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Colonel reflects, compares Rice to West Point

By Cindy Dinh     5/16/10 7:00pm

What does a public institution that trains military personnel have in common with Rice? At their essence, both have leadership development and the ability to enhance social-cultural relationships as Colonel Daniel Ragsdale, a visiting administrator from West Point, noted from his year observing Rice. As part of the American Council on Education Fellowship, Ragsdale, vice dean for education at West Point Academy in West Point, New York, has spent the past year at Rice meeting with faculty members, administrators, program directors and students to observe how the school runs. Since 1965, between 40-50 fellows in the program are selected from nominations to spend an academic year at a host institution, immerse themselves in the culture and work directly with the institution's presidents and administrators as part of a leadership development program in higher education. Next year, Rice's own Joel Thierstein, Executive Director of Connexions and Associate Provost for Innovative Scholarly Communication, will be an ACE fellow for the 2010-2011 academic year.

Ragsdale said he had observed many similarities over the past year despite the differences between the two institutions.

"They're almost fundamentally entirely different, but there are a lot of parallels for undergraduates and faculty," Ragsdale said. "The issues are not exactly the same, but there's a significant amount of overlap."

Some of the same phenomena of a military unit occur in the residential colleges, Ragsdale said. Since students are randomly assigned to a residential college at Rice, they spend the majority of their free time with students they live with. Similarly, at West Point, cadets are assigned to different divisions and develop a strong bond with those who are assigned to the same unit, he said. The Rice residential college system has a strong influence on the way students perceive their institution and their approach to studies and social life, and in the same way cadets view their world based on their military unit, he said.

Another parallel Ragsdale noted is the notion of service and serving others at the two institutions. While other schools may emphasize the importance of community service, Ragsdale said Rice's programs like the Center for Civic Engagement help students and faculty achieve a higher level of service beyond simply volunteering. In addition to solving this immediate problem, Rice students would be the ones to offer the solutions to prevent it in the future.

"You don't want students just to volunteer," he said. "You want them to draw upon their many talents and ability for critical thinking and problem solving to provide solutions to address the challenge."

Ragsdale said undergraduate research facilitates both leadership development and community service. The kind of skills demonstrated in a research and scholarship setting are generalizable to other settings, such as the ability to work well with others, communicate effectively and persuasively and engage in practical problem solving.

"Most people think [research] is intellectual development, but the kind that's done at Rice is an incredibly effective vehicle to develop leadership skills," Ragsdale said. "We take something people think of only as an intellectual endeavor and [develop leaders]."

In addition to developing a functional skill set, researchers display a commitment to service by expanding the frontier of knowledge for others. After visiting other institutions, Ragsdale said he noticed there was a strong emphasis at Rice to push students to the limits of their intellectual capacity and to engage in research at the undergraduate level.

Despite similarities across institutions, Ragsdale stressed Rice's cultural differences, noting that his first week at Rice was Orientation Week. The culture and community established here are entirely unique to the university and would not necessarily work elsewhere, Ragsdale said.

"We wouldn't want to forklift West Point programs and transfer [them] to Rice," he said.

However, of the six domains - the military, physical, intellectual, moral-ethical, social and human spirit - upon which West Point bases its cadet leadership development - Ragsdale said the moral-ethical and social domains have potential to expand at Rice.

"If you ask most young people today about leaders in the business and political spectrum who have had true ethical lapse, there's often a significant negative response," Ragsdale said. "They have discredited not only themselves, but the institutions they represent, and can breed cynicism in the minds of those who look to those leaders as role models."

In order to address the ethical aspects of leadership, Ragsdale suggested institutions like Rice provide students a moral-ethical framework as a starting point for those who wish to continue building upon their core values. In his report to President David Leebron this June, Ragsdale said he will include recommendations for Rice to engage in a thoughtful and broadly framed dialogue with scholars, students and staff to develop frameworks for ethical reasoning that can be used by most members of the Rice community.

This year, Ragsdale became a Wiess College associate and attended college events like Wiess masters' teas, wine tastings, meals and soccer games, and sat in on interviews for student-taught courses. Wiess Master Michael Gustin said Ragsdale was a joy to have around, since his life experiences were quite different from those of people traditionally in academia.

"I felt he was not just an observer but he added to the college itself," Gustin, a professor in biochemistry and cell biology, said.

Ragsdale is going into his 30th year of service in the armed forces, and has not only taught at West Point, but was also active in military operations in Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, he served as the Deputy Commander of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade that was responsible for the defense of the largest base in Iraq.

Ragsdale said this year has been an eye-opening experience for his leadership development.

"As part of the fellowship, I'm trying to facilitate leader development for others," Ragsdale said. "It's an ironic twist that even after 29 years of service in the Army, I've learned an incredible amount of leader development and how to facilitate leader development, in particular for young men and women entering their college years.

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