NPR Radio Interview

The State of Things
May 8th, 2006

F  This is the State of Things.  I am Frank Stacia. High Point North Carolina is best known for it's leading role in the International Furniture Market, but if Nido Qubein has his way, High Point will one day be recognized as the home of a nationally acclaimed liberal arts university. Qubein is an accomplished motivational speaker and business consultant. Last year he became the president of High Point University. Now, High Point is a private liberal arts school with 3000 students -- not the sort of place you would expect to raise twenty million dollars in just 29 days. Qubein did just that. This despite the fact that Qubein has no background in higher education. Nido Qubein was one of the nine Americans recently awarded the 2006 Horatio Alger Award named in honor of the popular author who wrote the rags to riches tales. Nido Qubein joins me on the phone now from his office at High Point University to share with us his personal stories and his vision for the future of High Point. Welcome to the program.

Q  Thank you very much. Delighted to be with you.

F  You came to the United States at the age of 17. What brought you here to North Carolina?

Q  I came here to go to school. I came here because I wanted to make something good of my life and so I aspired to come to America to attend college.

F  You came from Lebanon.

Q  Yes I did.

F  You learned to speak English there or here?

Q  Well, I knew a few words of English and then I learned the English language primarily by taking 3x5 cards and putting ten English words on this card today, memorizing the spelling and meaning of those 10 words, and then tomorrow repeating the process until I finally had a relatively good command of the English language.

F  You came here you say for an education. An anonymous donor paid for your college education. How did that come about? Did you know about that before you left? Was that a part of the reason you came to the United States?

Q  No, Frank, I did not. I actually did not. I actually finished my sophomore year. I went to a junior college in Eastern North Carolina and then junior college and at the end of the sophomore year -- I had worked ten hours a day to work my way through school --  the President said to me, "You know, there is a chasm between the money you paid the school and the money you owe the school, and you just might like to know that a doctor in a neighboring city has picked up the tab for the difference." Of course you know I speak of turning points in one's life. That was the day I went back to my dorm and I made a commitment on that day that I would someday do something similar in my own life. When people ask what's the most fun thing and the most wonderful thing I feel I've ever been involved in in my life, it's establishing our own scholarship foundation which has given millions of dollars to students over the years. That's what life is all about you know.  That's why higher education is so appealing to me. We can open doors. We can build bridges so other people can go through them and travel across them.

F  We are taking some of those thoughts to High Point University and you say you are trying to transform High Point. In what way?

Q  Of course I am a graduate of High Point University back in 1970 and so I have an appreciation for this institution. I was going to be the chairman of the Board of Trustees of this institution when the trustees came to me and asked me to become its 7th president. Leaving thirty plus years in business to come here was no easy decision but it was a decision and a commitment made because I really believe that higher education is a phenomenal way in which we can build a better tomorrow for our country and our world. So when I came here, I recognized that this is a fine institution, 83 years old, students from 52 countries and 41 states and it has, like many private institutions, as you well know, it has a lot of challenges.
    One of them of course is deferred maintenance. We need to do certain things to bring up our plant, if you will, to a standard of excellence. We have opportunities to expand our academic programs. We certainly had challenges in the enrollment area. It costs a lot of money to go to a private institution today. So I came here and told our people on the very first day I was here that we needed to raise 10 million dollars in 60 days just to take care of immediate things. As you know by now, we raised 20 million dollars in half the time, 29 days. Since then, by the way Frank, we're up to about 60 million dollars in about 14 months. If you came to our campus today, you would easily see that we are building 7 new buildings and renovating 13 buildings and building 2 stadiums, intercollegiate track, and of course, investing significant money in the enhancement of academic programs and scholarships based on merit to students who need them and so on. So the transformation I think you would call it is more comprehensive in nature.

F  You said it was a difficult decision to go from the business world to this job now as President of High Point. How different is it? How big of a difference is it?

Q  Well, it was a difficult decision for me to go from business to education only because I had a set of thriving companies; and so from an economic perspective it was a serious decision. From a heart perspective, from a commitment perspective, it was the right decision to come back to my alma mater and to give it leadership and to lose myself and invest myself in helping to transform this institution into a better place for many generations to come. So education is different than business in some ways, but when you recognize that faculty and staff, and students as well, are all human beings, they principally have similar points that they pursue in life and we work towards that, it's really not that tough. It's imperative that I know that an institution is not a business. The purpose of the university is not to be a business; but it is also of equal importance to recognize that perhaps we could administer some functions of the university in a business-like manner. So that is what I have attempted to do. I attempt to take my strengths in business and offer them to the university. Likewise, I assure you, I have kept very open eyes and very open ears and a desire to learn and explore from those who know more than I about how an institution ought to be run. Those have been my counselors and my advisors and we are having really a great time. It's a wonderful partnership, and it is working.

