People and Places

California — You Are Grace and Beauty

Posted on March 10, 2012

I am writing this post somewhere over South Dakota on a Virgin America flight with wifi.  Leave it to a British billionaire to create America’s best domestic airline, reminding us at least a little of what it was like when flying was glamorous, or at least not awful (for the awful we have US Air and many others).  Heading back to NH after four days in CA, a marvelous four days truth be told.  Part I below is about the business part of the trip.  Part II is the touristy part.

Part I

Being named #12 in Fast Company’s “The World’s Most Innovative Companies” list has garnered us a lot of attention.  In this case, it resulted in an invitation to come to Half Moon Bay, CA to address the CTO Forum, a gathering of fifty or so Chief Technology Officers from companies like Google, Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart, IBM, DocuSign, and many other Silicon Valley high tech companies.  I was the lunch time keynote speaker and this was an excellent opportunity to fly the SNHU banner, build our national reputation, and do some high powered business card swapping.  The event was at a Ritz Carlton perched on the bluffs just over crashing Pacific waves, a gorgeous location, and the Forum picked up all the expenses (in case anyone was about to make a remark about not staying at a more affordable Hampton Inn….).

As Michael Porter’s recent study on American competitiveness reveals, corporate executives include talent development among their top three worries about our ability to compete globally (along with taxes and regulatory concerns).   Judging by the questions and comments (and nodding and note taking) from my audience, the concern is widely shared by the CTOs.  They worry along the whole spectrum of education: college graduates without basic skills of communication and social intelligence (even basic workplace skills) up to a lack of engineers and high end managers.  It’s not just the 3 million unfilled jobs that currently exist, but the wave of retirements to come and the lack of STEM graduates in the pipeline. 

It was a fascinating day in a room with very, very smart people. 

That was one day, but my trip was filled with other useful activities.  One was dinner with a prospective trustee who would be a superb addition to our Board.  I gave her a thick packet of reading materials and a SNHU sweatshirt (that ought to do it!).  A second evening was spent with the the co-founders of OpenStudy, the great peer-to-peer learning platform we are using in our I-Lab learning model.  Our final night was spent with an amazing group of alumni that ended the week on a high note.  I want to capture their stories for our current students.  Two of the guys are recent graduates and followed their dreams, packing up their cars and driving cross country to Napa, where they knew not a single soul.  They networked and worked part-time and waited tables and hung in there and now have really cool jobs in Napa wineries.  Another graduate from 1992 shared her story of raising money and building a company, fighting through all sorts of challenges, and finally finding success and just recently selling.  Her next business may be a spa in the Caribbean.  Yet another graduate is president of a five-campus college of 18,000 students.  They are proud SNHU graduates and an inspiration.

A good chunk of remaining time was spent working remotely on emails and conference calls.  One such call was with folks at the New America Foundation, creators of the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.  This is a bipartisan initiative to provide professional development to Congressional staffers writing education policy.  They asked if I would come to DC in May and share with the participants the work we are doing — everything from the three-year program to the new I-Lab models — and the ways government policy supports and/or gets in the way of innovation.  This is an exciting opportunity to be in conversation with the people who actually write policy line by line and have enormous power to shape our world.

It was a productive week, though it also made me realize how my role at the university has veered back to the more external after a couple of years of pulling back from travel and being more focused on internal matters.  University presidents struggle to balance these things and by the looks of my calendar it feels a bit out of balance right now.  It’s something I want to think about and discuss with our Board.  As SNHU has achieved national prominence, the requests for events like the aforementioned DC meeting or this one have grown.  We have a strong team that effectively manages our various areas of operation, but there is a day-to-day availability on campus that remains important (it has become uncharacteristically difficult to get a meeting onto my schedule these days) and a lot of the joy in my job has to do with the informal, the walk around campus interaction with people.  It’s also important to remember that a speaking engagement at the Ritz might be fun, but if some one’s plumbing isn’t working or we don’t solve the parking issue or a parent can’t get a call returned….well, it’s just not good.

