Friday, July 6, 2012

(Re-building the Intangible

As I mentioned in the last newsletter, I recently spent a week in New Haven, CT at the Global Conference of Chaplains in Higher Education.  Held every four years, this conference brings together Chaplains, Deans of Chapels, Campus Ministers, etc. from around the world.  I ate with Swedes, Germans, Australians, Muslims, Jews and Catholics.  We heard from amazing speakers-all from the US, and we had the opportunity to attend some great workshops and roundtables (all of the ones I attended were led by non-Americans!).
      One of the keynote speakers was the Rev. Gail Bowman, who just last month left her position as Chaplain at Dillard University (in New Orleans) to assume a similar role at Berea College (in Kentucky).  Gail was at Dillard when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast almost seven years ago.  The photo above is of the campus after the storm and broken dikes.  The campus, of course, was evacuated, and the school was closed for quite some months.  When it did reopen, it was in the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel.
      She told us stories of the evacuation and relocations of students, and showed slide after slide of the rebuilding process.  Several of the things she said have stuck with me (and I may return to some of the other of those quotes in weeks to come); one in particular haunted me:  "When buildings get destroyed, attention goes to the buildings, because they're tangible."*  As I recall, this was in the context of the trauma the students had experienced, but how little attention (comparatively) was paid to "rebuilding" them--those who, too, had lost so much.  It made me wonder about the University of Denver's Emergency Management Plan: what provisions are there in that document for caring for the people at the University in the wake of a major disaster interrupting the "business of higher education" here in Denver.  (There may, indeed, be provisions, but, to satisfy my curiosity, I plan on taking a look!)
      Coincidentally, a TED talk appeared in my iTunes queue prior to my return to Denver; I watched it on my smartphone on the plane.  It was titled "Measuring What Counts" with Chip Conley (who runs a numbers of hotels in San Francisco).**  Conley, too, was talking about tangibles and intangibles.  He pointed out that we most often understand success by measuring only the tangibles, the things that hit the bottom line.  Yet the backstory to his talk was that the success of one of his hotels was due to an intangible: the personal care one employee took to ensure that all of the guests were made to feel at home.
      Conley challenged his audience to develop a new metric, a new way of counting what really counts (he pointed to Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness" index).  That seemed, to me, be a very similar challenge implied by Gail Bowman:  to place at least as much emphasis on (re-)building the intangibles-the members of the Dillard community-as the buildings that house them.  And the request that Conley left with his audience mirrors the implicit request of Gail Bowman's:

So what the world needs now, in my opinion, is business leaders and political leaders who know what to count. We count numbers. We count on people. What really counts is when we actually use our numbers to truly take into account our people. I learned that from a maid in a motel and a king of a country. What can you start counting today? What one thing can you start counting today that actually would be meaningful in your life, whether it's your work life or your business life?***

Good question!


*That may not be a precise quote, as I was scribbling madly.  A video of the whole speech can be found at

**That talk can be found here:

***See the last paragraph of the transcript, found at the link above.


  1. Chaplain Gary,

    Great post! It reminds me of this quote that I heard Einstein had posted on the wall in his office (not sure if it was one of his original quotes, but it certainly illustrates the points you bring up in your post:

    "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

    Thanks for all of your good work at DU and beyond,

    Marianne Mersereau

  2. Marianne,

    Thanks for the response. Chris Conley, in his TED talk referenced the Einstein "quote" as well!