Note: This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on May 2, 2022 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The transcript of this podcast episode is intended to serve as a guide to the entire conversation, and we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode. You can also access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
M. Brian Blake:
… recruit the students from day one, and then try to weave their path such that they go directly into those opportunities. Very similar to what we mentioned – you know, software engineering, computer science. Some of that’s baked in, but the other paths we could probably put in some specific modules or credentials that allows our students to have sort of immediate impact when they get into their – you know, whatever the outcome may be. So my college-to-careers pillar is all about creating that ecosystem here. And it's not – again, we talked about speed and of actually doing these things. The first step probably isn’t going and getting with a company and putting together an admissions process where we co-recruit students. The first phase is probably developing co-branded curriculum, facilities so that industry can share their problems and actually maybe we get some industry or government officials to teach. And then we create those sort of bridge modules, and then over time we build up a relationship that will allow us to kind of engage students from the time they graduate from high school or earlier.
Welcome to Innovating Together, a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is a podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders that will help you improve student success. I’m your host, Bridget Burns. Each week, I partner with a journalist to have a conversation with a sitting college president, chancellor, system leader, or someone in the broader ecosystem who’s really an inspiring leader. And the goal is to have a conversation to distill their perspective and their insights gathered from their leadership journey. Our hope is that this is inspiring and gives you something to look forward to each week. This episode, my co-host is Inside Higher Ed co-founder and CEO, Doug Lederman.
This week’s guest is M. Brian Blake, who’s president of Georgia State University, appointed last summer. Before being appointed to that job, he was provost at both George Washington University and Drexel. He’s worked at several private institutions before that, and is now leading a really ambitious and fast-growing public. Welcome.
M. Brian Blake:
Thank you. Thanks for having me today.
So we’re super excited to have a conversation with you, and I just wanted to first start because I think, as I was sharing with Doug earlier, I don’t think people understand just how unique your presidency is. That you have this whole private sector entrepreneurial perspective that you then brought into the academy. And not only are you a distinguished scholar and have done a great deal of research in the field, but I think it’s really interesting to find someone who’s been an entrepreneur in the private sector and then come into the academy. So we were just wondering if we could start off with you giving a little sense of your career perspective and that trajectory.
M. Brian Blake:
Yeah. I actually have two things that have been part of my fabric coming in as a leader, as an academic and just as a professional. My dad was an entrepreneur so from the time I was, you know, one year old, he owned several service stations. I’ve been kind of in that environment. You know, I used to joke and say I was pumping gas self-serve – ah, full-serve – when I was, like, eight or nine years old and I think by the time I was 13, I had the opportunity to start doing a lot of accounting. I think that sticks with me and kind of how I think about things.
So when I finished my undergrad at Georgia Tech in engineering, I started with Lockheed Martin, and they had this program where you actually go and do your graduate work at the same time – engineering leadership development program. So I started that, and then I continued along that same term actually doing my Ph.D. while I was with Lockheed, General Dynamics and with the MITRE Corporation. So what I thought was really good about this is that when you work in industry – I did that full-time for six years before going into academia – you know, deadlines and critical path and quality and deliverables, all those things are a part of your job in such a way that you really emphasize on them.
So by the time I got into this perspective of being in academia, that piece was kind of part of how I operated. But I thought it was a great synergy. When I did my Ph.D., I could use corporate information for the data that I used for assessment. Very soon after I finished in my Ph.D. and went on to go to Georgetown, I had two patents that were based on my Ph.D. work with the MITRE Corporation. So it was just great to kind of have that perspective. And that was like a real kick-start to my academic life.
That’s great, and I don’t – again, I don’t know of any president – I’d be curious if our viewers, if there’s anyone out there who’s had that kind of experience. But I think people might not understand that Georgia State – well Georgia – for you, this is a bit of a coming home for you. And I’m just curious about this part of your career, what makes that so bittersweet?
