I. Setting the Stage

Playing as a Unit: How to Win by Harnessing the Culture

Dr. Michael Drake

Institutions of higher education are living, breathing organisms; like the many diverse people that make them what they are, universities have nuances and complexities that are essential to understand in order to lead effectively. This means having a thorough, unbiased, unvarnished grasp of institutional history—both ancient and modern. It means building an ever-evolving comprehension of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses. It requires developing a strong practice of asking questions and listening. Much like the etymology of the word culture as it relates to cultivating living beings, you can think of your role as a leader, not unlike a physician tending to a patient. Understanding the unique needs of each patient—and knowing how these needs interact—will help inform your decision-making.

With an understanding of the organization’s culture and history, you can then choose whether to continue moving in the same direction or chart a new course. Or you might choose a middle ground—in other words, you may find the best course of action is finding balance within the momentum of the institution’s existing culture. It may be possible to use your vision and priorities to shift the culture away from identified pitfalls or toward new, productive goals.

Leaders employ either approach most effectively through a clear and deeply held set of values. With a clear vision, a leader can help a university thrive within its authentic culture—letting go of the practices and traditions that no longer serve the whole and embracing those that lift everyone up.

Before you begin the job for which you are reading this handbook, you will have been through years of preparation that began with your own education and continued through positions of ever-increasing responsibility and the hard-won, real-life learning that comes from professional successes and challenges. And now, here you are. You were selected from many qualified and talented people. You have been chosen as the very best match for your institution. You have the raw materials you need to thrive in your leadership position.

But within every institution, you will find an ever-changing and often subtle landscape that you must study. Some of the maps are already drawn; some remain uncharted. Each college or university has its own culture. Part of that culture is clear: It is the overt, advertised, public face of the university—its vibe, or character, or brand. And then there are the multifaceted layers of hidden culture. Over the years, I have watched many skilled colleagues understand and embrace one or the other, but I have also seen some ultimately foiled because they couldn’t find a way to balance both.

The lesson here is that it’s important to enter your new role with all your knowledge and experience at your disposal—but also with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Over my career, I often reflected back on the book The Enigma of Arrival by Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul. The book’s theme is that when we arrive in a new place, we have already thought about what it will be like. Our preconceptions are based on our view of the enterprise from the outside in, and without ourselves as participants. But it is never quite what we envisioned. You cannot really know what the future is until you are there, because the future literally isn’t the same without you.

If you do your job right, you will start your tenure with humility and an open mind. You will help your institution cultivate its healthiest cultural aspects, and you will address or eliminate the unhealthy ones. Your presence will make the team stronger. As basketball great and UCLA alumnus Kareem Abdul Jabbar puts it, “You can’t win if you don’t play as a unit.” (Johnson 1984) Getting everyone—within their respective subcultures—to play together in pursuit of shared goals is crucial. And in shaping the institutional culture this way, your leadership will become an indelible part of its winning story.

Find the Strengths, Diagnose the Problems

Institutions of higher education have nuances that are essential to understand in order to lead effectively. This means building an ever-evolving comprehension of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses. Much in the same way that the etymology of the word “culture” relates to cultivating living beings, you can think of your role as a leader as similar to a physician tending to a patient. Understanding the unique needs of each patient—and knowing how these needs interact—will help inform your decision-making.

First and foremost, you will need to develop a thorough, unvarnished grasp on institutional history. Get to know the librarians and befriend those who know the most about the institutional histories stored within the collections. Read about the institution, and pore over the student newspaper and alumni publications. And seek out voices that might otherwise go unheard. I remember a piece of advice my father gave me the day I graduated from medical school: “You’re just getting started. Make sure you listen to the nurses. They’ve been at this longer than you have!” That was, of course, overwhelmingly true, and my patients and I benefited greatly from its central wisdom. The essential insights into an institution’s cultural strengths and weaknesses are held broadly, with grounds keepers, engineers, administrative assistants, vice chancellors, faculty, students, alumni, and others.

In a similar vein, I have learned not to hold up data as the only or complete way of knowing. Data almost always make up just one, albeit important, part of the full story. Like with many things in life, a central path often works best. Toni Morrison described this brilliantly in her talk, “God’s Language”:

We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about. And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you will see . . . that it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch (Morrison 2020).

Leaders must be careful not to confuse data for absolute knowledge, or information for wisdom, particularly when it comes to taking wise action on an institutional element as elusive and nuanced as culture.

