Thank you, Chairman Cassady, for your kind words. I also want to extend a heartfelt thanks to the entire Board of Trustees for your extraordinary service to this great institution.
My presence here today is a testament to the power of community. That communal support includes my late parents, whose infinite love and steadfast commitment served as the rock and springboard for my life journey from Bombay, India to middle America. It also includes my wife, Jennifer. You are my dearest friend and my safe harbor. You always make me want to be a better person. And to our three children—Madeline, Rui and Robbie—you fill us with immense pride and are the joy of our hearts. Over the years, I have been blessed with a steady stream of amazing teachers, mentors, colleagues, neighbors, friends and students—all of whom have deepened my values, broadened my perspective and nurtured my growth.
To all of you who shaped who I am, how I think and why I lead, I want to say in the most profound and humble way possible: thank you.
CULTURE: OWNED VS. RENTED
Today, I want to focus my message on culture. And these days it is hard to find an organization that is not talking about culture.[i] How to fix the bad, how to grow the good, how to eat strategy for breakfast. It is worth noting that before culture became a buzzword—in everything from business to sports to politics—it was the muse of the academy.
If higher education is the leading voice on the study of culture, one may presume that we have our own house in order. That the culture we have on campus is, precisely, the culture we want. That our success happens because of our culture, not despite of it. Truth be told, our reality is more complicated. We have been so busy studying culture out there, that we have missed opportunities to refine the culture in here, inside the academy.
Before I get too far into this message, let me confess a simple truth. I know with confidence that I will remember this moment—this eternal moment right here, right now—for the rest of my life. Your faces, my family, our hope, these words, that feeling, this transcendence—they will forever play in my mind like a drive-in movie.
But I also know with confidence that it won’t be the same for you. You will remember only part of this day and decidedly less of this speech. And that is okay, because you have your own eternal moments to remember.
But if you recall one thing from this message, I hope it is this: To my core, I believe that organizations are at their best when the culture is owned, not rented. Let me repeat that: Organizations are at their best when the culture is owned, not rented.
So what does it mean to rent a culture? I compare it to renting a property. As renters, we can be self-serving, short-sighted and detached. We can let the sink drip, the flowers die and the neighbors to go unmet. Every problem belongs to somebody else. Every decision is based on a short-term payoff. And every interaction is, at bottom, a transaction. In short, renting puts the burden of responsibility outside of ourselves.
Owning a property is just the opposite. We don’t have the luxury of walking past a wet ceiling. We can’t allow the furnace to remain broken because we are moving out next month. And we can’t simply ignore the neighbors until we need their help.
That is because owning demands both action and accountability. It requires us to make tough decisions; to sacrifice wants for needs; to invest in long-term solutions; to care about those around us; and to get beyond simply being in charge in order to take charge too. In short, owning puts the burden of responsibility on us.
At this point, you may be wondering: How can we tell if an organizational culture is owned or rented? Several signs may demonstrate this distinction, but I tend to look for three habits in particular.
First, it is a culture where every person counts—and can be counted on to go the extra mile. Second, it is a culture that cares more about people than process. And, third, it is a culture that faithfully marries excellence to impact. Let me speak briefly to each.
CULTURE: EXAMPLES OF OWNERSHIP
When I think of a culture where every person counts—and can be counted on to go the extra mile—I think of Professor Robert Delcamp.
When I started my faculty career, I had the privilege of working with Professor Delcamp, who had been teaching at UC since 1945. He made it his mission to know every student in the department by name. Plus, he remembered their personal stories, and never missed an opportunity to ask about their experience. Even after they graduated, Professor Delcamp went out of his way to keep them informed, engaged and excited about what was happening on campus. Equally impressive was his dedication to mentoring junior faculty—especially naïve ones like me.
In short, despite his humility, Professor Delcamp was the glue that held together so many disparate parts of the department and college. So much so, in fact, that many of us wondered how we would survive following his retirement. There is an old saying, “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.” That was the type of culture that Professor Delcamp cultivated every day.
The second habit of a culture that is owned is one that cares more about people than process.
Here my mind goes back to a former dean of engineering by the name of Constantine Papadakis. Back in the mid-1980s, Dean Papadakis realized that underrepresented minorities were finding the doors of opportunity to engineering mostly closed. Rather than simply accept this inequity, Dean Papadakis set out to change both the conversation and the outcome.
