A Paradox of College Students Today: Acing Tests and Failing Interviews

I recently traveled to London for a University of Pittsburgh alumni event, where I presented our Distinguished Alumni Award to Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations.  During my trip, I met with Della Bradshaw, business education editor at the Financial Times. Our interesting interview started with a discussion of the current job market for MBA students and the skills students need to succeed in their careers.

I told Ms. Bradshaw that placement outcomes at my business school have improved in each of the past four years. Our success in career services would be impossible if not for our emphasis on generating stronger admissions results. It may seem strange, but we see our MBA program from a supply chain management perspective, as an operation comprising procurement, manufacturing, and distribution components.  We must procure the correct and necessary student inputs. We must manufacture the inputs through a strong curriculum and other associated activities.  And we must distribute the finished products to our employer-customers.

Through this lens, I’ve observed a trend that is problematic to business schools all over the world. Students are doing much better academically, that is according to their test scores, grade point averages, and practically every other numeric achievement measure. Advanced placement credits are enabling top students to score above the maximum GPA level and students are studying more difficult subjects earlier in their career than was the case for my generation.  As a result, students are acing tests today.

Yet, at the same time, and as I noted in my conversation with Ms. Bradshaw, some students show a lack of polish in what I will call the “soft skills.” Many students struggle in their ability to work with others, interpersonal communications, management of relationships, and their critical thinking skills.  I have no doubt this shortcoming is evident in academic disciplines beyond business because the shortcoming is a result of an American education system that prioritizes the measurement of test scores.

Let’s contrast students’ dearth of soft skills with my school’s distinguished alumna in London, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.  She displays a wide set of skills. She interacts effectively and networks effortlessly with people in many different positions of society.  Her ability to negotiate, solve conflicts, and communicate with others is how she built a strong career with executive and government positions before her appointment at the Commonwealth. On a daily basis during her term, Mrs. Masire-Mwamba practiced the skilled diplomacy and politics necessary to navigate issues and problems faced by 53 member nations and to represent the diverse viewpoints of the Commonwealth’s professional staff.

Intelligent people do not automatically possess emotional intelligence. Too often, extraordinarily bright students fail in their interviews because of deficiencies here. In some cases, students seek guidance on how to overcome the gap. In others, students fail to perceive the problem or believe it is caused by others.  Ironically, they are behaving precisely how our educational system has trained them to behave.

Beginning with K-12 education, the American system is focused on rewarding the students who ace tests, despite the fact that high test scores, in and of themselves, don’t provide the requisite skills for passing interviews. That the system’s focus prioritizes learning is fine. But learning is too often measured exclusively by test scores and standardized results — and this approach is disconnected from the end goal. Test scores alone fail to yield the ultimate outcomes of the educational system:  the development of competent adults who are prepared to engage in gainful employment and contribute to society. More importantly, our system stresses that it is bad – no, worse than bad – to fail. Ever.  Perhaps this is why there seem to be so many sore losers today or why society is so polarized. It may also explain why we do not generate as much entrepreneurship as the country needs.

If we are to generate desired outcomes, we must more effectively connect the educational system’s focus and the results it intends to achieve.  At the University of Pittsburgh’s business school, we emphasize experience-based learning (EBL) as a way of linking the class experience and the outcomes that students — and their parents and society — expect after graduation. By creating practice fields and opportunities to apply concepts discussed in class, students experience the connection between theory and practice. They are placed in real world situations to practice what is discussed in class and to make mistakes.  That connection is what is necessary for our ever-smarter students to succeed in their interviews and careers.  It will also propel them to the level of success we expect of our distinguished alumni, people like Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.



Now is the Time to Thank Your Teachers and Mentors

Commencements have come and gone and the class of 2014 has emerged into the working world. Many new graduates are reflecting on the professors (and the teachers before them) who have shaped their careers, studies and personalities. Accordingly, I would like to acknowledge some of the people who helped me grow into the person I am today. Mentorship is critical to students’ success in the classroom and their professional growth as they progress through their careers.

My mentors were not always educators in the traditional sense and they did not always come from places that I expected. Some of this is a product of my family and upbringing: 16 years of education at Catholic schools, including eight at institutions founded by Jesuits. This experience has shaped me tremendously, both because of what I was taught and because my education emphasized that action speaks louder than words. My religious faith has allowed me to deal with many crises and problems.

