Jason W Osborne is a leader in higher education and a scholar in statistics and educational psychology. Jason has served as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at Miami University, Dean of Graduate Education at Clemson University, and as Chair of Counselling and Educational Psychology at the University of Louisville. He has led strategic initiatives aimed at improving student success, curricular offerings, career preparation, diversity and inclusion, community engagement, industry partnerships and donor engagement, and faculty recruiting, support, success, and positive impact.
As an accomplished scholar, Jason’s broadly applicable work has been cited over 36,000 times by scholars around the world and in many disciplines. These include statistics, business analytics, business evaluation, practical assessment, exploratory factor analysis, stereotype threat and instructional technology. He has been acknowledged as one of the top 2% of scholars in the US and worldwide by AD Scientific Index and has received awards acknowledging his accomplishments from several institutions. Jason W Osborne has established and led campus research centers and institutes, securing around $10M in extramural funding.
He is a student-focused teacher, having been recognized by his students with nominations for awards at multiple institutions. He is a third-degree black belt in Songahm Tae Kwon Do, proud father of three, and a believer that exercise and wellness empowers professional success. A former provost at Miami University (currently special assistant to the president), Jason W Osborne has also held higher education positions at North Carolina State University, Old Dominion University, the University of Oklahoma and Niagara County Community College. He is an Accredited Professional Statistician with the American Statistical Association.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
My parents were both first generation college graduates and we understood that our future possibilities were permanently improved by their accomplishments. They instilled a passion for teaching, learning and service. My career in higher education, most recently as Provost of Miami University, has been a journey of serving this noble mission of helping others like me create a better life for themselves and their families, of finding their passion and their contribution to our world.
As a faculty member, I worked to better understand the effects of negative stereotypes in achievement gaps. I am particularly proud that Miami University, a primarily white university, has received national recognition for work on reducing pervasive achievement gaps and graduates more students of color than almost any other university in Ohio of any size.
I know this will make many readers cringe, but I always loved statistics, which is the science of creating knowledge from data and using them to make a strategic plan. Figuring out how to help others use these tools more effectively helps us be more effective scholars and scientists. I have published extensively on how to better use these tools to create knowledge (especially within the campus college setting) because I find it a lot of fun.
Understanding that leadership within higher education matters a great deal, and can empower our hundreds and thousands of faculty members to be more effective in the lab and classroom, I believed I could serve the mission of higher education as a leader by supporting and empowering our faculty and staff to be their best. I had thought about this as early as my time studying at Buffalo Medical School. The University of Louisville gave me the opportunity to serve as department chair of a great, multidisciplinary department, which led Clemson University to offering me a deanship, which led Miami University to give me the honor of serving as Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost – the leader of that great faculty.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
There is no typical day for a leader in higher education, particularly during these turbulent and unpredictable times. Higher education helped build this great nation, but it is currently under attack from many directions- economic uncertainty, demographic changes, and cultural narratives that devalue the transformative contributions we make to the world. So for leaders, on any given day you might be working on strategic plan goals, trying to improve diversity and inclusion, making resource allocation decisions, investing in new ideas, talking with industry partners or government leaders, thinking about policy and systems, meeting with faculty, staff, alumni, or students. On occasional bad days, a day might include dealing with the things that come with leading a community of human beings – policy violations, illegal activity, safety emergencies, briefings from a national leader, and even deaths. But this shouldn’t undermine well deserved success.
