The Rio 2016 Olympics will be known for record setting performances and perseverance of the human spirit. From the individual performances of Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manual to Fiji’s gold medal win in rugby, the world has witnessed history in the making. These athletes train relentlessly and consistently for the opportunity to represent their country. During the medal ceremonies, spectators cannot help but choke up along with the athlete as the medal is placed around their neck and they stand at attention while their country’s national anthem is played. It is the culmination of hard work, sustained injuries, disappointment, and even self-doubt. However, despite the challenges, this is not what the athletes remember during their post-competition interviews. The theme throughout these games has been focused on enjoying the moment, love of the sport, and making a difference.
On Sunday night, as track and field got underway, Usain Bolt prepared for his third consecutive 100-meter race. At 9.81 seconds, Bolt is the only person to win the Olympic 100-meter three times. He makes it look effortless. Usain Bolt is unique when he sprints. At 6 foot 5 inches, his height can almost work against him. He is generally slower than the other competitors off the blocks and his first 50 meters are at best average. What makes Bolt the world’s fastest sprinter is not his first 50 meters, but his second 50 meters. And it is his second 50 meters that are most impressive of all.
There is an important lesson to learn from watching Usain Bolt run and it might be a little cliché. It’s not about how you start the race, but how you finish it. Higher education is in a race. Some institutions have been in the race for a while and others are just entering. Along the way, we see institutions close, some are forced to shut down, and others are struggling to keep up. As an institution of higher learning, each mission is similar and goes something like this, “to educate the leaders of tomorrow to contribute to a rapidly changing global economy.” It sounds good. It might even be inspirational at the beginning. It parallels the roar of the crowds when Usain Bolt steps onto the track. There is excitement and motivation to make a difference.
As each sprinter backs up into their blocks, adrenaline is flowing and they are envisioning the race of their life. They are recalling their training and preparation that allowed them to qualify for the Olympics. This too is how most institutions begin. They develop their mission, programs, policies, seek accreditation, and begin preparing to educate the “leaders of tomorrow.” As the race begins, quickly one sprinter takes the lead. He receives an additional surge of adrenaline as he realizes his position in front. But it is still the first 50 meters. Mentally, institutions understand all the critical components of a successful operation. They consist of relevant curriculum, qualified faculty, and adequate resources to sustain operations. However, all this is just average.
If you are watching a 100-meter race with Usain Bolt, you know that what sets him apart from every other sprinter is the 50-meter mark in the race. This is when an average Olympic sprinter becomes super human. Bolt has mastered the art of maintaining his top speed better than every other sprinter. As a New York Times article described, “No sprinters speed up at the end of a 100-meter race as it appears they do. That is an optical illusion. The winner is not the person shifting into another gear, but the one slowing down the slowest.” Usain Bolt maximizes the second 50.
For years, higher education has been approaching the education of future generations like Usain Bolt approaches the first 50-meters of a 100-meter race. Strong. Steady. To meet the needs of students, higher education needs to maximize the second 50. Institutions need to revisit their mission statement, wipe off the dust and really ask themselves, why. What is the purpose of their institution? Why do they exist? If it is to be average, then congratulations, you have achieved that by merely staying in operation. But if the goal is to make a difference, to truly change lives, and provide opportunities, then let’s maximize the second 50. Let’s dig deeper into really measuring student learning. Let’s close the gap between curriculum content and employer needs. Let’s focus on creating effective educational pathways instead of cluttering them with barriers. Let’s focus on the socio-economic population who struggles every day to just survive. If we want to make a difference, let’s move beyond average and reach for the gold.
“There are better starters than me, but I’m a strong finisher.”
~ Usain Bolt