With the help of Ed Prather, Ken Simonson and others, the Emerging Ethnic Engineers program, also known as E3, took flight. Decades before the term “student success” became a buzzword in education, E3 was already blazing a trail. Now, 29 years later, E3 is one of UC’s best success stories. With more than 500 alumni, the program’s graduation rate is 18 percent higher than the national average. Plus, two graduates of the program, Dr. Whitney Gaskins and Dr. Michael Alexander-Ramos, now serve as faculty members in the college. From my perspective, E3 has never allowed process or protocol to get in the way of serving people.
The third habit of a culture that is owned is one that faithfully marries excellence to impact.
Fifty years ago, someone had the vision to create a first-class transplant and hipatobillary surgery program here at UC—a teaching and training program that gives life-saving care and game-changing optimism to patients with deadly conditions. Back in 2004, that hope meant everything to a patient facing a 5 percent chance of surviving liver cancer. I know because that patient was me.
My initial prognosis was dire, and so the future seemed to shrink from decades to days. But then I went to see Dr. Stephen Rudich here at UC, a world-class clinician and scholar in the science and treatment of liver cancer. What made Dr. Rudich so remarkable was that he did more than simply look at MRIs. He asked my wife and me about our three small children. He then said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this.” That single statement meant more to us than all that medical science had to offer. Because, for the first time, we felt we had an ally—and with that ally, a real grip on hope.
In a word, Dr. Rudich saved my life. He saved my family. And, looking back, he also taught me a profound lesson about motivation and drive: namely, that acclaim without impact means little and redeems even less.
CULTURE: TERMS OF OWNERSHIP
Taken together, these three habits may seem interesting but unrelated. For me, the connection is clear. All three carry a common thread—and that is a bias toward action. And perhaps, in the end, that is the most defining characteristic of a culture that is owned. Above all, it is a culture that is felt. It is a culture baptized in glue. It is a culture addicted to verbs. It is a culture made farm-to-table fresh by us, by making “we before me” the primary ingredient.
In closing, I want to register the historical significance of this ceremony. When I see that number 30 behind my name, I am both humbled and inspired by the 29 presidents who paved the way for me to stand in front of you today. Each of them, in their own way, took charge in making UC a remarkably better institution, in transforming this campus from a house to a home. That pride of ownership can be felt deeply to this day.
Perhaps the best way I can honor their leadership and legacy is to partner with each of you to help take our culture—and that enduring pride of ownership—to the next level. Now that is simple to say and easy to imagine. But we all know that bettering our best can be a daring and demanding journey. Instead of starting with a step, let’s lead with a leap.
Let’s commit to ourselves and to each other that today is the day in which we broaden the authorship of change. Today is the day in which each and every one of us owns this culture—our culture, our home—in bigger, bolder and more meaningful ways.
I want to end with a story that has always struck me as timely and timeless.
Three bricklayers are working at a construction site. All three are asked the same question: “What are you doing?” The first says, “I’m laying bricks.” The second says, “I’m building a wall.” And the third says, “I’m creating a cathedral.”
The lesson here is one of purpose and perspective. For the first, it is a job. For the second, it is a career. And for the third, it is a calling.[ii] And it is that sense of calling that empowers the third bricklayer to discern this deeper truth: That grand visions start with the true grit and humble gains of our everyday actions.
It is with this big-picture understanding of purpose and perspective that I leave you not with an answer but with a question: If our culture were powered by our calling, what kind of cathedral for learning, discovery and impact could we create for UC’s next century?
And would this cathedral enable us:
…To inspire the next Albert Sabin, Marian Spencer or Kathleen Battle?
…To make Cincinnati the next Silicon Valley for innovation and talent attraction?
…To have the future of the urban public research university be written by us rather than for us—for us to be the poet instead of the poem?
And while I don’t have the answers, I can’t think of a better community to partner with to live these questions into action. Thank you for all that you do for this beloved institution.
[i] Edgar, A. & Sedgwick, P. (2008, p. 102). Cultural theory: key concepts. New York, NY: Routledge. Edgar and Sedgwick define culture as beginning “at the point at which humans surpass whatever is simply given in their natural inheritance.”
[ii] Duckworth, A. (2016, p. 148). Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.