With each day as Provost of Miami University bringing unpredictable events, one has to find opportunities to think creatively and strategically, to get routine work done, and to get out of the office to see all the good things happening around campus. While I often worked nights and weekends to find those quiet moments for catching up, but that is not sustainable over a long time. I found ten-minute blocks of time can be tremendously productive if you can focus intensely, and so I looked for those ten-minute blocks throughout the day to accomplish important things. I also found that during workouts I could free my mind to ponder topics and engage in problem solving, so I also viewed exercise as self-care but also as productive work time. In fact, many of my book and article ideas, and many of the ideas I brought to the Miami Faculty (and Clemson and Louisville) came to me during or following good workouts. There are also plenty of tools in this modern new era of digital apps that will allow you to block your time for productivity.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Ideas are the currency of higher education, and they are important, but they are not valuable unless you can effectively communicate them. The goal is to make a difference in the world- in the life of a student, a colleague, hiring that transformational professor, or for the good of society and human development. So at Miami, having a great team of diverse leaders around me was crucial. We built trust which allowed us to debate and challenge ideas openly, which as we know can lead to better outcomes than if nobody challenges the “boss.” In universities like Miami, we also have extensive shared governance (where faculty, staff, and students share in decision-making). So, bringing ideas to life at Miami typically meant workshopping ideas through various committees and getting broad consultation. Many outside higher education criticize this as inefficient and slow moving, but in my experience speed is not always the goal- getting the right outcome that moves the institution forward is the goal, and in large complex institutions, broad consultation helps you understand how a potential action could impact different stakeholder groups, cause unintended consequences, or how it might be improved. So while it looks inefficient compared to a corporate environment where one person dictates all decisions, I would argue that broad consultation and shared governance brings the best ideas to life most efficiently for the benefit of the institution.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I am really excited to see many institutions focusing on student success than ever before. It may seem odd to say that educational institutions didn’t always focus on student success- and I don’t mean we didn’t care, but rather that we assumed students had the tools to be successful without a lot of intervention. What we have learned in recent years is that even high-performing students sometimes need a little help (or the right professor), and they sometimes don’t know how to ask or even have awareness that there is an issue. More institutions are actively watching for early signs of distress or academic challenges and intervening before the situation becomes dire (saw a great example recently in a farmer school recently). And institutions are becoming more creative and interdisciplinary. In the past, “help” might look like tutoring sessions being offered for classes before exams. But at places like Miami, we have a “One Stop” where we pull together academic support and advising, wellness and mental health resources (which is especially key in fall semester), financial support and resources, career development, and many other resources. Just the ability to sit down with a student in an office and talk them through navigating the next few weeks ahead of them. This One Stop center is staffed by people who are empowered to help students and who work collaboratively in teams across different faculty members to help match students’ needs with resources.
This matters because millions of students have started a degree but never finished- meaning they invested time and money, often sacrificing greatly, without receiving the benefits of a completed college degree. So the more we help students find success, the more we meet our mission in higher education, and the more families and communities benefit. Yet even today, in the 21st century, in the affluent USA, only about 35% of adults have a completed bachelor’s degree, and only 12% have a graduate/professional degree while about 21% of job postings require a graduate/professional degree. What excites me is thinking about how to serve these needs more effectively, so that more families can benefit like my family has. Retention of students and meaningfully engaging with them and caring for their personal and professional challenges when enrolled needs to be front and center in academic affairs.
So along these lines, one thing that drew me to Miami University was that we have both an exceptional “traditional” residential campus experience in Oxford, but also campuses in other towns that provided access to high-quality degrees, both online and in person, to anyone who wanted to enrol. I am excited to see more universities reaching out to underserved communities, like Miami has done for decades, to realise the true promise of higher education.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Higher education is an environment of continual invention, creative problem solving, asking questions, and trying new things. In essence, each college or university is a startup incubator- but our product portfolio is not just patents or new products, but also knowledge, basic science and of course, students who are change agents for the future. It’s tough not to be a productive entrepreneur in such a stimulating environment where you are continually surrounded by a diverse team of brilliant and committed individuals. For me, it’s about having a great team around me who are empowered to challenge me, to bring ideas to me, to identify new challenges we need to solve, and who are looking at emerging trends (or what the future holds) at other good institutions to form a very bright future. It’s a team sport, and I have been fortunate to have great teammates helping me be productive and entrepreneurial.
What advice would you give your younger self?
That is a great question. There are so many things I wish I could go back and do over. I wish I could have been kinder to myself, and probably more supportive of those around me. To understand that “failure” is often progress. I wish I could have slowed down and taken more time with my family when my kids were young. I wish I could have travelled internationally and immersed myself in different cultures. But overall, I think my younger self did pretty well. He set me on a path of success beyond anything I ever dared to dream—the odds of getting a tenure track faculty position, getting promoted, getting a book published, moving into leadership roles… well, that younger self saw the long odds yet never lost faith, and never imagined he might end up as Provost at a great place like Miami University.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
My joke (which happens to be true) is that the best way to end a conversation is to tell them you are a statistician. It’s true that statistics is really fun because we get to take big, messy data sets and create knowledge that helps people. So who wouldn’t find that fun?