M. Brian Blake:
Oh, it’s so special to me. My family is in town. My wife’s family is also in town right now. I am literally a product of public education in the state of Georgia. So I attended K through 8 in public school. I went to Georgia Tech. Private school, too. I went to Mercer University for my Master’s degree. So our students here remind me a great deal of myself. So I get the chance to really make impact where it all started. So that part is really exciting, and then to do it in an urban setting right here in the center of downtown Atlanta, I mean it’s just a dream come true. It’s really an honor – you know, I’m humbled to get a position. It’s really certainly an honor of my career to kind of be able to serve in this way.
I want to go back to the integrating the kind of corporate entrepreneurial perspective in an ecosystem that is often viewed as not necessarily acting that way, and in some ways hostile to corporate perspective. And I’m just curious how you – you’ve already mentioned a couple ways where that background you think helped you. Have there been times when you’ve had to sort of explain yourself or to mitigate that? I’m just curious how that blend has gone.
M. Brian Blake:
Academia is very deliberate in its way of actually – you know, we’re scholars. Even as Ph.D.s, we’re taught to specialize. We’re taught almost in verticals in some ways. The way we teach students is really about being thoughtful, and you want to make sure that there’s deep learning. So all those things really represent a process by which things are a little bit more deliberate, and they can feel a little bit more methodical than some things that could be maybe more agile, if you will.
So I’ve learned – you know, for me, I’ve had some times when I’ve used phraseology, if that’s a word, that kind of pulled back from my corporate standpoint. You know, faculty have let me know. They were like, "Look, this is not a business. We actually have a way of training students, and it’s that deep fermentation process that really makes sense." And I’ve pulled back when I’ve heard that because I understand that perspective, also having a Ph.D.
But I’ll say what I’ve done to mitigate that is that you know, instead of thinking – one or two things you want to happen really fast. And sometimes it can’t happen fast. So my philosophy has always been – I’m a software engineer by training, so we’re taught to do large software applications by bringing together smaller parts and then also allowing large groups of people to work at the same time. So I usually look back and say, "What’s the vision?" And then I know that’s going to require us to accomplish a number of different things. So my favorite term is a thousand flowers blooming. Because what you can do in academia which works out really well is that you can literally start a lot of things going. You have a lot of really smart people, students, on campus. So you can set these task forces and different working groups together. And if you’re smart enough to kind of choreograph them in such a way that when the deliverables, when the timing’s right, you can really make significant impact, and it could be well vetted. So a combination of actually going more broader and deeper methodically, and then also thinking through that and attaching it to a vision that the community agrees to.
I think that’s super helpful for us to think about in terms of the institution, and I think failing fast and how we can be more entrepreneurial. You know, as someone who works in innovation, people are always asking where do we get a lot of our perspective and inspiration. And there’s a lot of great stuff that happens in the academy. But a lot of the ideas about how we can move the cycle of innovation faster come from the private sector, from different companies and otherwise.
So I’m curious about – I know that one of the priorities that you – you have four pillars that are priority for you in this first year of your administration. But one of them is college-to-career, which I find really interesting. And being a software engineer, I think you probably have your finger on the pulse of challenges in the sector around how higher ed supports our students navigating that – how we actually make sure we are meeting the demand of the workforce. I’m guessing that that is where that came from, is that you have this unique vantage point into where higher ed could be doing a better job, and that’s why you’re trying to expressly prioritize this, and it’s probably because of that unique vantage point in software engineering.
M. Brian Blake:
You know, I have one of those professions that – and I’m going to say that with huge bias – but I’m in a profession that actually – there’s a real great synergy between what you learn and how you exploit that when you become – no matter where you go. In government, entrepreneurship, industry, or even nonprofits. I think all of those things work really – I mean, it seems like a software engineer is very helpful in all places. But I’d say that really, like you said, it’s a foundation of thought. I just think, as we are moving forward, we should address and kind of engage our students really early.
