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.