Part II

So we had one free half day before needing to be in Santa Cruz on Tuesday afternoon, so we took the long way there, driving from the Ritz along the Skyline, the ridge road that twists and turns its way along the spine that runs down the Monterrey Peninsula.  It may be one of the single most beautiful places in the US.  It is the northern California of dreams and movies, with mountain top hairpin turns revealing plunging valleys and ravines full of towering, I mean towering, redwoods and cyprus trees.  These were forests with shafts of light piercing the canopy, the kind of heavenly beams of Cecil B. DeMille movies and bad religious art, and trees that have been here since the days of the Romans and Greeks before them.  Other turns opened up vistas out to the Pacific, endless sparkling blue out to the distant horizon. 

Along the way were little towns and we stopped for coffee in one, Boulder Creek, which may be the most slacker town in America.  Its quaint, faintly western feel main street had little coffee shops and galleries and stores and none of them were open at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning.  As we peered into darkened storefronts and doorways the closed signs indicated hours like: 11:00 to 5:00 or Noon to 4:00.  The few locals hanging around looked like they had seen better days, cultivating a kind of hippie meets trekker meets homeless person kind of chic and often smelling of pot and body ordor.  We also noticed that most of the ramshackle little houses were tucked away in the woods and often surrounded by fences, gates, and “No Trespass” signs.  When we finally did find a coffee shop open, the woman gave me a long up and down look with evident suspicion.

When we later shared our account with others over dinner they laughed and mentioned that while the area is not part of California’s infamous “Emerald Triangle,” there is a lot of private cultivation of marijuana in the woods and in some areas it serves as barter and currency.  Guess that explains the lack of work ethic among Boulder Creek’s shop keepers as well as the “Keep Out” signs.  Might also explain the mountain of Doritos and Oreo cookies in the general store.  Also explained the suspicious looks I got: clean cut and conventional looking as I am, I apparently looked like a guy who might be snooping around with a badge in his pocket.  Pretty funny really.

We made our way south to Santa Cruz, the delightful small city that is home to UC-Santa Cruz, the university with higher education’s best mascot: the Banana Slug.  We had lunch at Cafe Gratitude, a vegan organic restaurant with the world’s best menu (  I had the “I am grace” as my drink and the “I am extraordinary” for my meal and when they bring you your order they say, for example: “You are grace” and “You are extraordinary.”  Really, how can you not love a place like that?  The question of the day, we were told, was “What are you growing into?”  Whoa…

If I could eat their food every day, I would become a vegan.  My BLT — “bacon” made of maple flavored coconut chips — was one of the best I ever had.  I had spent a chunk of the morning worrying about my talk at the CTO Forum, but after being told I was extraordinary, I came out of lunch feeling newly confident, almost serene.   Santa Cruz is a scene, a place where everyone proudly flies their freak flag, including the guy who sauntered down main street clad only in a bright blue bath robe,  not getting even a passing glance from the locals.  He might have been the mayor, for all I know.  It is apparently a town ordinance that if you spend more than 48 hours in Santa Cruz you must sport extensive tattoos, not to mention multiple piercings.  The place had a killer old school record shop with real vinyl and obscure finds.  I think the world is a better place because Santa Cruz exists.  It is grace and extraordinary.

The drive back up famous Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay is a testimony to populist planning for the general good.  Unlike the east coast, where our beaches are mostly private and the 1% build enormous houses and limit rights of way (talking to you Rye, Nantucket, and Hilton Head), California mostly keeps development back away from its endless beaches and provides public parking and restrooms all up and down the coast.  And what beaches!  Dunes and bluffs and crashing surf — it is amazing.

Now back to Manchester where I will likely have the “I am jet lagged” and the “I am gray sky covered” for dinner.  Sigh…California.

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