No matter how much experience or wisdom you bring, or how much data you have, if you step into a new position and attempt to change course too abruptly, you will encounter resistance. That can be fatal to your objectives, even if you are right about the change. Sure, sometimes you do need to take swift action, and some measure of resistance is inevitable. But you can almost always wait a beat to make the decision the right way. Within a little time, as you listen and observe, as you build trust, you will start to hear and see more clearly and learn what you need to know. Your decisions will be better informed: you will recognize whether you should maintain the existing arc of progress, go further and faster, or whether there are significant impediments to progress that need to be addressed. You must be in your position long enough to understand the culture, because too often it is that culture that is the biggest barrier to progress and success. And to do that, you have to know whom to listen to, and how.

I faced a situation just like this a few months into my time as chancellor of UC Irvine. I arrived as an outsider and was determined to get to know the culture; I met with campus and community leaders repeatedly and began to lay the foundation for trusted relationships. Then, a negative news story about the campus was published in a local newspaper, and not long after, I found myself seated next to a revered member of the faculty at a dinner I attended. I took a chance and told him what I thought about the situation and got his feedback. The data were there—I had the newspaper report—but what I needed to know was how it registered in the soul of the institution. I wasn’t just listening to his words, but paying attention to his body language and facial expressions as he told me what he thought. Tapping into his insight and experience was like developing an optic nerve that delivered institutional signals. It helped me connect to the campus history and culture, and I relied on that guidance going forward.

It takes a concerted effort to sift through the steady deluge of information leaders encounter and be able to quiet the noise enough to hear the most important messages. Leadership requires a certain kind of active listening—an added layer of discernment about the information and how it is being filtered. Does the person you are listening to trust you? Have you nurtured an environment where people at all levels feel they can safely speak up? Do those speaking have their own agendas, or are they neutral and trusted voices? The answers to these questions will shape the quality of the information you gather.

Set or Shift

With a solid understanding of the organization’s culture and history, you can then choose whether to continue moving in the same direction or chart a new course. Or you might choose a middle ground. It may be possible to use your vision and priorities to shift the culture away from identified pitfalls or toward new, more productive goals.

I had been on the job just three weeks as president of The Ohio State University when it was time to make a big decision. A two-month investigation—launched before my arrival—revealed a deeply problematic hazing culture within the university’s marching band. The band dates back to 1878. It is part of a cherished legacy at OSU, a proud tradition whose fans are legion. Its well-deserved nickname is “The Best Damn Band in the Land,” and its supporters are enthusiastic—to put it mildly. But the investigation showed that the best of this tradition was being marred by unhealthy customs within the band—an outdated culture that was made worse by an expectation of secrecy and loyalty from its members. The hazing included behaviors that were brought to the attention of our Title IX office. The resultant investigation followed federal guidelines. This all occurred two or three years before the #MeToo movement gained momentum in raising awareness of these issues more broadly, but it was already abundantly clear that change was necessary.

To bring the band up to the expectations of Title IX—and, just as importantly, the university’s values—it was imperative to shift direction. We communicated in the clearest terms that we would have zero tolerance for a hostile culture in the band or any other area of the university. And we set up a task force with several layers of independent review and rigor: one group conducted an investigatory review, another conducted an independent review of the culture, and outside counsel provided oversight to ensure legal compliance with Title IX.

In this case, it was external culture that posed the greatest barrier to the necessary changes. Many alumni and community members were resistant; I received significant critical feedback for my approach. It would have perhaps been easier to make changes after serving as president for longer than three weeks; but the need for immediate action was compelling, and there simply was not time to roll into it gently. You always hope that you have that leeway, but there are instances when it is just not in the cards.

In most cases, however, you have time to arrive, eyes and ears open, to listen and to learn as much as you can about the internal culture before deciding on changes. There will be time to feel it viscerally. You also know what it looks and feels like from the outside. When it comes to actually initiating change (the slower variety, as opposed to the urgent kind described earlier), the first step is to gain as clear a view as possible of the future you want to achieve. For larger systemic shifts and set points, you want to know where the institution is going and what needs to be accomplished for you to get there. The next step is to build, slowly but steadily, a group of internal supporters you can rally to the cause. These should be respected thought leaders and decision-makers on campus. At the beginning, it’s best to keep this to a small number of people. They give you honest feedback; they provide critical insight into what it will be like to make these changes and what headwinds you can expect. To make this work, you must create an environment of openness—where this group trusts you enough to be candid, and where you trust them enough to follow their advice.

Once you’ve built a support system that will be there even when change is unpopular, you can begin plotting out the necessary steps to move the institution from point A to point B, and then step by step on to the future. My preferred way to do that is through a highly transparent, explicitly stated plan, one that is well-communicated and widely deployed. This was our approach at the University of California in August 2021 when we released our first Community Safety Plan—a transformational shift to a more data-driven, service-oriented, community-centric approach to safety and security across the enterprise. This plan was the culmination of more than a year and a half of robust conversations with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other UC stakeholders and subject matter experts, with more than 1,500 people weighing in.