In college, by chance, I got a job working for the chaplain at Le Moyne College, Fr. Dan Mulhauser. While most of my time was spent on routine tasks, such as cleaning up after Mass, Dan often challenged me to stretch my limits. One afternoon, our security guard slipped and fell, dislocating his knee and breaking his leg. I expected to be a bystander, but Dan suggested that I accompany the guard to the hospital. Dan’s devotion to the man was inspiring. Upon reflection, I realized that Dan’s efforts helped the guard remain calm despite his pain. The lesson I learned was that helping others is of the utmost importance and that you must always be prepared, as you never know when you may be placed in an extreme situation.

Dan was transferred to Micronesia at the end of my freshman year. His replacement was a young Jesuit from Philadelphia: Fr. Frank Nash. Though I’m not sure exactly what brought Frank and me together, he saw something in me that I had not yet discovered. He was brilliant, an excellent listener and a wise friend. He supported me in many ways, even lending me his car once so I could take a friend’s sister to a dance. Another time, I remember him knocking on my door at midnight asking for help jump-starting his car’s dead battery (I had my parents’ truck that week). He treated me as an adult and expected me to act accordingly — and over time, I did.

On many occasions, I watched Frank interact with people. It was apparent he cared for everyone, emphasizing their interests over his, while at the same time providing a sounding board and willing ear. At one point, he suggested that I would be a good “company man,” but I went off to my graduate fellowship instead. Frank’s ministering taught me a fundamental lesson: To help others, you make yourself vulnerable. By caring, you risk rejection. By trusting, you risk being betrayed. But you are only authentic when you display your character to others. Some people display facades designed to display something positive when they seek only to honor themselves. When they act to betray or punish, they may leverage power to achieve their way. But in the end, people will see through such action as a self-serving effort. Working with Dan and Frank taught me how a man should act.

At the University of Illinois, my graduate school advisor, Peter Feuille, was a strongly regarded young scholar who arrived at the university at the same time I did. He was a hard worker with an incredibly competitive spirit. His guidance and encouragement helped me to build my academic skills and reputation. His competitive spirit and wit were on display many years later when I received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Illinois. Because he was unable to attend the event, Peter asked to have a letter to me read at the ceremony — one in which he provided me with praise and encouragement while recounting how he kicked my butt in a 10k run during a conference at Arden House in New York in 1982. It is true that he kicked my butt that day, but I know his true purpose in sharing this anecdote was to send me this message: Don’t become complacent after any award. From Pete, I learned to work hard and to persist when things don’t go as planned.

I also learned volumes from too many others to list, including Nels Nelson, Fr. William Bosch and Martin Wagner. I mention these men because I admire them. Nels, my primary undergraduate professor and advisor, pressed me to develop my expertise. Fr. Bosch was a live-in advisor to me and about 20 other undergraduate men at an off-campus house.  He made a great pizza, enjoyed practical jokes, and always was a voice of reason. He guided me in the right direction even though he did not seem to be doing so. Martin was a fabulous professor in graduate school. He was incredible — a former Rhodes Scholar, an active arbitrator, and a strong teacher; he was such an expert that students were afraid he’d ask a question and press for an answer. Beneath his high expectations and sometimes tough countenance was a wonderful, caring man — a truth revealed to me in time.

As I reflected on my important mentors, I asked myself why all the teachers listed above were men. The answer is because a large proportion of my teachers were men. Several women also contributed to my development and success.  Mary Sue Coleman, who appointed me University Ombudsperson during her tenure as president of the University of Iowa, demonstrated the value of authenticity. I was able to become an effective ombudsperson only because of what I learned from Maile Sagen. Maile, my co-ombudsperson, taught me to listen closely, get all sides of a story, be strong, and expect the unexpected. She helped me understand how to deal with difficult, frustrating and disappointing matters with poise.

In many ways, the lessons from these teachers are linked fundamentally. Each was a hard worker and expected as much from me. Each expected me to provide a full, accurate and critical answer, paper or presentation. They forced me to test my limits and be more than I thought possible. More than anything, they helped me live a point made famous by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, If: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same…”

My mentors taught me that what we see as a success or a failure is really a fleeting moment in time. Your character reflects something more fundamental and important. You must be comfortable in your skin to make a difference in your world. I hope to inspire others in the way my mentors inspired me. I offer my most sincere appreciation to the individuals named and those I omitted who helped me to become the person I am, and I invite readers to thank their teachers and mentors, too.



Unions and College Football: Show Me the Money or Take a Strike?


The world of college sports was surprised on March 26 when Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), issued a decision concluding that Northwestern University football players were employees and eligible to vote for union representation. Though the vote has taken place, we will not know the results until the many appeals and challenges have been decided.

There has been substantial commentary on the decision and much speculation as to what will happen as a result. Will players vote to unionize? Will negotiations occur with the university? Could we see a strike? 