The non-joke answer is that leaders in education are selfless servants who wake up every day thinking about how to support those around them, often sacrificing their own self-interest for the good of others. As Provost at Miami University, I saw leaders in all areas of the institution and at all levels working tirelessly, around the clock, through good times and challenging times, to make sure our people were taken care of and our mission is met. Yet I am saddened to see that many faculty, students, parents, and government leaders see these selfless leaders otherwise.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I have a list of values and strategic goals on my desktop, and whenever I am trying to make a decision, I pull them out and read them, making sure they are always primary in everything I do and doing a practical assessment of where I am at. It sounds trite, but if you lose sight of the reasons why you do what you do, then you will not achieve your goals. It always helps to plan out the next few weeks. For example, during the early days of the pandemic, when we saw the possibility that our budget could lose hundreds of millions of dollars, it would have been easy to panic and cut services, programs, even colleges (as some institutions did). Yet our CFO, the guy who would have to fix the budgetary problems, allowed us to remain focused on Miami University’s mission and values, which prioritizes providing the best education and student experience.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Our business is educating students, serving our communities, and creating knowledge. We have to have the degree programs and facilities that students find exciting, that parents are willing to pay for, and that produces graduates that employers are eager to hire. So my strategy (including the one adopted at Miami Faculty) has been to use data to identify new degree programs or credentials that are in high demand by students and employers, and work with faculty, department chairs, and deans to refresh our portfolio- our “product mix.” At Miami University and Clemson University, this strategy has led to dramatic increases in applications, revenue that supports the university mission, and better support of workforce needs- which helps the community.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Early in my career, I was leading several projects that were government funded to evaluate educational initiatives. I found out someone above me was editing my reports to make them more palatable to certain politicians – a huge ethical violation and betrayal of the goal of their funding our work (from any faculty member), which was to identify effective educational interventions. I didn’t know how to handle it and so I spoke out. I trusted someone in power I shouldn’t have, and they colluded with the person who had been altering my work to retaliate. They leveraged the machinery of the institution to make my life miserable for several years, and nobody in a position of power would believe me or intervene. Fortunately, although they tried to harm me in many ways, I had a good publication and teaching record, and at some point, I decided that I needed to move to another institution so I went on the job market and had the good fortune to quickly find another faculty position. It was disruptive to my family but getting out of that toxic environment was so liberating that I thrived and was very productive, which then led to even better things personally and professionally.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Universities present tremendous opportunities for partnerships and at least in the US, this opportunity is largely untapped. If you could outfit a fully realized, privately funded modern product development and fabrication facility near any research university, especially those not embedded in urban areas, partnering with the brilliant faculty, staff, and students at that university to support various stages of product design, I have no doubt that you would realize tremendous ROI and boldly creative proposals while also supporting the institution mission. Some of the most elite research universities might have something like this, the vast majority do not have the type of facilities one might expect.
Along those lines, universities have great facilities that are often underutilized during certain times of the year. If you had a way to bring events to these great facilities, it would be a win for the events, for the institution, and of course for the company that brings the two together.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I am going to cheat a little on this question. I bought a mattress pad in June that circulates temperature-controlled water through micro-tubes to regulate temperature while you sleep. It was a bit more than $100 but the ability to control your environment while sleeping is -to me- priceless. I sleep great, wake up refreshed (it makes for a smooth transition down to make the early morning coffee), and I cannot recommend anything more than investing in your personal health and wellness.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Honestly, Dropbox is something I have used for years, and it both provides peace of mind (for those of us who grew up worrying about whether our floppy disk or hard disk would crash, backing up your work is a constant concern). Now I can get my documents almost anywhere – on almost any device. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a huge difference. A close runner up is my password management software which allows me to have randomized, secure passwords that are different for every login, and which syncs across my devices so I can access my services easily while feeling more secure. I guess for me, security allows me to be productive (especially in this new era).
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Mort, by Terry Pratchett. I read for fun every evening as a way to relax and decompress (especially in the June summer nights), and this is a great book to enter his Diskworld, a series of over forty books. Pratchett’s Diskworld is a brilliant parody of almost everything, with compelling plots and relatable characters filled with humanity, and human development, particularly those who are not entirely human. In his keenly observed parody and humor, we find truth and wisdom, and more than a few laugh-out-loud moments.
What is your favorite quote?
“You’ve gotta work up those hills, gentlemen!” My high school cross-country coach would drop us at the foot of a steep hill, and we would run three miles up to the summit, often passing the bus halfway up with oil blown over the windshield (never a heartening moment). While he meant this literally – that we needed to be able to run fast up steep hills – he also taught us that we have to work up life’s hills, and he taught us that perseverance is tremendously valuable for both personal and professional challenges. Everyone in life can adopt this mantra – from a shop floor assistant to a national leader. I credit most of my professional success to this lesson, and adopted this manta as early as graduate school. I also like the quote, “the rest is subject to change without notice” which was often said by American Irish author Anne McCaffrey.
• Education is the best investment you can make in yourself and your family
• Perseverance wins over talent almost every time
• Most of us are trying to do the right thing most of the time
• A society that stops investing in education and the arts is already in decline
• A fine, barrel aged stout and a good novel is a great way to end the day.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.