Cup 9

Person: Dr. William Ward aka DR4WARD

drink: grande brewed coffee from Cosi

Never underestimate the affect you can have on someone.

Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State, said this to a small group of MSU seniors at a dinner reception I attended a few hours after I had cup nine with Dr. William Ward. The remark was part of a larger talk about the various ways Michigan State is working towards a brighter future. The timing was fitting. Bill (as Dr. Ward told me to call him) and I had spent much of our conversation discussing education.

Bill is a marketing professor, but far from the traditional academic. After finishing college, he went to work in the corporate world before trying a stint as an adjunct professor. He enjoyed the classroom and realized continuing on the teaching path would require a PhD. So, he headed to Michigan State to earn a PhD in Media and Information Studies while continuing to teach in the classroom.

Since earning his PhD, Bill had been across the region working at various universities while keeping one foot in the business world as an independent consultant. One thing I quickly noticed was that Bill is a bit of a renegade—he does things his own way.

I can appreciate that because in my eyes, the education system needs a few renegades to shake things up.   

The Internet has changed the game and the current education system isn’t keeping up. This is understandable considering the size and structure of the long-established University—it’s hard to be nimble within the mess of bureaucracy. Affordable computers, smart phones, and social networks have made access to knowledge inexpensive and easy while simultaneously increasing the challenge of captivating student attention. Students today learn differently than students 20 years ago; yet, most classrooms have stayed the same.

Bill isn’t afraid to explore change. The marketing class he teaches at Grand Valley doesn’t follow the typical protocol—read the textbook, tune into the lecture, sufficiently memorize the material to answer enough multiple choice questions to pass the exam. His style forces students to use the new tools of marketing—social media, free online resources, web applications, and expert blogs. His class keeps up to date on the latest news and engages in relevant conversations both in the classroom and online—things people actually do in business.

His students aren’t always fans of the process. As a teaching assistant at MSU, I’ve noticed students often care more about the resulting grade and less about the actual learning. They like classes that are clearly outlined—where they know exactly what to learn and when. Bill’s classes are much more fluid, which means they are harder to navigate and require students to be more engaged.

As I talked to Bill it was encouraging to see someone who doesn’t let old traditions prevent future growth and change. He lives by his own rules and he’s doing just fine. We often get caught following routines without stopping to see if there’s a better way to approach the situation—we fail to realize the way its always been done isn’t necessarily the best way to do it. And of course, if we find another way, it is hard to find the courage to take a risk and try something new.

I was thinking about this at the reception with President Simon. Michigan State isn’t perfect—no university is; education is a complicated beast. And as discouraging as it can be inside the classroom—the university is working hard to make MSU a better learning environment for everyone. In attendance at the reception were a handful of leaders in the MSU community and many discussed new initiatives they are focusing on to advance the university—from new energy technologies to student-centered programs. The energy I felt matched that energy from cup nine; there is something powerful about being around people willing to take risks to find new solutions to old problems—to push the boundaries.

I think that’s a part of what President Simon meant when she talked about the influence you can have on others. When you surround yourself with the right people the result is very powerful—small interactions with people can have big results. I may have only spent a short time with Bill and President Simon on Wednesday, but I won’t soon forget the lessons learned.