Houston: University of Houston

The work I have been doing in higher education this last year has been a real eye-opener.  The good news is that the American system of higher education is simply the best. This includes our universities community colleges and training. My appreciation of the system was last updated in 1984, when I graduated with my MBA.  I got to know a little more about it when the kids were applying for college, but the experience was limited; the application process doesn’t give you the kind of inside knowledge I have been getting lately.

The “bad” news that there are so many great opportunities and so many permutations and they are so widespread that it is hard to understand and hard to know what to do. It is the proverbial kid in the candy shop story. The other problem is that our higher education system is a protean as it is ubiquitous.  (I love to use the phrase, but opportunities are few.) It is our great strength that our system adapts very quickly.  My observation is that even the people ostensibly in charge at most institutions have only an awareness of most of what is going on. This is by no means a criticism.  In fact, I am impressed by their wisdom. Good leadership trusts people to innovate and imagine better things and then make them realities. I see a lot of spontaneity, serendipity and self-organizing ad-hocracies. Excuse me if I wax whimsical, but the picture is so complex and beautiful that no one can comprehend it in its entirety. Fortunately, no one has to. The parts work together autonomously and organize themselves.  We did Rice University in the morning. I didn’t know much about Rice (discussed in my last post), but I did know there was such a place. I didn’t even know that the University of Houston existed.  This is the complexity part.  But I was greatly impressed with the people I met there.  They told me that they are awarding 300 PhDs a year and they want to expand that to 400.  This is no easy task.  It is possible to grow too fast and, as I have learned to my sorrow, scalability is a problem when you try to rapidly increase quantity while maintaining quality, even when you are rich in resources. It takes about five years to make a PhD and you lose about 30% of them. That means that you have to take in more than 500 a year and you can expect to have more than 3000 in the system at any time. 

This is a challenge. The Houston folks were interested in talking to the Brazilians, since they saw some synergies and ways to share resources.  They also pointed out that they were the country’s largest Hispanic serving institution in the U.S.  They quickly pointed out that they understood that Brazilians were not Hispanics (a frequent cultural gaffe) but that they simply meant that they had lots of experience in cross culture communication and, after all, Portuguese speakers can usually understand lots of Spanish, even if it doesn’t seem to be a two way street. (I don’t know why this is true, but I have seen it enough to know that it is. I can understand most spoken Spanish and can read it fairly easily, even though I have never studied it.  Spanish speakers tend to look at me blankly when I speak Portuguese at them. I would attribute this to my bad accent, except I notice the same thing when native Brazilians are doing the talking.)

University of Houston is strong in health care and energy, as you might expect given its location is the world’s energy center and top health care complex. They also said they were good at getting innovations to market.  One guy said that lots of academics know how to invent but they don’t know how to innovate. He claimed that they were separate skills.  Lots of inventions just are not useful or not useful in their original form. Sometimes the inventor can take his product successfully to market. Often they need someone else to help or do it. 

I think the above is the big take away lesson. Few people possess the requisite combination of stills to be master the technical details, implement them, understand potential uses and how to bring them to market. Even the few people who have all these things often lack the flexibility to change their great ideas as necessary. There really are no great individuals; only great teams. When you look at great people closely enough, you always notice that the team around him plays a big role. Often when the great man fails, we see something has happened in the team around him before the problem was manifest.