Running the Campus

NECC President Lane Glenn shares stories and perspectives on leadership, higher education, and going the extra mile

Community, Community Colleges, Competition, Higher Education, Lane Glenn, Risk, Running the Campus

A Risk Testimonial: The Sweet Spot of Risk

Last Friday was Professional Day at NECC, and it was amazing.

Conceived by Dean of Professional Development and Academic Innovations, Marcy Yeager, and Assistant Director of Professional Development Lorena Constant, and co-created by dozens of amazingly talented and brave NECC faculty and staff and two spectacular keynoters, the theme was “RISK: Risk-taking, Risk Reflection & Risk Visioning”:

The past few years have been filled with uncertainty, reflection, innovation and drive. What all of this required of each of us is that we lean into the discomfort and take some risks! Our students take risks everyday just by stepping onto our campus. With the idea of RISK on our minds, this year’s professional day will be spent reflecting on the psychology of risk, taking a risk, and discussing what risks we have taken or might take as a college community.

In the middle of the day, between sessions like “Take a Stab at Fencing”, “PowerPoint Roulette”, and the “Police Academy Fitness Challenge” in the morning, and “AI and Education”, “Should I or Shouldn’t I Try College”, and “The Risk of Not Understanding: Past, Present, and Future” in the afternoon, I was asked to provide a “risk testimonial” over lunch.

This is what I had to say about “The Sweet Spot of Risk”:

The Sweet Spot of Risk

The NECC Knight with 8 NECC students eligible to apply for the Knight’s First-Year Scholarship.

When it comes to our students and their success here at NECC, we have everything we need right now, don’t we?  

We have all of the resources: the buildings, the classrooms, the laboratories, and the technology.  

We have all of the faculty and staff, all of the curriculum, all of the instructional strategies.  

All of the professional development, the community partnerships and support systems.

We truly do have everything you could possibly think of…to get the results that we are getting right now.

And if nothing changes, then nothing changes.

But if you want something more and better for our students, like I do, then some things have to change, and change involves risk: the risk of the unknown, the uncertain, the undefined, the undiscovered.

Maybe even the dangerous.

It involves moving outside of your comfort zone, whatever that zone is, and taking chances, and we all respond to risks and the prospect of change, and danger, differently.

I come from a family of athletes and thrill-seekers.  Risk-taking is in my blood.

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I’ve gone skydiving, hiked the 48 4,000-footers of New Hampshire, trekked around the Canadian Rockies, across the Tetons, and to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.  

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I have kayaked the 117-mile length of the Merrimack River, run countless races, including 200-mile relays, jostled with fellow gladiators in Spartan Races and the Tough Mountain Challenge, competed with my brother and sister in the Tuckerman’s Pentathlon Inferno.

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To celebrate my 50th birthday a few years ago, I entered, along with all of my siblings and their spouses, the Sunday River International Wife Carrying Championship.

Let me tell you, that one was a risk on so many levels.

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Later this year, I will be trekking 45-miles, rim-to-rim-to-rim, across the Grand Canyon and back again.

And sometime next January my brothers and I expect to reach the summit of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, at just under 23,000 feet, the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalaya range.

These are all risks that involve a lot of physical stamina and some form of physical danger, and you have to condition yourself if you’re going to make it.

As an athlete, I understand that the only way to build that stamina is to push myself.  If you want to grow bigger muscles, you have to expose them to stress: you have to lift more weight, and to lift it more times.  That’s called “repetitions.”  

If you want to run farther and faster, then you have to practice by running farther and faster.  That’s called “intervals.”  And so on.

But those adventures of mine also involve a lot of psychological stamina.  The mind is as important as the body in activities like those and it, too, has to be conditioned if you’re going to make it.

Like the body, the only way for the mind to grow and improve is to push it to do more, to expose it to the “stress” of new, even sometimes uncomfortable, ideas—to put yourself out there on the edge not only physically, but psychologically and emotionally.

Some of the biggest risks I have taken in my life, and this is probably true for many of you as well, haven’t involved as much physical danger as psychological or emotional risk.

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For example, as someone who was adopted as a child, I reached out in my thirties after the birth of my first daughter to discover my biological parents, and found brothers and sisters I never knew I had.

This is a picture of my adopted mother and father and my biological mother and father, meeting for the first time the night before my inauguration here at NECC.

As you can imagine, it is as important to me as any picture at the top of any mountain I’ve ever climbed, and it involved much more risk to get there.

Remember: If nothing changes, then nothing changes.

Or, put another way, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

My life is much, much richer and fulfilling because of the adventures I take, the views from the tops of those mountains, and the wonderful relationships I have now with the family I grew up with and the family I discovered later in life.

But of course, risk means not only the possibility of reward, but also the potential for failure and disappointment, which is why many times when we are faced with risk, we choose to play it safe and avoid it.

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A few weeks ago, Kat Rosenfeld wrote this piece for the Boston Globe, “The Illusion of a Frictionless Existence,” in which she describes how young people today go to great lengths to avoid any kind of inconvenience or conflict, and worries that, “Eliminating everyday annoyances may be creating the most risk-averse generation in history.”

She points out that some of this is positive:  Risky behaviors like underage drinking, smoking, and drug use have all declined among members of Generation Z.  

Teenagers also report being less sexually active, and they drive less: only 25% of 16-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2020, compared to 50% in 1983 (the year I turned 16).


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But she also points to the 2018 bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind, about how college students today sometimes seem to live in a climate of constant fear and risk avoidance, demanding “trigger warnings” for books like The Great Gatsby and finding “microaggressions” everywhere they look, as causes for the tremendous increase in anxiety and depression among today’s youth.