It was not easy or simple to build the level of trust we needed—this is a complex and emotional issue for many, and the University of California is a vast, multilayered institution with a strong expectation for community feedback and dialogue. Many different views came into play over the course of these discussions. But we communicated methodically and demonstrated over and over that we were committed to listening to all perspectives. It was a slow, iterative, thoughtful process, and it laid the foundation for a living document that we will continue to adapt to keep all members of our community safe and truly thriving.

This is the kind of laborious but essential work of culture shift. It requires time and focus, dialogue and feedback, resources and follow-through. It might not create a splash or lend itself to a press release—and it will be criticized at one point or another by all involved for going too far or not far enough. But it has the power to create real and lasting change, guided by your leadership values.

There are also ways in which tapping into authenticity in an institution’s culture can be both strategic and transformational. This involves identifying and championing what is naturally good and unique about your institution’s culture and harnessing its subcultures to get everyone working together. One example of this comes from my time as chancellor of UC Irvine. When I began my tenure there, a book called Blue Ocean Strategy had just been published by business professors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. Their premise is based on a study of businesses that created their success by seeking out untapped markets—blue oceans of promise where they could do what they do best instead of being boxed in by competition with rivals.

I found it to be a useful metaphor for higher education as well. At UC Irvine, a relatively young University of California campus, talent-rich and full of possibility, we saw the futility of trying to become a replica of the more established campuses in our region, such as UCLA or the University of Southern California. Instead, we chose to focus on areas where UC Irvine was already excelling: sustainability, diversity, and inclusion. This required communicating to various subcultures how their cooperation and joint focus would help us meet long-term goals and cement UC Irvine as a leader. And it required showing them steady, short-term results.

Envisioning the institution as one that could go its own direction was beneficial in several ways. It enabled us to think big and aim high as a rule; for example, in 2009 we successfully opened the first new public law school in California in forty years, and we quickly watched it surpass expectations as a powerhouse among law schools nationally.

Exactly how we accomplished the launch of the law school is quite a story, one that helps illustrate the power of bringing subcultures—factions, personalities, and competing power structures—together. The various voices and perspectives at play in this case included the UC Board of Regents—initially wary of the idea of a new law school; the UC Academic Senate—which was concerned that a new law school would merely be a training ground for more corporate lawyers; and the California State Legislature, which held mixed opinions on the fiduciary wisdom of the investment. Other key stakeholders included the donor community and the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC)—a body that provided state leaders with analysis and policy advice for more than thirty years before it was disbanded in 2011. This commission had the authority to recommend approval or rejection of new graduate and professional programs, and its members’ deliberations signaled that the commission would ardently oppose a law school at UC Irvine. We had our work cut out for us—so we set about to address the concerns of each of these entities.

First, we focused on the incoming chair of the UC Board of Regents, who made clear that he did not think the school had any hope. “There has been talk of starting a law school there for forty years,” he told me. “I don’t think you’re going to get local support. Maybe if you had the support of someone like . . .” and he named a major philanthropist. “Well, it turns out that [the philanthropist in question] has quietly pledged an eight-figure anonymous gift,” I answered. The chair paused, looked at me, and shook my hand. “Well then,” he replied, “Congratulations!” We cleared a significant hurdle.

From there, we moved on to the Academic Senate. We needed to demonstrate that the law school was not, in fact, all about producing high-paid corporate lawyers, but rather about bringing top-notch legal scholarship to the campus and producing well-trained lawyers for the rapidly growing surrounding community. It helped that the Academic Senate understood the argument that UC Irvine’s cutting-edge scientific research would be more influential if coupled with effective legal and policy solutions. One powerful local example was the experience of UC Irvine’s Professor F. Sherwood Rowland—the first to uncover the role of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in depleting the ozone layer. It took years—and great courage and persistence by Rowland and scientific collaborator Mario Molina (with whom he shared the Nobel Prize)—from the origin of this scientific discovery in the mid-1970s to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the global agreement to limit the production of ozone-depleting substances. Ultimately, the UC Academic Senate was swayed that a law school at UC Irvine would be beneficial: they agreed that legal and policy expertise was necessary to translate science into solutions.

The Academic Senate endorsed the proposal, and it was sent on to CPEC. There we met active resistance based on the fact that Orange County was well supplied with private practice lawyers. Our evidence supporting the need for first-rate academic lawyers for the campus and well-trained administrative lawyers for the community failed to sway the commission. In our favor was the fact that the commission was advisory. We were informed that no program under their jurisdiction had been started without their endorsement in more than thirty years. But there’s a first time for everything. After CPEC voted 8–3 against the law school proposal, the UC Board of Regents chose to acknowledge the commission’s objections but voted unanimously to move ahead. In the end, the work we did to bring these disparate subcultures together toward a shared ambitious goal paid off.

