This fall, I joined the board of the University of Nebraska Lincoln Raikes School. The Raikes School is a combined Computer Science and Management undergraduate honors program and serves some of the top students in Nebraska and nationwide. We just held our fall board meeting, and it was great to learn about the program, Nebraska culture, and about trends in higher education overall.
- A university program that successfully promotes entrepreneurship has a huge impact on a local economy. A state university does have mandate to serve the people of the state. Company formation is a driver of jobs and economic activity in an extremely tangible way. UNL Raikes alumni companies have already created a huge amount of state income tax, corporate tax and urban revitalization for Nebraska — and the program is less than 15 years old and has less than 1000 alumni. The university and the angel investor community should feel good about what they have accomplished.
- A university resembles a small country with a few very powerful states and a federal government. Top administrators need to have solid political skills. They need to fundraise, budget, manage their peers and colleagues, have the support of their students and families, and be attractive to the best applicants. Dr. Steve Cooper, the UNL Raikes Program Director, and Vice Chancellor Dr. Donde Plowman are no exception. Dr. Cooper is very personable and connects with people with his vision and enthusiasm. Dr. Plowman is skilled at working cross functionally, fundraising and executing complex projects, including but not limited to a huge new College of Business building on UNL City Campus.
- College administrators and professors care deeply about their students. Administrators regularly take heroic actions to help when needed, which made me reflect on my own experiences. In college, a kind professor allowed me to join a class when I didn’t lottery into it. I also got an research assistant position I didn’t apply for or deserve. I now realize that these were not random flukes that I thought they were at the time, but the kind, caring, deliberate acts by people watching out for me — and what the best administrators continue to do for their students.
- Colleges have an evolving view on mental health of students. In popular culture, mental health has a slightly negative connotation. Some are mental health deniers, and some believe that mental health should be an issue of purely personal responsibility. I’m impressed at the approach of the UNL Raikes program and their proactive attitude about the well-being of students. High performing students sometimes begin to struggle when they experience failure at a higher rate than they ever have before. This is not unlike what top business executives and top athletes experience. We give business leaders executive coaches, and athletes sports-psychologists, and it makes a lot of sense that we would provide top students counseling in that same spirit. I have always been suspicious of the critique that today’s students are somehow “weak.” The idea that they are performing at a high level in a competitive environment and will benefit from counseling makes much more sense based on what I have seen.
- When I was in college, I always assumed that universities had all the power. Students applied, and the program decided whether they wanted you or not. On the other side it’s clear that universities compete for the best students, and work hard to identify them and reach them and encourage them to apply. For example, the UNL Raikes program has a relationship with the Center for Advanced Professional studies, a program that places students in engineering roles and uses that program to meet students that might share the Raikes School’s values and goals.
- Title IX has had an impact on student life. Nebraska, has historically had a huge football culture, and no doubt that is still a force on campus. However, Women’s Gymnastics and Women’s Volleyball are the winners on campus with a highly competitive and high performing teams. The role of women’s athletics in encouraging women to compete and that it’s ok to fail sometimes is significant.
- I was always confused about why football was such a big deal at UNL. As an MIT alum, I never had exposure to this tradition. I thought it was a bit strange that people who never played football would be so enthusiastic. I now realize the role of football in alumni engagement. Families buy inheritable football tickets, and generations attend the games as part of a longtime football tradition that almost transcends the game itself.
- Nebraska people are nice! I tried my best to get students to complain about something. I’d prompt, “when I was an undergrad I felt the X was so stupid!” Unfortunately, they would typically respond “we’re lucky we don’t have anything like that.” Re: nice people. My personal goal joining the UNL Raikes board was to develop relationships with a diverse perspectives and personalities. Considering the “nice people who don’t complain” alone, I’ll call this mission accomplished!
A huge thank you to Dr. Cooper and Tricia and Jeff Raikes for this opportunity.