F  It is working. It is well received at this moment?

Q  I would say it is exceptionally well received and it shows, as I say, in all our numbers. Our enrollment this freshman class coming in the fall of this year is going to be approximately 40 percent (that's 4-0) larger than the current freshman class. You can't always assume that bigger is better. I comprehend that and understand it but rather in our institution we needed some. We needed critical mass. We needed more numbers and they are coming to us at a higher level of scholastic achievement and in greater bulk of interest, and that's why we are very bullish about the future of this fine North Carolina institution.

F  When you gave them that first goal of 10 million dollars, did they give you a funny look?

Q  Of course everyone did, but no one gives us funny looks now. People recognize that at High Point University we are serious. I certainly am very serious about this work and I believe my team is very dedicated towards this work.

F  You're transforming the physical campus but you are also taking the role in developing your students. You've got a mandatory Life Skills class. What do you teach in that?

Q  This is called The President's Class on Life Skills. It is my personal view, and our faculty certainly joins me in this view that we must somehow bridge the hallowed hallways of academia with the practical functional demanding highways of life.  That means that every student graduating from High Point University ought to know how to communicate with you, how to write a decent letter, how to talk with you by telephone, how to balance their checkbook, how to interview well, how to look you eyeball to eyeball, how to shake hands with you. You know, all the basic things, certainly how to have solid self-esteem and how to have critical thinking skills. In this class, the intent is to really give these students something that can help them get a job, be a responsible citizen and build a better future; and so it's every freshman and every senior that takes this class. I teach it personally and now I am teaching our students some of the same fundamentals, some of the same principles, that I have been sharing in the corporate world.

F  Ok, so there's the strong handshake and there's the well-written thank you note; but what about some of the deeper questions?  I'm thinking in terms of if you take a look at what is going on now and what Richard Broadhead has to go through at Duke and talking about looking over the moral formation of students and what role the university plays in that. Does the university play a role and is that anything that you think is part of your overall plan?

Q  The answer is absolutely.  It is my personal view that a part of our responsibility in creating an educated student body is to talk about it from a balanced perspective. When you are spiritually and mentally and physically and socially and economically and intellectually balanced, then you are really a better person. Now what we don't want to do on our college campus is define with clarity for each individual the way they must think and the way they must behave because at the end of the day that is what education is all about. It's about the state of discovery. It's about a place for debate. But I believe that it is perfectly ok -- it's what we call freedom in the classroom --  it's perfectly OK for me to talk to my students in my classroom in the President's Seminar on Life Skills about some of the things that that worked for me in my life and some of the things they might want to explore in their life, and I think it is exceptionally wonderful when you do talk about some of these moral foundations that do create for a better personhood.

F  You know, this whole business of Horatio Alger – the award that you won and I think the basis of much of your motivational speaking – the sort of "you can do it if you try" – the critique has always been that the Horatio Alger story is so remarkable because it's unique, because not everybody can do it frankly. If they could, more people would. It is a unique story in that there are structural barriers, all kinds of other things really in the way.  It's not just a matter of personality and a good handshake.

Q  Well, I don't disagree with what you just said. I think the Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans, as it is fully named, is really more about living the American dream. So the question becomes, "What is the American dream?" I think your question is, "Is it available to one and all?" If an immigrant can come to America with no English, no money and no connections, but with a desire in his heart and a willingness in his soul to work hard enough and smart enough and to follow his mother's advice, "Who you spend time with is who you become and what you choose is what you get and all meaningful change comes from within," and then attaches to that the discipline that is demanded of us in life, then the likelihood of succeeding in America becomes more possible. Your question is a more open one in that we do have some socioeconomic and other elements in our society that perhaps do preclude some people from doing that. I certainly don't argue that point at all. I would say to you that the half the glass that's full is apparent. It is possible. It is within the reach of many people. One should never ever use the excuse that it is improbable or impossible to do well in America; but rather one should move onwards and upwards and seek the help and the counsel of heroes, models and mentors to achieve better things and to look for a better tomorrow.

F  I don't want to dismiss your half-full glass, but I will ask you if you think it's getting more difficult to live that dream. Is there a leak in the cup?

Q  I never thought of it that way. That's a good way to characterize it – "Is there a leak in the cup?" There may indeed be, but maybe think of it this way Frank.  Maybe the cup is also getting bigger.

F  Alright, Nido Qubein, thank you for talking with us.

Q  Thank you.

F  Nido Qubein is President of High Point University in High Point North Carolina.