From the Executive Director: Learn from the past and hope for the future

From the Executive Director: Learn from the past and hope for the futureMarsha Herman-Betzen2004-01-0110Boardroomfalse

The New Year, and in particular January, is typified by looking for good news, good fortune, and good health. January gets its name from the Roman God Janus, who had two faces. In fact, Janus could look in both directions at one time—forward and backward. Most would agree two-faced people are not by and large a communal asset, but the ability to simultaneously learn from the past and hope for the future is at the heart and soul of the human experience.

January is also the time for turning over a new leaf. We don't just try to do that with New Year's resolutions. We do it with matters of state as well; as old terms of office end, new office holders begin jobs and we all are determined to do better. On Jan. 1, 1863 U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. On Jan. 1, 1898 the City of Brooklyn merged into the City of New York. On Jan. 1, 1902 the Rose Bowl began the epidemic of college football bowl games. There is probably no date in early or contemporary history more tied to the introduction of new ideas than the time that signals the arrival of another year.

January 2004 is certainly no exception as we begin our 90th year as an association, celebrated by the redesign of ACUI's premier publication The Bulletin. Like the Roman God Janus and in conjunction with this significant occasion, it is appropriate for us to mark this moment by recalling the past as well as anticipating the future for both the college union and student activities profession and the Association.

The college union movement experienced tremendous growth since the first college union was formed in England in 1815. "Unions 2014: Preparing for Diversity" the history of the college union is separated into seven stages (Alday & Smith, 1989, p. 76):

1.   The Debate Stage (1815–94) provided an arena for student debating societies.
2.   The Club Stage (1895–1918) added a social ingredient to the debating societies.
3.   The Campus Democracy Stage (1919–29) commemorated those who had served in the war.
4.   The Community Recreation Stage (1930–45) sought to meet the recreational needs of its constituents.
5.   The Educational Stage (1946–56) was a time of growth because of the thousands of returning veterans.
6.   The Personalization Stage (1957–66) responded to the increasing impersonalization of education.
7.   The Humanization Stage (1967–77) gave students the opportunity to involve themselves in the volatile social issues of the day.

These descriptors provide a small snapshot into the flexibility of the college union throughout history to change and remain vital as the needs of the campus community it serves have been transformed. Alday and Smith (1989) dubbed 1978–88 as the "Shopping Mall Stage" where students became consumers, browsing through college life choosing what they wanted from numerous academic, programmatic, and service-oriented options. Indulge my presumption as I would name the years 1989–99 as the "High Tech-High Touch Stage." In this stage the college union found ways to provide programs and services for its increasingly diverse population and balanced technological advances with concerns for living in an increasing pluralistic world, team building, community service, stress reduction, and lifelong learning outside of the classroom.

The Association's pattern of growth can be depicted by stages as well. I discussed these stages in my keynote at ACUI's 81st annual conference in San Antonio, Texas, by citing James Dunlop's (1989) book "Leading the Association," which discussed five developmental stages of associations:

Stage 1: Embryonic. There are frequent, major conflicts and uncertainties about the exact mission and role of the new organization and which strategies to pursue. There is an irregular pace of development and overdependence on a few individuals. ACUI was in Stage 1 from 1914–67.

Stage 2: Growth. The founders or their successors realize that the basic tasks of communicating, organizing meetings, and administering a growing membership are becoming too much for them to handle. Hiring a paid staff person represents a significant change in the leadership mode. Still likely to be volunteer driven, the volunteer leaders take the initiatives, make basic decisions, and continue to handle much of the day-to-day work. The presence of a paid staff person begins the growth stage. ACUI was in Stage 2 from 1968–72 when a full-time executive director and a full-time administrative assistant were hired.

Stage 3: Staff Operation. In this stage, volunteer leaders are convinced that staff needs to do more of the work because of its sheer volume. The volunteers retain authority to initiate and approve new activities and usually resist efforts by staff to assume more control. Subsets of the association may be forming and demanding recognition. ACUI was in Stage 3 from 1973–83 when the publications assistant was hired in 1973, an education coordinator in 1975, and an editor in 1976.

Stage 4: Maturity. In the Maturity Stage primary markets may be approaching saturation. Professional sub-specialization is significant and in some cases, the sub-specialist group is larger and wields more clout than the original professional group. The association continues its evolution by diversifying, developing new sources of income, adding new staff responsibilities, and generally spreading out. The thrust toward more and more staff operation continues, although in volunteer-driven associations, the basic initiative and direction remain in the volunteers' hands. At this point the scope of the staff and the volunteer leaders shift as a result of an increasing workload and increasing technical content. This is where I believe ACUI has been since 1983.

