Thursday, March 15, 2012


A Small Victory

As an administrator, some victories are so subtle that you’d miss them from the outside.  This week we had one of those, and I just want to write it down before I forget it.

A student complained in a vitriolic email that she was first given contradictory information, and then treated condescendingly, when she tried to enroll in an online program.  Her email listed all of the people to whom she spoke, her interpretations of what they had said to her, and some not-very-nice things about the college in general.  Naturally, she cc’ed everybody she could.

Here’s where the victory happened.

The first person to whom the student spoke tracked down the second one and compared notes.  Then, she tracked down the third and did the same.  All three got together, and quickly realized that they had interpreted the student’s question differently.  The first one thought the student was asking about a particular class -- call it basketweaving 101.  The second thought the student was asking about an entire degree program -- every course in the basketweaving major.  We offer the former online but not the latter, so the answers the student received were different.  By the time she got to the third person, the student was flustered and confused enough that he couldn’t make sense of her question one way or the other.

Once the source of the error was clear, the first and second folks who talked to her reached out to her, explained and apologized for the mistake, and offered to help her in any way they could.  Between each other, they decided that if a student came in quoting one to the other in a way that didn’t seem to make sense, they’d call each other to verify before addressing the claim.


That may sound boring and pedantic from the outside, but it made my day.  Here’s why.

In a less functional culture, one or more of the following would have happened.

- The second employee would have blamed the first employee for spreading misinformation.  Attributed motives would have included incompetence, sabotage, and/or indifference.

- The first employee would have blamed the second in all the same ways.

- The third would have complained about both of the first two, and possibly tried a quick fix to make the complaining student go away.  The quick fix would set a precedent that would come back to bite everyone later.

- At least one of the employees would have claimed amnesia.  Alternately, at least one of them would have attributed the later questioning to discriminatory motives.

- At least one of the employees would have complained to the other one’s boss.

- Alternately, the student would have been entirely forgotten in the flurry of charges and countercharges.

Instead, the employees assumed mutual goodwill and competence, patiently tracked down the misunderstanding, worked together to help the student, observed all the relevant rules and policies, patched a hole in our systems, and got back to the student in a constructive and professional way.

It wasn’t glamorous.  It won’t be celebrated in song and feasting.  But it was professional, civil, respectful, and practical.  It would not have happened if the culture still punished mistakes and rewarded blame-shifting.  It was an unforced sign of positive culture change really taking root.

It was a small win, but it was a big one, too.  I’ll take it.

Well, maybe it should be celebrated with song and feasting! Take the whole group of them out to dinner on Karaoke night.

Or have your kids sing your praises over a healthy meal at home.
I get it and don't think it's a small victory at all. The implications for the institutional culture are pretty big.
Go on yer'sel big man!
Dude, you just described my whole job!!! I am so happy for you and your functional organization. May it happen for me as well. :-)
What's nice is that at least on a small scale, my office does exactly that. My staff know that my rule is the do the right thing by your colleagues, your students and yourself. No passing the buck. And we always check with each other.
Unfortunately the negative atmosphere that you described is my college (MA CC) .

The administration prefers blame, punish and CYA as mode of operation. Which leads to a negative atmosphere.

I don't know how it can change until the negative administrators step down. (None get fired here - ever).
DD, please, come be my dean. I don't know what my dean actually does all day long but I'm pretty sure it doesn't include thinking about how to make - or at least notice - positive changes to our toxic institutional culture.

And kudos to you and your staff, for having the presence of mind and respect for each other necessary for this little vignette to have transpired. Bring your staff with you, when you come to be my dean!
Nice work! Please keep reporting these small victories, too. It's a hard life, trying to do good work, keep a sense of perspective, and not get discouraged.
Wow! You've got something special at your college: staff who regard students as human beings worthy of empathy.

That seems to be more likely to happen in the community colleges than in the vast state universities where I started what passes for my career. At the Great Desert University, the person's complaint would have been blown off. She would not have known "condescending" until she saw the results of her bellyaching campaign. No one would have gone far enough to figure out what happened to her and how to fix it, because at large schools like GDU the undergraduate student is absolutely the lowest on the proverbial totem pole.

Although my students at Heavenly Gardens CC occasionally complain about service from the registrar's and the financial aid offices, by and large with some persistence they get effective care. And in my own fly-on-the-wall observation, staff in departmental offices and in most college offices treat students like human beings worthy of common courtesy.

Congratulations on being part of an administration that fosters a healthy, user-friendly organizational culture.
I wrote earlier, "Unfortunately the negative atmosphere that you described is my college (MA CC) .

The administration prefers blame, punish and CYA as mode of operation. Which leads to a negative atmosphere.

I don't know how it can change until the negative administrators step down. (None get fired here - ever)."

Maybe there is hope. Just heard our CAO is taking "a year off". The grapevine says she is fired with saving face.
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