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Richard Law

Acknowledgements are the rarest and greatest privilege we professional writers enjoy. Although all of us carry around in some form or another the thoughts, habits, and wisdom of the greatest people in our lives, we writers are often afforded the incomparable opportunity to sort them out and distill from the noise of the everyday the profound influences that shape and mold our life project.

Higher education in general, and Washington State University in particular, is losing one of its singular guiding lights as Richard Law prepares to step down as Director of General Education. While a college or university is the last place you would ever look for — or find — leadership, Dr. Law remains an exemplar of all the most fundamental virtues of leadership to all those who had the privilege of working for him.

When higher education administrators start making noises about adopting “business models,” as they have recently at WSU, I’m in the stands rooting for them. I have, after all, downed boat-sized draughts of that particular Kool-Aid. But these hapless, insulated, and only partly-informed administrators almost never mean the “business models” that give competitive, capitalist businesses their edge over their slower-moving socialized bretheren: entrepreneurship, creative risk-taking, innovation, and teamwork.

No “business model” has any value without these four core structures at the heart of the institutional project. Anything else is a poor and jejune shortcut.

This matters more in education than it does in the actual competitive business world, because education, unlike business, is outcome-based rather than solely output-based. Learning is always an outcome, never an output, like computer chips, click-throughs, or return on equity. And as an outcome, learning and education are measured over a person’s lifetime, a longitudinal time-frame not amenable to quarterly reports or annual budget forecasts.

All the so-called business models that universities and colleges wrong-headedly adopt are always stubbornly and eternally output-based. Try as hard as you might, they can never be jerry-rigged to produce outcomes, particularly outcomes measured in years and decades.

On the other hand, there are competitive business models that have profound and lasting application to producing measurable, human outcomes, and they are (you guessed it) entrepreneurship, risk-taking, innovation, and teamwork — but these are institutional competencies that universities and colleges have never had or valued since their medieval beginnings.

In all my travels on both sides of the divide, I have never encountered a leader or manager who better understood, birthed, nurtured, and developed these four qualities in an institutional setting than Dr. Law. He led his department — and the university as a whole — to national leadership positions by creating a strong, cooperative faculty team (an unheard-of feat), by taking the lead on precedent-shattering projects, and by fostering innovation, creativity, and risk-taking in even the least of his faculty charges. And I say this with great humility, as I was the least among the least, but was inspired and encouraged to great feats of entrepreneurship and risk-taking.

And none of this would have been possible without his consistent patience, tolerance, calmness, his generosity with credit, his shouldering the blame, and his ability to exert a light hand in pushing momentous endeavors.

I believe that the highest praise I can give is that in over a decade in business as a creative director, consultant, agency owner, and now publisher (trying to herd several dozen writers), I’ve turned to the example set by Dr. Law as my most singularly constant model of leadership.

I wish him and his family God speed. And may WSU’s loss be literature’s gain.

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