Labor relations issues have long been a focal point of my research and teaching. From my vantage point, Ohr’s decision deserves attention on two levels. The first is whether the decision will survive the appeals that have already started. The second is the underlying issue of whether college football players are unfairly treated by universities.

Ohr made several specific findings in concluding that Northwestern’s football players were eligible for collective bargaining rights. The first was the determination that the football players were in fact employees of the university. Under the National Labor Relations Act, an employee is someone who is paid to perform services for another person or entity and the nature of the services are controlled by the other person or entity. After a long description of the way football players spend their days, the role and authority of coaches, and the provision of scholarships to most players, Ohr concluded the players on scholarship were employees.

As a result of Ohr’s order, on April 25, the 76 scholarship members of Northwestern’s football team participated in their union-organizing election and voted whether to be represented for collective bargaining by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Because the NLRB has accepted a request from Northwestern to review Ohr’s decision, the results of the election won’t be revealed for some time.

The appeals process will reveal each side’s arguments. CAPA and its allies will argue that Ohr’s decision was correct, tightly written and consistent with U.S. labor law. To borrow a sports analogy, think of the union as executing the prevent defense, given they are ahead on the scoreboard, and the clock is running out.

The university will certainly challenge whether a football player is an employee. Various reasons may be cited. For example, football players are not paid and, while they receive scholarships for their services, it will be argued that the NLRB has held in other cases that graduate assistants receiving scholarships are not employees. It will be noted that the IRS does not treat scholarships as income, highlighting the varying treatments that different parts of government give to scholarship athletes.

Even if the NLRB decides that football players are employees, a variety of challenges await in deciding whether the bargaining unit announced by Ohr is appropriate for collective bargaining purposes. Northwestern could argue that an appropriate unit should include all scholarship athletes across all sports, all scholarship athletes in revenue-producing sports, or all male athletes (or female athletes) on scholarship. The bargaining unit decision is important because it determines who gets to vote in a representation election. Research shows that larger and broader units are less likely to vote for a union representative than smaller and narrower ones. A university or union could argue for a different unit, in part because the union may have less support in one unit formulation than in another. Different universities could argue for different unit configurations based on the unique characteristics of their campus. 

In the end, even if all appeals are resolved in favor of CAPA, the players vote to be represented, and bargaining occurs, there is no guarantee that an agreement will be reached. If an agreement is not reached and the players go on strike, the university would be allowed to permanently replace them. As you can see, it is a long road from receiving the eligibility to vote in a representation election to the unionization of Northwestern’s football team.

Recall also that Ohr’s decision applies only to private universities, as public universities are covered by state laws. This means that, even if the decision is upheld by the NLRB and courts, it will only apply to a handful of nonprofit, private colleges – such as Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Stanford and Duke, each of which participate in NCAA Division 1 football. The likelihood that the decision will be embraced by state legislators and state public employee relations boards is unknown. At the same time, logic suggests that it will not be embraced. For example, will legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Texas or South Carolina give football players the right to bargain? And will legislators in other states who may be more sympathetic (e.g. California, Oregon, Maryland, etc.) be willing to impose costs on their teams given the likely decisions in other states? As of today, legislators in Ohio have already introduced legislation stating that college football players are not employees.

The biggest effect of the NLRB decision, should it be upheld, could be to de-emphasize football and basketball in premier private universities. This could create a boon in college football and basketball at public universities. The de-emphasis would occur because the cost of unionization may make it prohibitively expensive for private universities to compete with public universities. 

Considering all of these issues, I expect that the Northwestern decision will be overturned on appeal or will stimulate more aggressive anti-union approaches by private universities to generate negative votes in any required representation election. I would be surprised if any state allowed athletes at public universities to be classified as employees for the purpose of collective bargaining. Thus, the primary importance of the situation at Northwestern is to raise awareness of the issues faced by college athletes.

Unfortunately, if my outcome prediction is correct, the situation will ironically distract universities and the NCAA from the underlying problems on which the Northwestern unionization drive was premised. CAPA raised concerns about adequate protection for players from concussions, sufficient medical insurance and treatment for players, and access to a larger share of the revenue bounty that college sports generate for universities.

While the Northwestern decision will probably not change college football as we know it today, it could stimulate a reasoned discussion on the contributions of college athletes to the revenue generated by football and basketball. Universities will benefit from such a discussion, especially given state budget cuts to higher education, high tuition and the current economic climate. Student athletes will benefit, given they are the ones producing massive revenue streams. I hope that such a discussion occurs and generates a more thoughtful way to handle these matters in the university environment.