funds, but we have the confidence of knowing we have come this far by working hard, and we have the intellect and that fire in the belly to chart a future that is bigger than others think we can. We have learned that each step matters a little more when you do not have much to fall back on, that there is no time to waste, and that we will need to hustle to overcome adversity. We know we will succeed because we have the talent and that burning desire to be the very best.
Everyone Should Be Involved
My dress rehearsal metaphor was about getting everyone involved and adopting a fresh, exploratory mindset as we examine the future. That mindset might be the best antidote to the scarcity mindset. But how? All levels of our organization should engage in brainstorming innovative changes in order to achieve our shared vision. Mechanisms such as appreciative inquiry and design thinking offer tangible ways for us to engage stakeholders in self-determined change and transformation. These are proven approaches that gather broad stakeholder input and enable ownership and accountability for the improvement of ideas. Taking this fresh-eyed approach enables us, as a learning institution, to operate with flexibility and resilience over the long term and helps us to emerge stronger from our challenges.
Master Script for the Play
When I was a child in post–World War II Taiwan, the island had a great deal of poverty. The median household income was a fraction of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. However, the system was (and still is) established in such a way that everyone had the same access to a rigorous education that established high expectations, regardless of social status and wealth. Today, this tiny island—one-third the size of New York—is the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States, and almost all high-tech products depend on Taiwan’s semiconductors. With more than 30 universities in Taiwan ranked in the world’s top 500, the importance of an accessible and high-quality higher education cannot be understated.
I am not saying a national education system is the best option for the U.S. as there are plenty of flaws, and I have experienced them firsthand. What I am saying, however, is there are concrete examples that when every citizen has access to a rigorous, high-quality education—regardless of 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 the unique position to demonstrate what differentiates us from our peers—the only “elite college” that has 37 times more students from the bottom 60 percent than the top 1 percent. We have shown that a quality education does not need to be a luxury, but rather something available to everyone who is willing to work hard to attain it.
And to me, there is something thrilling and inspirational about this as a master script for our play.
And the show must go on.
The presence of City College as a tuition free institution gave solace to my parents that if I worked hard I would be guaranteed an education and a productive life, most of which was spent as a Baruch faculty member. Keep the retired faculty in mind as valuable contributors to the rehearsal. The cliche,” been there done that” does come with some value.
Dr. Reichman, how are you doing? Yes, your psychological insights and discernments are a distinct, enduring asset to the Baruch College community.
Referring to your question, “What differentiates us? Why is that distinction important?” I believe you were alluding to Baruch as a University in respect to its counterparts (CUNYs and other institutions), which led me to thinking about the individual, the very composition of any complex organization.
As a Sophomore at Baruch, the past 18 months have been quite difficult in finding distinction. Learning through online environments and lack of socialization has changed the way students communicate. The impressionable minds of our maturing youth feel like they’ve been led astray. I can attest to this myself. Whether it be a disconnection with Professors, due to an unfamiliar exchange of teaching/learning, I felt like my identity was limited to an EMPLID.
Distinction, however, is decided upon the action in which an individual takes to battle adversity. What can we do to change our current situation for the better? Discourse. We can talk, we can share, and we can relate to one another. Communication brings about change.
Seeing that our very own President is interested in the minutiae, putting aside time to appreciate the display of the student playwrights and actors at Baruch, eases my worries of University losing its humanity to functionality.
As much as it is a business, college is a sandbox for the mind, a place where the intellectual can navigate avenues of exciting and rigorous academic challenges alongside their peers. Or, as some might call it, a dress rehearsal. A place to experiment. A place to meet expectations and failure alike, and learn from these experiences. And having discourse with my University President makes me feel less like a paying customer and more a constituent, one whose values and ideals are considered too.
This is what distinguishes Baruch.
Thank you for your heartfelt comments, Mass. You are speaking of the core of learning, which requires students to ask critical questions, challenge status quo ideas, and explore new ways to frame an issue. Critical learning happens not only through interaction with the professors, but with fellow students–all these are challenging to do in a remote environment. I like your idea of active dialogue and discourse. Experimenting with different forms of discourse, and other creative ways of experiencing and engagement, should be very much a part of our dress rehearsal.
Upon reading your remarkable depiction of such an unique moment for our great learning campus, I was able to share your emotions therewith.
Congratulations, for this accomplishment, of which I am truly proud!
“Scarcity mindset” is for losers! Complaining about insufficient resources is for losers! Find a way (as Baruch seems to be doing). “Analyze, adapt, overcome”, the motto of THE elite military organization, one that has been short-changed with resource funding since its founding 246 years ago. Semper Fidelis! (1962-72).
Thank you, Mr. Mennis, “Analyze, Adapt, Overcome,” I love it!
I get it and absolutely agree. I come from financially very poor parents. They were deaf mutes. That’s like two strikes and you’re almost out. But I rose from the ashes and struggled, working during the day to support my parents and attending class at night to get my diploma from Theordore Roosevelt Evening High School. Yet after four plus years in the US Army and two tours in Vietnam, Baruch welcomed me with open arms and made available to me the opportunity to earn a BBA without tuition cost and an MBA with modest costs. The education I received at Baruch helped me to earn CPA and CFE licenses. I am so grateful for the opportunity given to me by Baruch. I won’t forget Baruch, and neither will my estate.
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story, Mr. Zuckerman. Yours is a story shared by so many Baruch alumni, but each with their own unique dimension and power. The experience you are speaking of captures what Baruch is all about, and we must figure out how to live up to our proud tradition, and how to sustain and expand upon it.
Baruch has been great so far. People criticize us for lack of community, socialization, etc, but it’s on them for not trying. Like Jack Mennis said, “‘Scarcity mindset’ is for losers!” They should work for what they want. So, I’m not sure if they huge push for in-person classes is because of this. I love in person class. But let’s be realistic, times have changed. Commuting isn’t easy, we have responsibilities, etc. So, why make a 98% of the classes in-person? Why not make it more accessible for others? If people want to be active in the community, being in-person or online will make no difference.
Thanks, K.O, Let me piggyback on your comment.
THEY NEVER WENT BACK
There was a cataclysm, a great upheaval,
And so, the people abandoned their “homes”
And went down into the “valley,” to set up shop.
And all the while, they kept their “homes” clean and functioning,
For the time, when they would return, and “dwell” in them again.
Meantime, they greatly improvised, creating new ways of life
In their, at first, very makeshift abodes, that over time,
Became more and more comfortable and reliable.
Still, though, they kept alive their deepest hope,
That one day, they’d return to the “homes,”
That they had abandoned long ago.
But, alas, they never did go back.
Thank you for your comments. As I shared in my blog over the past year, we do have a unique opportunity to leverage multiple instructional modalities and create truly novel approaches to instruction and learning. And, we are working actively to conceive an environment where we serve our stakeholders in a “digitally-physically immersed hybrid setting.” But, more importantly, we need to pay close attention to the impact on our students and their success. Early student outcome data (local and national study on the effect of online learning) already suggest a worrisome trend: a significant and widening performance gap across different student demographics. The value of in-person learning can not be understated, and we must figure out a new way forward.
Dr. Wu, let me piggyback on what you have said.
THE NEW NORMAL
To Internet or not to Internet. To somehow Go Back
To the Way We Were, or to fully Embrace Cyberspace,
That’s the Question, not just being asked at the College,
But in each and every single nook and cranny of Society.
Meanwhile, we are all furiously creating our coping mechanisms,
That quiet as its kept are likely to become the eventual status quo,
And few will realize that, together, we have fashioned the New Normal.
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