Complexity and Simplicity

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Today was a full day for me: in a cabinet meeting we planned for the WASC accreditation visit next week, discussed the agenda of the university diversity committee, made some plans for summer and reviewed fundraising, marketing and communications, and the seminary; at lunch an alumnus talked about life after university and how his FPU degree prepared him to compete with graduates from UC campuses and some of the more elite private schools; and in a strategic planning discussion with about 100 staff members we talked about change and how we will approach it—we have a great staff! There was also a faculty candidate presentation and a detailed response to one of the accreditation team members. Tomorrow promises to be another full day. Many at FPU campus would describe their days in just the same way.

I have often said universities are complex, perhaps overly so. We expect our various members to carry out their particular responsibilities, give them a lot of autonomy, and trust we are all working toward the same goals and mission, and under the same restraints, to serve our students, alumni, churches, donors, schools, businesses, community organizations and professional organizations and other groups. This work requires many specializations: in all our academic disciplines and sub-fields; in areas found in most organizations—human resources, finance, security; and in areas unique to higher education—financial aid, admissions, athletics, assessment and student support. Sometimes our work is so specialized we cannot really speak with others about it in depth (anyone care to discuss the latest interpretation of Thomist thought?).

Sometimes I have to sit back and gain some perspective. What do I look for when I really want to know if we are accomplishing what we say we are, if students are becoming well educated and well prepared for life beyond FPU, if lives are, as we say, being transformed, and if those who teach and serve are able to exercise the unique gifts that brought them to FPU? Here are some practical indicators:

• Students on the main campus and the regional centers are buried in a book or paper, or are intently working together on a project.
• Professors are talking in the hallways about what is happening in their classes, what they are working on in their discipline or a successful grad.
• An alum comes to campus and tells about success in his or her current work, then asks about graduate programs.
• A church, school or business leader volunteers a story about the difference FPU graduates make in their ministries, schools or businesses.
• Someone in the community tells me how one of our professors or students helped people work through conflict to reconciliation.
• I hear about another way a student, faculty, staff or administrator discovered a need and joined with others to address it.
• We get an unsolicited gift from someone who knows the value of what we do, and trusts their hard-earned resources to us to carry out that work.
• Staff or administrators stop me to explain they have found a way to solve a problem in a way that is simple, works for all concerned and costs very little.
• A community members says FPU is a special place and they want their child, spouse or friend to become a student because our education will both prepare their loved one and make them part of this Christ-centered community. (I always listen for both preparation and Christian character. Lose either and we aren’t what we should be.)

I could go on. Most of what we do in measuring our “institutional effectiveness” (higher education buzz words for “are we educating students and serving our communities”) is applying a systematic, verifiable method of gathering data to demonstrate outcomes.

So where did I get this list? It is simply my experience of the last few months both on and off campus. These are all things I have heard, seen, been told—sometimes by friends, and sometimes by people I do not know who stop me at a store, church, restaurant or school because they want me to know of their FPU experience, or that of a family member or friend. This has happened so many times over the years that I sometimes start my day wondering what I will hear. When it doesn’t happen, or when I hear and see the opposite—there have been times—I know we are not focused as we should be, or something is getting in our way.

Our work is not balancing budgets, enrolling students, receiving awards, publishing books, preparing everything and everyone for our collective work, planning for the future or solving problems. It is providing the educational experiences that affect people’s lives and communities every day. It is both very complex and remarkably simple.