Breaking or Bridging

As we seek to better understand and harness the cultures of our institutions, it is also critical to take into account the social, political, and economic currents that have driven this period of great transformation and disruption in our nation and world. Legal scholar john a. powell, who leads the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, has written about these forces through the lens of “bridging” and “breaking.” He writes that experiencing collective anxiety due to rapid change is a normal biological reaction, but how we respond to that anxiety is a social reaction. We have a choice—whether to view change as a threat or an opportunity. One response represents breaking, the other, bridging (powell n.d.).

We can observe the impacts of breaking on our campuses, particularly where those bent on extreme positions have gravitated to fight the so-called “culture wars.” It is important to try not to succumb to anxiety, or to be overly wary of questions and approaches that fall into the category of culture. In the past, higher education leaders may have gotten away with treating issues related to institutional cultures and subcultures as afterthoughts. But these issues now play a significant role in helping our society move toward bridging—building campus climates and communities in which anyone and everyone can feel heard, seen, respected, and included by being exactly who they are. The teaching, research, and public service that flow from healthy campus climates will produce outcomes that better serve all of society.

A great example of this is the Black Thriving Initiative at UC Irvine. This program is shifting the focus of the entire campus onto anti-racist programs and policies that aim to make UC Irvine a campus where Black students, faculty, and staff thrive. The intentional nature of this work is what sets it apart—it is carried through across all levels of the university and offers everyone a way to participate, whether through educational programs, pledges campus community members can sign, efforts to make UC Irvine a top destination for prospective Black students, and faculty cluster hiring to support research that will help us understand and advance well-being in the Black experience. The inclusive excellence that this initiative is cultivating at UC Irvine is a boon to any student, faculty member, staff member, or alumni there, no matter where they come from, no matter their politics, no matter their socioeconomic status or race or ethnicity.


Two days after the UCLA Bruins won the 1967 men’s college basketball tournament—their third national championship in four seasons—the NCAA instituted what became known as the “Alcindor Rule” banning the dunk shot in college basketball. Many viewed this sudden prohibition on the slam dunk as a direct attempt to stifle the unstoppable, spectacular talents of sophomore Lew Alcindor—the player now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Uitti 2023). This knee-jerk response to the changing college game is an example of breaking as opposed to bridging, as described earlier. It became a cultural flashpoint in a season of social unrest as Americans across the nation rioted that summer in angry response to racist policies and social injustice. In addition to UCLA and Abdul-Jabbar dominating the sport that year, the 1967 Winston-Salem State men’s basketball team became the first historically Black college and university to win a college division championship (a precursor to NCAA Division II). It is hard not to read this move by the NCAA as an attempt to shut down standout Black players like Abdul-Jabbar; that is certainly how he saw it.

This is a prime example of the role that culture plays in efforts to create more equitable, inclusive, and healthier communities. Setting the tone for a campus that embraces the strengths that each person and subculture brings to the table is a critical component of your job as a higher education leader. I like the way, in a history of the slam dunk, author Gena Caponi-Tabery put it in comparing the essence of the dunk to what composer Olly Wilson calls “the soul focal moment”:

A point of unity between audience and player that occurs when a player—whether musician or athlete—performs what is necessary with exceptional ease, grace, and flair, taking a risk while maintaining control. . . . The soul focal moment is not gratuitous showmanship—its artistry is functional and accomplishes what the moment requires, but with a degree and twist of virtuosity that is unnecessary and unexpected. . . . The soul focal moment is showy, to be sure, but this is not a one-person show. . . . [It] elevates a community, and its master is the ultimate team player.

We all have moments to contribute, and with them, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. We need to find what is standing in the way of everyone playing as a team to make the most of their greatest strengths. With a clear vision, a leader can help a university thrive within its authentic culture—letting go of the practices and traditions that no longer serve the whole and embracing those that lift everyone up, bridging the way to the future that everyone deserves.


Caponi-Tabery, Gina Dagel. 1999. Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Johnson, Roy S. “Nearing Record, Abdul-Jabbar Plays with Joy.” New York Times, April 2, 1984. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/04/02/sports/nearing-record-abdul-jabbar-plays-with-joy.html

Morrison, Toni. 2020. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Vintage International https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/566846/the-source-of-self-regard-by-toni-morrison/.

powell, john a. (n.d.) john. a. powell on “Bridging” with Conservative Arthus Brooks.  https://belonging.berkeley.edu/bridging-and-breaking/.

Uitti, Jacob. “The History of the Slam Dunk: From Outlawed Move to Beloved Highlight,” The Guardian, February 17, 2023

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Playing as a Unit: How to Win by Harnessing the Culture Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Michael Drake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.