And I keep thinking about our sort of athletics. You know, there’s a lot of high school-to-professional transitions that started about a decade or so ago. We have so many talented students that are coming in now. I just feel like we have to develop an ecosystem on our campus where we can partner with whatever those outcomes may be, whether it’s graduate school or industry or government. Recruit the students from day one, and then try to weave their path such that they go directly into those opportunities. Very similar to what we mentioned, you know, software engineering, computer science. Some of that’s baked in, but other paths we could probably put in some specific modules or credentials that allow our students to have just sort of an immediate impact when they get into their – you know, whatever the outcome may be.
So my college-to-careers pillar is all about creating that ecosystem here. Again, we talked about speed of actually doing these things. The first step probably isn’t going and getting with a company and putting together an admissions process where we co-recruit students. The first phase is probably developing co-branded curriculum, facilities so that industry can share their problems, and actually maybe we get some industry or government officials to teach, and then we create those sort of bridge modules. And then over time, we build up relationships that allow us to kind of engage students from the time they graduate from high school or earlier.
Yeah. So this is a topic that I cover frequently in terms of the most innovative ideas that we see in the field. And the thing that we learned at the UIA from UCF and Georgia State was that the one place all students go is the classroom. And so, if you want to do college-to-career innovation, Georgia State, one thing they do that is super cool and creative and I hope other campuses replicate this, is they created these small grants for faculty to integrate career readiness into the classroom. And very quickly, almost overnight, because faculty were given resources and time to do this, thousands of courses, you were able to integrate career readiness into the classroom. And that is the path, I think, in addition to what you just talked about, is just really from day one, you don’t wait until the senior year. You know? As soon as you get here. So I think that’s fantastic. Sorry, we’ll hop off this soap box.
So the next piece I wanted to ask you, President Blake, is you know, you’ve had a really – we talked about how interesting your career has been. I’m curious about what, for you, has been the most surprising aspect of your career. Because I’m sure – it seems like there’s a lot of things that would be quite surprising. But for you personally, what’s been most illuminating?
M. Brian Blake:
Yeah, for me, let’s see, what would be most surprising? You know, I don’t think anyone ever quite fully understands kind of what input leads to what output. So as an engineer, you’ve got a left side of an equation and a right side of an equation. Your tendency is to say, "Look, I can engineer the right side to get to the left side." It’s going to be very deterministic, meaning what I do exactly leads to what that outcome’s going to be. I didn’t appreciate the influence and perspective and encouragement, and kind of how you – sort of building a team and team dynamics. That was the most surprising thing to me, is that it’s not that we – I’ve had some success in how we’ve grown our research enterprise in previous roles. If you were to ask me this five, ten years ago, I’d have said, "Oh, we’ve just got to start the right programs and fund the right things. It’ll happen."
But really, some things that happened – you smiled at the right person, or you hired the right person, or you promoted the right person, or you recruited the right student that came up with the right idea, and none of that is stuff that you do specifically. It’s just a matter of setting a framework, supporting, empowering, and being a certain leader. And then allowing your community to really shine. So I was surprised how much impact – when I went back and looked at – at Drexel, we had a great run in research. When I look back and tried to map out this engineering, to map out how we got there, I found that the majority of the research that really came out of it was more serendipitous than I would have thought. It was like the one-off to the work we were doing.
I’ve got to the point now where I understand it’s like, you know, you’ve got to build a community that feels just inspired, and they feel like they can be entrepreneurial. And then don’t say no as a first answer. Try to say, "This is how we get to yes."
Is there a particular job or experience from your past that sort of taught you the most about leadership and/or prepared you for what you’ve seen in the presidency so far? I don’t know if those are the same things or different things but …
M. Brian Blake:
Yeah, I think my time as provost, and I’d say both of them. So I spent over four years – almost four years and a half – at Drexel. And I’m going to make some attribution working under John Fry there – President John Fry. And then I spent just about two years working under – well, that’s not fair. I spent two years working under the president at GW, Tom LaBlanc. But I did work under him for three years prior to that at University of Miami at a different position. So I probably have five years between both of them. Their styles are different. The environments in which we operated, if you look at Miami, Drexel, then GW, they all were different. Some were more – you know, I’d say some were more, like, collaborative and more open to change. Others were kind of more methodical. One kind of wanted more justification. Some need extreme communication, and others you could actually work with certain groups and make progress.