By sealing themselves off from the world in protective cocoons, Rosenfeld worries, young people aren’t risking enough, and aren’t “exercising” and developing those physical, psychological, and emotional “muscles” and the “stamina” they need to exist in the real world.

Now, I’d suggest that what Rosenfeld is writing about is not as true for our students at NECC as it may be for others at other colleges and universities.  We all know stories of students who, as the description for today’s Professional Day theme noted, take risks every day they come to campus.  

Our students are a tremendously strong, resilient bunch, and one of our jobs as educators is to be sure they keep getting exposed to the kinds of risks that are going to stretch them and help them grow in ways that are important to them.

So, how do we do that, and what kinds of risks should we be taking?

We are indeed all different when it comes to how we respond to risk and the prospect of change, and I think the key, if we want to not only exist in the real world but actually make the kinds of changes that we want to make in it, is to find your personal “Risk Sweet Spot,” the “optimal” balance that lies somewhere between total risk avoidance and outright recklessness.

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One of my favorite books about change and risk taking is called Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers.  

As you might guess, it’s a book about shaking things up; about bucking conventional wisdom and taking risks to fix problems, innovate, and become the best you can be at whatever it is you do.

The book includes a short “Change Readiness Questionnaire” that measures the “Seven Traits of Change Readiness,” and explains how there are disadvantages to having too much or too little of each trait.

For example, a low “Optimism” score may suggest you are overly pessimistic, see only problems and obstacles in every direction, and likely will not take many risks; while a high “Optimism” score may mean you are unrealistic or lack critical thinking skills, and you may take truly foolish risks.  

The “sweet spot” for optimism is just enough to create enthusiasm and a “can-do” attitude about a risk you are facing, with enough clear-eyed realism to help you plan ahead for what might go wrong, and change course if you need to.

Similarly, a low “Drive” means you may not have the kind of energy and enthusiasm you need to get started with a risk you are thinking about taking, or if you do, you quickly get exhausted; while an extremely high “Drive” may exhaust those around you as you relentlessly pile up risks one after another.

The optimal balance of “Drive” is enough fuel in the tank to get up and get going, to take the risks that matter, without being risk-obsessed and burning yourself out, along with everyone else. 

As you might guess, I have pretty high scores for things like Drive, Optimism, and Adventurousness, which lead me to constantly look for new experiences and ways to shake things up, and I have a reasonable level of Adaptability and Resourcefulness to keep me going when things get tough.

I sometimes find my optimal balance involves taking the best of what each of these traits has to offer, while also slowing down a bit, trying not to get too far ahead, reminding myself to listen more carefully to those around me, and to measure the pace of change in weeks, months, or years, rather than days or hours.

How about you?

When you have a chance, try answering these questions for yourself and see what you think your responses may reveal about your “sweet spot” for risk and change.

As a college, NECC has always had a lot of faculty and staff who have been more open to risks and to change than most places, especially if it means taking risks and making changes to help our students.

It is why we are home to so many “firsts,” such as:

  • The first Hispanic Serving Institution in New England
  • The first fully online Sleep Technology Program in the country
  • The first community college in Massachusetts to offer competency-based education
  • The first college in the country to offer a competency-based Early Childhood Education degree
  • The first new Applied Science Associate Degree in Massachusetts in decades
  • The largest college-based, and the most diverse, police academy in Massachusetts

We have accomplished all of these “firsts” and many, many more because we recognize that just as there are risks to creating change, there are sometimes even greater risks to not creating change.

Remember: When it comes to our students and their success here at NECC, we have everything we need right now, don’t we?  

We have all of the resources: the buildings, the classrooms, the laboratories, and the technology.  We have all of the faculty and staff, all of the curriculum, all of the instructional strategies.  All of the professional development, the community partnerships and support systems.

We truly do have everything you could possibly think of…to get the results that we are getting right now.

And if nothing changes, then nothing changes.

We all owe it to our students to find our “sweet spot” our optimal balance for risk and change, because it is the only way we will get better—for them.

If there is one thing you take away from this testimonial of mine, and from this entire Professional Day focused on Risk-taking, I hope it is this:  Whatever you think, right now in this very moment, you are capable of doing, you can do more.

I’m not being unrealistic when I say that.  I don’t mean, for example, that you can jump up out of your seat and go run the Boston Marathon (though some of you certainly may be able to do that).

But six days ago, I was on the top of Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, at over 10,000 feet, with these three NECC leaders.  They hiked nearly thirty miles in two days to get up there and back, pushing themselves physically and psychologically to do more than perhaps they thought they could do.


Because they knew how much it would mean to many of our students to know that they had climbed up the tallest mountain in the country they call home.

That is the sweet spot of risk-taking.

And when I look at today’s line-up for Professional Day, I’m inspired to think that not very many colleges could possibly put together a braver, more willing-to-take risks bunch of educators who, like those climbers on Pico Duarte, are putting it all out there for their colleagues and their students.

And I hope their example helps inspire you to take more of those kinds of risks, too.

Thank you, Clare Thompson, for daring to show us how to “draw our day”, and Lisa Fabbri-Lopez, for showing us how to break arrows with our necks and reminding us that sometimes FEAR is simply “False Evidence Appearing Real.”

Thank you, Maurisa Charest and Brianne Beatrice for leading PowerPoint Roulette and Improv Comedy!

Thank you, Stella Vlahakis and Andrew Ngyuen for serving donuts and making data feel less scary.  

Thank you, Devan Walton, for daring to show us how Artificial Intelligence can actually be helpful in the classroom.

Thank you, Christopher Ottinger, for teaching us how to turn a personal story into a video game—in 45 minutes!

And the list of brave risk-takers and amazing talents shared today goes on and on.

Thank you, all of you brave, magnificent risk-takers.

Our students need you, and I admire you.

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