Fridays with Fuhrmann: Starting with Why, Part 1

FWF-image-20170522 It’s been a quiet week in Houghton, just like in Lake Wobegon I suppose. It seems like hardly anyone is around except for the few instructors we have teaching summer classes. The weather has been pretty lousy – cold, rainy, and windy – and even though the lawns around town are greening up, the leaves on the trees are still struggling to come out. The academic year is over but it is too early in the season to enjoy any summertime outdoor activities in the Keweenaw. It’s a perfect time to travel.

This is also a good time to take a breather to step back and think about the bigger picture at Michigan Tech. We have the search for a new president coming up next academic year, along with searches for three deans, in the College of Engineering, the College of Sciences and Arts, and the School of Technology. (I hasten to add here, as does our current Dean of Engineering Wayne Pennington: there is no crisis. Everyone just reached retirement age at the same time.) A lot of people are going to be taking a hard look at the kind of university we want to be as we move forward, and I count myself among them.

Thinking about strategic issues and traveling at the same time provides the opportunity to get in some extra reading, in airports, on planes, and by the hotel pool. As luck would have it my wife was reading the book Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, and she loaned it to me for my recent travels to Houston, Seattle, and Tulsa. It is the perfect catalyst to get one thinking about the larger, more important issues in any organization.

Pretty much everything you need to know about Sinek’s book you can get from the title. Essentially, he makes the case that every successful business, organization, or movement knows at its core its reason for existence – the WHY. The HOW and the WHAT will follow naturally from the WHY. If the leaders of the business, organization, or movement can articulate and communicate the WHY to both the members (e.g. employees) and the stakeholders (e.g. customers) then everyone is motivated for the right reasons, and the organization will flourish. He cites Apple, Southwest Airlines, and the civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as examples of this principle in action. Best line in the book: Dr. King gave the “I Have A Dream” speech, not the “I Have a Plan” speech. If you sit back and think about it, this is not rocket science, but it is an idea that is critically important, and easily forgotten in the day-to-day operations of HOW and WHAT (and yes, Sinek puts those three words in ALL CAPS throughout the book.)

So why does Michigan Tech exist? Good question. There is actually one very good answer, spelled out in the opening section our founding legislation. Here, according to the State of Michigan in 1885, and amended in 1963 and 1964 to change the name, is our raison d’etre:

The institution established in the Upper Peninsula known as the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, referred to in the constitution of 1963 as the Michigan College of Science and Technology, is continued after January 1, 1964, under the name of Michigan Technological University, and shall be maintained for the purpose and under the regulations contained in this act. The institution shall provide the inhabitants of this state with the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the mineral industry in its various phases, and of the application of science to industry, as exemplified by the various engineering courses offered at technological institutions, and shall seek to promote the welfare of the industries of the state, insofar as the funds provided shall permit and the Board of Control shall deem advisable.

This is pretty unambiguous: we exist to provide a means for the inhabitants of Michigan to acquire knowledge in the application of science to industry (which I would argue means STEM) and to promote the welfare of industries in the state. [OK, there is that part about the mineral industry which seems a bit dated, although I am certain my friends over in Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences love it.] In essence, the founding legislation speaks to education and research, and specifically STEM education and industrial research. Close inspection reveals that this paragraph does not say anything about educating students from other states or other countries, nor does it say anything about doing government-sponsored basic research, nor does it say we will promote the welfare of industries in California.

Don’t worry, I am not going to be a strict constructionist here. I realize that our founding legislation is a living document, much like the U.S. Constitution, and that the very changes in society, technology, and industry that we have helped to bring about force us to reconsider exactly what it means to be useful to the State of Michigan. I am happy that we have students from all over the U.S. and from abroad, I am happy that our research portfolio includes a lot of basic science as well as applied science, and I am happy that our graduates have good job opportunities all across the country. One can easily argue that all this activity is good for Michigan citizens and Michigan industry, and besides, the world is much smaller now than it was in 1885 and we need to have a global perspective. Thankfully, we have a Board of Trustees who acts as our “supreme court” and which can interpret our founding legislation in a way that keeps us relevant for the 21st century.