But one thing I did find, I’d say both of those, that ten-year period, just – I mean, I pull so much from experience I got from both of them. You never forget your first provost position, but I’d say I got a lot out of that because we were a comprehensive institution – medical school, engineering, middle of the city, highly involved in civic engagement, public/private partnerships, sort of reimagining the campus to be more student-engaged. Like I said, a thousand flowers were being seeded and blooming over time, and some I think bloomed after my time. So I just felt like those two positions over time were very – there’s always going to be challenges that leaders have to deal with. But I’d say those two were about as – I can’t imagine being much more prepared from the experience with President Fry and President LaBlanc.
That’s great. I think – you know, you asked that question, Doug, about what he learned from sitting in the position. I think it says a lot that you actually – one of the things you learned was mainly you started talking about what you were learning from the exposure to others and these other different leadership styles. Because I do think we – it does influence how we lead. My bosses that I’ve had very directly affect how I lead. In some cases, I lead the opposite and – because I learned that lesson, right? And so, that’s an interesting perspective to think about your career trajectory in that way.
M. Brian Blake:
I sometimes joke about President Fry. I’m like, when you see someone else working from a different vantage point and then you’re, like, number two, you probably – there’s times when you feel like you would make a different decision, but I joked and say, "Gosh, every day I found out he’s like a personal Mr. Myagi from Karate Kid," because I was learning – I didn’t know I was learning. So much I see now from those two individuals that I can look back and say, "Oh, now I see why they did that." So it’s very helpful.
This is kind of gives you an opportunity to share a bit perhaps about what you learned from them. I’m curious about the advice that you’d had, this interesting career trajectory, exposure to a lot of different institutions. And I’m just curious about what advice has been most valuable someone else gave you that you consistently rely upon in your career, and can you share a little bit about why and who?
M. Brian Blake:
I got this advice twice. One was during my time at the MITRE Corporation. So MITRE – I’m a big MITRE fan, so I’ll give them a shout out. It’s an FFRDC – a federally funded research development corporation. So you are actually an agent of the government, and you are a consultant to help them with their vendors, their contractors. So a lot of your products are PowerPoint and thought pieces, because you’re trying to help make sure that they’re making decisions appropriately. How they implement or how they choose vendors. Gosh, in that environment, because that is the deliverable, everyone talks about quality. I mean your slides, how the pictures are formatted, what words you use. It’s just like everything goes through this machine of being the highest quality possible. You know, I was there seven, eight years. So it gets ingrained in you that when you deliver something, you always deliver in high quality because that’s your deliverable.
So it took a while. I’m a software engineer. You know, a computer programmer first. Mountain Dew and Nerd candies is what I dealt in for the first part of my career. Just programming long hours. So it took me a while to get to that perspective, but that was helpful. And then I’ll talk about Peter Freeman. He was one of the first Deans of Computing at Georgia Tech. Later he was associate director for computer information systems and engineering at the National Science Foundation. I remember one time I spoke with him, and I was considering job opportunities. And I gave him this long list of both of them hoping that he’d just say, "Go to this one or that one." And his final words were like, "Just do everything at the highest quality you can." And that was, like, his response to it.
And I’ll tell you, many of my opportunities today are because someone remembers something I did that was really high quality. So I always tell people and our students, I’m like, "Look, just concentrate on quality. Everything else will fall in place." So that’s probably the best advice. And I’ve tried my best – you can’t always do things perfect. But if you can do it with as much thoughtfulness as you can before you let it go out the door, people always remember that.