Stage 5:Aging. This, the final development category, is described as negative long-term growth, market saturation, and a static body of knowledge where competing associations merge because they believe that the industry cannot support duplicate associations that serve the same constituency. In response to foregoing that reality, ACUI embarked on a massive reinvention in 1999, which resulted in philosophical, operational, and financial changes to avoid this final stage.

The substantial reinvention spotlighted a major philosophical shift from being a constituency-focused association to becoming a competency-focused organization. The quest to be a knowledge-based business included fundamentally changing our governance structure; examining our bylaws, policies, and procedures; and reviewing our portfolio of programs and services. Operationally, five major infrastructures in the areas of membership, finance, programs and services, governance, and work force resulted in unprecedented change with passage of 28 constitution and bylaw changes. The final step in the reinvention process was restructuring the dues in hopes of enabling us to envision our future. What we learned from this process is that the ability to change is without a doubt the most prominent variable responsible for ensuring our survival for both the profession and the Association.

This brings us to the other face of the god Janus, looking toward the future. Predictions or assumptions about the future should be based on what we know today according to demographics, trends, and as much as we can glean from scholars who make their living predicting the future, realizing they rarely get it 100 percent right. Most importantly we must do more than just listen to the experts; we need to actively watch our environment, from the most obscure places to all the little things we tend to overlook, so we can speculate to the last degree. Instead of waiting for the future to simply happen, we must be proactive in a systematic and aggressive way.

My favorite metaphor, which I have used many times, compares change and predicting the future to surfing. It can be found in Kriegel and Patler's (1991) book, "If it Ain't Broke, Break It":

The best surfers usually aren't the greatest swimmers. But they have a certain mindset. This mindset and the rules they use for riding those hurricane-driven waves are very similar to those needed today for riding the turbulent waves of change.

First, passion rules – The best surfers don't spend a lot of time on the beach, talking about surfing. They love the water and no matter how rough or calm it is, they are out there looking for a wave.

Second, no dare/no flair – Staying ahead of a wave demands taking risks and constantly challenging yourself and those around you.

Third, expect to wipe out – Surfers know that for every ride there may be two or three times as many wipeouts. Top performers welcome the unexpected, thrive in the big waves, and learn from their wipeouts.

Fourth, don't turn your back on the ocean – Understanding the nature of the environment, surfers know that they are dealing with forces beyond their control. They realize that uncertainty and unpredictability are the name of the game.

Fifth, keep looking 'outside' – In surfing lingo 'outside' refers to the waves coming in on the horizon. Surfers know that you have to pay attention to the wave closest to you, the one you are about to ride, and simultaneously to what's coming.

Sixth, move before it moves you – To catch a wave, you have to begin moving well before it comes to you. A big wave, like change itself, moves so fast, that if you wait too long it will pass you by and leave you struggling in the backwash. (pp. 6–7)

One of my colleagues in a sister higher education association recently asked me for the best piece of advice I could provide her since ACUI worked through its immense organizational change in the last five years. While I don't feel confident in my ability to be a change consultant, I would say that out of all of the change management skills, one needs to position their organizations for the future, creating an environment that treats mistakes as a good investment is essential. Tom Watson Jr., former CEO of IBM, said: "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate" (in Kriegel & Patler, 1991, p. 197). All risks that are essential for change necessitate the likelihood that mistakes will be made, or as Peter Drucker writes: "A decision is a judgment; it is a choice between alternatives. It is rarely a choice between right or wrong. It is at best a choice between 'almost right' and 'probably wrong' " (in Kriegel & Patler, 1991, p. 191).

While learning from the past is easy, it is still a luxury to be positioned so that you can see in two directions at once, even if the past is far clearer than the blurry future. In honor of ACUI's 90th anniversary, we must commit to all who have gone before us and helped pave our way. We can celebrate their accomplishments by heeding the words of American author Grenville Kleiser who said: "Life does not stand still. Where there is no progress there is disintegration. Today a thousand doors of enterprise are open to you, inviting you to useful work. To live at this time is an inestimable privilege, and a sacred obligation devolves upon you to make right use of your opportunities" (in Goodman, 1997, p. 694).

Alday, K., & Smith, M.S. (1989). Unions 2014: Preparing for diversity. In A. McMillan & N. Davis (Eds.), College unions: Seventy-five years (pp. 76–79). Bloomington, IN: Association of College Unions International.
Dunlop, J. (1989). Leading the association. Washington D.C.: The Foundation of the American Society of Association Executives.
Kriegel, R.J., & Patler, L. (1991). If it ain't broke…break it! New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012