That being said, I am not shy about asserting that Michigan Tech is and always has been a technological university at its core. We need to embrace that identity and not try to run away from it; it’s who we are, it’s what we do, it’s in our DNA. I am also not shy about saying that Michigan Tech has a responsibility to the State of Michigan in some way or another, whether that means providing a pipeline of well-prepared talent in STEM fields or supporting industry through basic and applied research. Lately I have been throwing in the phrase “and the larger Great Lakes region” when I speak or write about our role in the state, because I think we all interconnected now, and what is good for Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio is by and large good for Michigan too – and vice versa.

An issue related to our purpose in life occasionally comes up in conversation around the department, when someone throws out the question “Who are our customers?” It took me a while but I now have my stock answer to this question, which is: we are not a business, therefore we do not have customers. We are an institution that serves the public good, and we have many stakeholders. These include our students, our students’ families, our alumni, our research sponsors, our industrial recruiters, our other industries in the state, and the State of Michigan as a whole. There is a whole ecosystem surrounding discovery, innovation, education, and workforce training, and when we are operating at our best these parts are all working together for the betterment of society as a whole. Now it is tempting to say that “students are our customers, they are the ones paying the bills” and it is very easy to see why many students and their parents would adopt this stand. However, this is an unfortunate consequence of the drop in state funding and the subsequent increase in tuition which shifts the financial burden to the students and their families, and I certainly agree that it is substantial. Please don’t misunderstand: we take our responsibilities to our students very seriously. I do want to point out that there was a time when students paid a nominal fraction of the cost of their education, and the rest was borne by the state because the higher education of students who would contribute to economic and social development of the state was a benefit to all citizens, not just those attending college. [This is going off on a tangent, but I recommend reading the editorial in the New York Times Magazine on February 21, 2017, lamenting the loss of the “public” in public schools.]

If we fast-forward from 1885 we can find a more modern version of Michigan Tech’s WHY in our strategic plan, easily found on the website https://www.banweb.mtu.edu/pls/owa/strategic_plan.p_display. There you will find our Mission, our Vision, and our Goals, as developed over several years recently by the administration and the Board of Trustees with lots of input from the entire university community. At first I thought it would be straightforward to map WHY, HOW and WHAT onto Mission, Vision, and Goals, but that didn’t quite work out. In fact, in doing some background reading on mission and vision statements, I found conflicting guidance on what belongs in a mission statement, with different authors claiming it should be WHY, HOW, or WHAT. The one consistent guidance I found was that the mission speaks to the present, while the vision speaks to the future. So, with that little admission of my own state of confusion, I am going to take the university’s Vision as the definitive statement of why we believe we exist now. I am going to make one little modification, and change the future tense to the present tense:

Michigan Tech leads as a global technological university that inspires students, advances knowledge, and innovates to create a sustainable, just, and prosperous world.

I’m good with this. Obviously this statement has much broader reach than the opening paragraph of our founding legislation, but there is nothing in this statement that outright contradicts that original document. If we are successful in all our global aspirations that in all likelihood we will fulfill all our local responsibilities.

There is another little phrase that has been used by the university for many years. It is not our mission or our vision, nor is it an official motto or slogan of any kind; some people simply call it our “tagline.” It pops up on a lot of Michigan Tech promotional material, and it goes like this:

We prepare students to create the future.

This is very catchy and I acknowledge the author, unknown to me, for succinctly capturing a nice idea. Unfortunately, I am not good with this as a statement of the Michigan Tech WHY because it does short shrift to our aspirations in research and our responsibility to support industry. I know, everybody’s a critic.

My whole point in this exploration of the Michigan Tech WHY, beyond just pontificating on someone else’s wordsmithing, is that I think we all need to keep the big picture in front of us at this critical juncture in the life of the university. It is my hope that our new leadership will not only have a compelling vision for the future of the university, but will also work to communicate that vision regularly to the university community. We all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and we look to our leaders to give us a better reason than a paycheck. I can get behind inspiring students and advancing knowledge, but so can a lot of universities (all of them, actually) so I want us to do it in a way that is a reflection of Michigan Tech’s special place in the world. We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to offer. As long as the university community and the rest of the world know WHY that is true then we will be in good shape.

Coming up: I will get further into the weeds of WHY we do certain things in the ECE Department. In the meantime, enjoy the last few days of May.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


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