I just got back from Fresno State, where I participated in the launch of CSU-Fresno’s Red Balloon Project. I have now participated in three kinds of Red Balloon events: A statewide meeting in New Hampshire that included public and private colleges and university, both 2 and 4 year institutions; a statewide meeting in Missouri of public 4 year institutions; and a single institution project launch.
When I arrived in Fresno, I met with the Red Balloon Committee, a terrific group of faculty members and others working on the Project. Their insights, wisdom, enthusiasm and commitment were apparent from the moment I sat down with them. We had a rich conversation about issues that appear when trying to do a campus-wide project. Two of the most thoughtful questions were these:
1. What are the strategies for launching and maintaining interest in the project?
2. How do you deal with the critics?
I’ll come back to those two questions in a subsequent blog, as I think they are critical questions for any campus.
The next morning, I participated in a campus-wide meeting, attended by more than 100 people, that was the launch event for Fresno State’s Red Balloon Project. I was especially pleased to see students involved in the meeting and discussions. I was impressed with the organization and thought that went into that meeting. For several weeks before the event, fliers and posters announced the project but in somewhat obscure ways, a strategy to heighten interest. The event itself was replete with red balloons, red balloon stickers on name tags, and a focus on the 6 core areas of potential “re-imagination.” President John Welty started the session with brief remarks, and then I was introduced by the Provost, Bill Covino. Following my comments, the audience had an opportunity to select one of the 6 areas of focus by going to one of the pre-designated tables. Following a short report-out, Dennis Neff from Academic Affairs made some concluding remarks, and then Bill Covino, the provost, was asked to come forward to select winning tickets for three door prizes (two iPod Nanos and one iPad…pretty cool prizes!). (Because I was so impressed with everything that happened, I’ll only mention in passing the problems the Committee had with getting a large red weather balloon tethered in the middle of campus. It’s actually a pretty funny story. They found what was described as a humongous weather balloon, but it was white. They finally got it painted red, and even inflated with helium, only to discover the next day that the balloon was slumping badly, and eventually the balloon went flat; I said I hoped that didn’t suggest how the project would end!)
One of the interesting parts of the morning was a brief Q&A following my remarks. One participant didn’t like much about my presentation, which I always find helpful. In the combination of that session (where only 3 people got to ask questions) and the report back from the small group discussions, I heard the range of comments that one might expect, from enthusiastic advocate of change to those with substantial concerns, about direction, administrative support, institutional capacity and the like. I noted that after one table’s report-back, which included a comment about too many initiatives underway at once, there was applause. I’ll come back to some of these issues in subsequent blogs.
Ellen Junn, the Associate Provost, did a wonderful job of organizing the project launch and the day’s activities. The concept behind the morning’s events was that following a time of introduction and initial discussion (the Friday morning event), the organizers would take all of the ideas and responses that were generated, and then form task forces around the core topics or issues. I thought that strategy, that encouraged open and honest discussion, and a willingness to wait until that conversation was completed before further organizing the project, was a brilliant strategy.
Overall, I left Fresno with enormous hope that something not only useful but indeed nationally significant will come out of the efforts at Fresno State. There was a wonderful spirit about individuals I met, even those who had serious reservations about the project. The team that Ellen has assembled, both faculty and administrators, clearly has the creativity and imagination to take on this gigantic challenge. I enjoyed my visit to Fresno State immensely, and look forward to hearing about the great things they achieve in the months ahead.