Sunday, December 23, 2007

Gordon Gee's Bowtie and the Ties That Will Bind Them into Returning

Right now as I write and you read, one of your students considering whether or not to return to your school. Away from the place and noisy dorm or daily commute. With old friends from high school who go to other schools. In an extremely familiar bedroom. The bed that welcomed her every night. The mattress broken in to accept body shape just perfectly. Breakfast on the table. No assignments to do or skip. No quizzes other than old friends with only one question “what to do tonight?” The only test is “Do I want to go back to that place?”

And right now you have an opportunity to help provide an answer to that question and retain some students who might answer that question with a quiet “no”.

Stop for a second and think about images and feelings that unite the statements above. Familiarity. Comfort. Home. Friends. Attachment. All images of fitting in. Of belonging. .

This is a time when student’s determine if he or she “fits in” at your school. “Do I feel as if I have a place at the bar?” (That’s an allusion to Principle 1 of the15 Principles of Good Academic Customer Service.(For a copy, click here and request.)

Sure the students have been dealing with that all along but now, the deliberation intensifies. Has the student made friends or just acquaintances? Roomies or roommates? Where do I feel as if I fit in? Am I appreciated there? Wanted there?

That’s the key here. “Do I feel like people at my school want me there? Have they shown anything that indicates I am at least an valued or important person to them?”

Feeling Important - a key customer service concept.
Have you shown your students they are important to you? The actual goal is to make every student feel as if he or she is the most important person at the college. That no other student is as significant and they all are essential. This may indeed be one of the key concepts of success.

Okay. How do we do that? I will provide two ways. One longer term and the other immediate.

The longer term will build the sense of meaningful community at the school.

The second will, and I guarantee this, will save some students from deciding to quit or transfer during Holiday Break.

A Longer term Way of Building Students’ Sense of Importance
I used to wonder why Gordon Gee was worth over a million dollars a year to Vanderbilt and why Ohio State University was so thrilled he returned. It seemed to me (and actually still does) that no college president, EVEN ME (though I might be willing to consider it), is worth a million dollars a year. Not even $900,000. $800K. And keep going. It just seems excessive when others at the school are losing jobs to budget cuts and adjuncts are living in their cars. Are such high salaries really warranted, or earned? Sure it is a tough job. But it is the same tough job at more or less money. Money does not make the job any easier but it sure as hell does make some people feel as if they are worth all that money. As if they somehow are a campus treasure and should be treated as such. Others would do the job for less because they believe in the calling, president as a vocation. The others? President as Louis XIV. We read about them in the Chronicle and on-line even at places like Oral Roberts U where one would think there would be a higher calling than excessive expenditures.

Okay. President Gordon Gee. What he does is create community at the school and the community. He gets out and about the campus. Makes certain he is seen and contacted by students. He waves to students and others on campus and makes certain he is visible in the general community. And to be certain he is noticed, he has branded himself with a bow tie. Yes. A bow tie. He always wears a bow tie that he ties himself. And what’s more, he lets everyone know about the bow tie. (I used to wear bright, vivid ties that made people see them and comment on them and thus recognize me by the ties quite often. Never made that kind of money though.)

That is an important part of the bow tie. Not that Dr. Gee wears it but he makes sure everyone knows he wears it. That bow tie helps make him even more visible. When people see a bow tie-wearing man on the OSU campus, they almost always associate it with Gordon Gee. And when that man wearing the bow tie waves at you or smiles your way or says hello, you have been greeted by the President of the University. Even if it isn’t him sometimes but the effect is the same. (He could even set up some kind of bow tie squad of Gee-look-alikes and have them walk around wearing bow ties and waving. People would think he is everywhere!)

“The President waved at ME. I am important.”

“He’s out there among us. We must be important.”

Gee makes students, and others feel they are appreciated and noticed on campus from the top of the University. And if he cares, everyone else must….The whole university cares. And it is a very large one too. One that can, and must for many students, feel too large and impersonal. But a wave from that guy with the bow tie can make it seem small, cozy and personal. Gee has a way similar to Bill Clinton that makes whomever he is with feel or smiling at feel as if they are important. And that is key to retention. Making students, and all member of the campus community feel they are valued.=

Get Out of Your Office and Get on Campus
I am not saying you need to wear a bow tie. No, not necessarily. What I am saying is that to boost retention if you are a president, you need to be visible and known to students. Get out of the office and on campus. And what is true for the president is equally true for everyone else. Getting out of the office and saying hello to students should be a part of the job. Be out on campus, being seen, greeting students, saying hello and talking with the college community EVERYDAY AND EVERYWAY. Go to the cafeteria. Get a cup of coffee and join a group of students. Let them know who you are and simply ask them how it’s going or some such broad “I care” question. Pass out your business cards. Do what Dean Schaar did. Imagine what the campus atmosphere would be like if everyone in the school spent part of his or her day saying hello, talking to students and getting to know them and them you?

“But,” The president of the school (and others) says “they’ll call me and I’m busy. I won’t get my work done. I’ve got to figure out how to fix the budget for the rest of the year.” Two things here. Not much is more important than retaining students. Just ask schools in trouble or for that matter, what’s second term/semester enrollment look lie? Budget going to hold? Oh, attrition higher than projected? Catch any irony here anyone?

I will bet that any school that had its people out getting out and getting known will increase retention and reduce student/staff problems, stress and complaints. Anyone who wishes to take me up on this bet or learn how it can be done, click here and let me know. I’ll do what I can to help without any cost to you to help get it done as my Chrismachanukwansakah present to you.

Guaranteed Short Term Success
Obtain a list of all students who are on the cusp. (Born in the rising sign of anxiety and not sure about returning and the dropping out of school sign for all the astrologer types out there). Oh where to get the list?

Just go to your retention office….Don’t have one. Not good but you can email your retention officer and ask for…. No retention officer? Retention not an issue on your campus I guess. No drops? Alright, well then at least contact your student services office…Ahhhm downsized that a bit? Students not important on your campus? Then what the heck is?

Well, somehow get a list of students who are on the edge. Low grades. Late registration. No registration. Money not down for second semester. Advisors report they have been talking about leaving. And so on. Follow the instructions in the article Greatest Gift of All - Saving Enrollment. And then add to that.

For those students you couldn’t reach, send them a personal note. Use small engraved cards that one might use to invite someone to an affair. They can be obtained quickly at one of many office supply stores or you can even make them yourself. But the engraved, raised lettering of your name and title make for a more impressive impact.

All you need to handwrite inside is a short message such as

Missed you when I called. I do hope I will see you on campus nest semesters. It is students such as yourself that make this college what it is and give it and my work meaning. We depend on you. If I can help don’t hesitate to contact me. In fact, here is my direct email address. Hope to hear from you.
Or something hyperbolic like that. These statements work. They reach to emotion not intellect. It is emotion functioning at a limbic flee or fight level that makes the decision so appeal to it.

Students will respond. And when they show the card to their parents as most of them will if the parent didn’t already open it to see what was in it, the parents will become your allies in pushing the student to return. They will appreciate that you are intereste3d in their son or daughter. That is exactly what they wish to now right now. The card will also make the parents like you and the school whether you make close to a million or don’t even wear a bow tie.

And what’s more. You will be keeping a student on track to meet his or her goals. Plus you will feel better about what you do and the school. Just as writing this piece for you has snapped me out of my personal funk. That is an even greater set of rewards.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits; workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 413.219.6939

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