Yeah, that is on the nose. That is what we want people to do. I guess my last question then for you is if that’s the advice you also find yourself passing on to others. Are there any books that have been particularly valuable for you, or anything for you as a leader – I’m looking over here and I have Speed of Trust sitting here at my desk. So I’m curious if there’s any books that you often recommend to people to read as you’re trying to help support them in their leadership journey.
M. Brian Blake:
Yeah, and you know, I get asked this often and I’ve got to say I’ve been – from the time I started as a professor, I spent so much time in technical journals that I didn’t spend a lot of time reading other books. And then by the time I got into provost and presidency, I spent a lot of time reading about academic leadership, whether that’s through articles. And now I’ve got to do more reading on current events and so. So in that vein, I’ll just say what the last thing I read was about a year ago. Steve Trachtenberg was the long-term president at GW. He’s a character. I hope he sees this. He took a real – just a great guy. I mean I came into GW at a time when there was really a lot of commotion at that point. And he was the type of person that would send me these emails and say, "Don’t worry about that, don’t worry about this, keep doing that, keep doing this." But one of the books – and then he went to lunch with me a couple times. He gave me his feedback of being a president. But he actually recommended a book, Presidencies Derailed, which is his personality as well. So I read that one – that was an excellent read particularly coming into a presidency to kind of see a couple of different perspectives on the role and kind of get your feet wet. So I would say – that’s not for everyone, although I think it kind of transcends academia. But I would recommend that for academics who could imagine being a president at some point.
Yeah. I mean, immediately as you said that, I was like, "Do not renovate the house, do not renovate your office." There are some obvious ones that we’ve all seen time and time again. Well, President Blake, this has been a real delight to just get to know you a bit more personally. I know that folks are going to get a chance to hear from you, and quite a bit over the coming years. And as a leader at Georgia State, which we all know is the national model on student success, often we’ll be focusing our conversation to that topic. But I just wanted to try and learn a little more about your journey, because I do think it’s important with this show that we elevate different journeys to the presidency, because I think that we have this traditional idea of what the steps are and the backgrounds that are represented. And I think the future is going to require that we have a real multitude of perspectives that are brought into leadership in high ed. So I’m very excited about that. So thanks so much. And Doug, as always, thanks for being an excellent co-host, and we will see you all next week with President Mimi Bright from the Institute for Higher Education policy. So thanks so much.
M. Brian Blake:
Thank you both.
Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts
Guest: M. Brian Blake, President, Georgia State University
Dr. M. Brian Blake was appointed President of Georgia State University in June 2021. Prior to joining Georgia State, he was Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at George Washington University, where he oversaw academic programs across the ten schools and colleges, three campuses, and 28,000 students. He led the university’s re-envisioned enrollment strategy to meet changing student demographics, as well as guiding GWU's academic programs through the COVID-19 pandemic. Before GWU, Dr. Blake served as Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Nina Henderson Provost at Drexel University, overseeing 14 schools and colleges and more than 25,000 students. His accomplishments there included developing an academically focused strategic vision entitled “Creating the 21st-Century Academic Experience,” hiring 11 deans and more than 100 faculty while increasing administrative diversity, and the creation of new programs and facilities. Prior to his time at Drexel, Dr. Blake served as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Miami, with oversight and advocacy of more than 155 programs across 12 schools and colleges composed of more than 5,700 students. He was the Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to his tenure at Notre Dame, he was Chair of the Department of Computer Science and its Director of Graduate Studies at Georgetown University. Throughout his career, Dr. Blake has served as adviser or co-adviser to 15 postdoctoral Fellows and graduate students and more than 30 undergraduate researchers. He has authored or co-authored more than 200 journal articles, books/book chapters, and refereed conference/workshop papers. He is best known for his contributions to the areas of adaptive, inter-organizational workflow for Web-based services and systems. Dr. Blake has served on five National Academies’ studies or committees and on the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate.
Co-Host: Bridget Burns, CEO, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founder and CEO of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.
About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.
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