Last week I read a story about the release in 3D of the movie Titanic. It’s interesting that while everyone knows the ending, there remains great interest in reliving the drama at the time of the tragedy’s 100th anniversary on April 15. Part of the interest is human nature – it is a powerful story – part is because 3D makes things more real, and part is because of interest in the villains and heroes who experienced the tragedy together.
Coincidently, this is the time of year when students are preparing for exams – those end-of-year tests that indicate success in courses, mastery of material, and reflections on whether they really want to be a … (fill in the blank). Tests have been given for centuries. In addition to indicating learning, they generate pressure and create anxiety. Although many of us have complained about them, tests are a necessary part of education and life. Practice makes perfect.
This year, our students face their year-end tests in 3D. Indeed, for the past few weeks, Pitt has been facing an unprecedented series of interruptions and evacuations that have challenged everyone’s character and fortitude. As someone who embraces experience-based learning (EBL), I see the current situation as a learning opportunity. Whether it is a pleasant opportunity or a safe situation is a different question, but it is a learning opportunity – and not just for students, but for everyone at the University. Our 3D tests have caused much anxiety, uncertainty, and some fear. The uncertainty and feeling of lack of control are taking a toll on people. And like the new Titanic release, our 3D test is a powerful story that has generated publicity. It is not always clear in media reports that more of the subplots in our story reflect the goodness that occurs in difficult situations than the conspiracy theories regarding the individual(s) making the threats or his/her motivation. In other words, more attention has been devoted to the villain(s) than the heroes. There are many heroes in the Pitt community, which has come together much like Americans did after 9/11. You haven’t heard us sing Sweet Caroline only because the Pitt band hasn’t been playing the tune during evacuations.
Throughout this 3D test, we have benefited from strong university leadership focused on the interests of everyone affected. Our police officers, student affairs staff, food service employees, and many others have stepped up repeatedly to ensure safety and comfort, even when they’ve had little time to rest. Our faculty has rapidly embraced new approaches to teach and distribute material, so students are able to complete courses. Our staff and administration have written a new playbook to deal with the situation. We have changed in many ways, all the while maintaining the basic decency that describes what Pitt is.
The 3D tests are an assault on that decency. But the tests are stimulating lessons that will last a lifetime. I’ll mention only three. First, there is some liberation associated with the knowledge that we are not in control of everything. I saw a bumper sticker last week that said: “Nature bats last.” The reality is that many factors and forces are out of our control and we display arrogance when we act as masters of the universe. Many times, in business school, our courses may suggest that executives have more control over organizations than is really the case. By realizing that we have little control in some instances, we learn that new approaches are needed to make progress. And those approaches require creative thinking, innovation, and collaboration.
Second, and related, this adversity is bringing us together. Although each part of the community plays a different role and sees things through a different lens, it is inspiring to see people come together out of respect and compassion for each other. We are unified. Each threat against Pitt is a challenge to us. And the community is rising to the occasion.
Third, it has been said by many that an individual’s true character is exposed during difficult times. It is easy to be composed, proper and successful when times are good. When times are difficult, the choices we must make are more important and the paths we choose are critical. In other words, the difficult situation forces people to focus their thoughts and efforts. This helps develop confidence and resilience.
There may be debate about whether these are valuable lessons or my words convey the lessons accurately. There is no debate that our test is real, experience based, 3D. You can draw your own conclusions. While I never imagined we would have this test, and know that none of us wanted to experience this crisis, we will emerge from the situation stronger and wiser. Unlike the Titanic, which will sink this time in 3D, Pitt will pass its test. We will pass the test. For the 3D test is a live example of the uncertainties of life and how they can be overcome through the perseverance and collaboration of dedicated people. Pay attention to all who are taking this test. Our students, faculty and staff will emerge ready to address even greater challenges. At a time of much concern and uncertainty, know this: WE ARE UP TO THE CHALLENGE. Hail to Pitt!