Few poems or fables seem to describe higher ed dysfunction better than “Blind Men and the Elephant,” best known via John Godfrey Saxe’s 19th-century translation of a story from the Indian subcontinent about intolerance. Yet the tale in which six sightless men encounter different parts of the pachyderm and make assumptions about what it is (a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope) also aptly describes one of the biggest elephants in the room hurting higher ed customer service.
Around the time Saxe was penning poems (and even stopping in Oswego long enough to marvel over the public library being built), educators like Edward Austin Sheldon were looking to fix education via radical methods that fused ideas based in science, experimentation and hands-on learning. In founding the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School in 1861 (the forerunner of SUNY Oswego), Sheldon saw transmitting the best techniques and content as the key to success — training teachers even as they took active roles leading classrooms of young students in the then-booming city of Oswego. The passing of knowledge was active on-the-job work that aimed for a seamless experience. Of course, he didn’t have big admissions, student affairs, alumni relations or other staffs … in part because the first training school class only had nine students, who took their pedagogy lessons in a cloakroom.
But the development of specialty roles and the profusion of offices didn’t occur until much later in the 20th century. I’ve mentioned before the remembrances of Oswego legend Jimmy Moreland, who passed away in 1950. Jimmy — and that’s what he asked students to call him even in the more formal time — was a man of many talents for the school:
He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community. … Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.
Flash forward 60+ years, and I cringe at the runaround students receive today — passed from one office to another when no one has an answer or because another office needs to approve something that should be common sense. Of course, colleges and their populations are much bigger, regulations more complex, services required and requested more extensive, technology constantly evolving and structures so different than the 1950s or the 1860s.
But if different offices can’t find a way to work together to help students, we’re not doing our jobs. Period. An army of specialists who can do one or two tasks but cannot help a student with the big picture — of college, and of life — does students a disservice. Higher ed is not an assembly line; it should be more like a community barn-raising where everybody does whatever necessary for success. The Admissions Office isn’t the English department which isn’t Career Services … I get that. But when a student has to run several obstacle courses just to register, pay their bill and deal with the hurdles we throw up as organizations — and anyone can only help with one piece of the puzzle — then a bigger army really isn’t better.
Moreover, do employees think of themselves as supplying customer service or just another cog in the machine? This is a management issue and an attitude more than a staffing issue. If a freshman at your college has a bad experience, rest assured hundreds of other colleges would happily take her on as a customer. Portability is an increasingly popular feature of the college experience — especially with educational disruptions where students can learn anytime, anywhere from any institution — so for any college to think they are the entity in the control, as opposed to students controlling their own destinies in increasing ways, is an arrogant and archaic attitude.
Another problem is see is in the array of software “solutions” students have to conquer like levels on a video game. Colleges use an array of “solutions” to create separate communities or systems for potential students, freshmen, registration and academic progress, student organizations, internships, career plans, alumni activities and myriad other pieces. With the number of software programs they’re asked to learn, accounts they’re asked to create and communities they’re impelled to join, it’s like we make them change planes seven times to get from Syracuse to Schenectady. All these “solutions” tackle various specialties and tasks, some better than others, but it’s miles away from even approaching a seamless, customer-friendly system.
The answers don’t need to be rocket science: Cross-training more employees. Collaborating. Communicating. Solutions (true solutions, not software “solutions”) could offer many benefits. If offices get together to create that online community or install that software package that solves problems across many areas, functions and student tasks — instead of everybody running out to buy their own niche “solution” — not only will they save money and increase efficiency, but they can provide a better student experience.
But more than anything, it’s a mindset. An attitude. A willingness to work with others to truly put students first. Jimmy Moreland figured out how to do that more than 60 years ago without consultants, vendor pitches or sophisticated software. What I wrote after reading about his amazing life speaks toward how his positive, people-based attitude transcended the system we’ve set up in the decades since, yet could guide us in our future plans:
I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.
You wonder indeed how we’ve made something simple as good customer service so complex. We can’t see the elephant in the room unless we think as a team.