Friday, June 06, 2014

Getting Recalcitrant Faculty On Board with Customer Service

At the NISOD Conference in Austin, TX last week (which was a very good conference by the way) a Vice President for Academic Affairs asked me how she
can get recalcitrant faculty on board to treat students better with customer service. She told me of faculty who began their classes for a semester with the announcement that “I am tough so expect to fail unless you work extremely hard”. And then they went on to prove that statement by being excessively tough and unhelpful to students. She mentioned other faculty who just did not seem to care about students and always put themselves first.

These are problems of course but ones that can either be solved or relegated. A large part of the problem with faculty who treat students poorly is that they may just reflect a culture in which students  are not as important as they should be. I have worked with some colleges and universities where the message was that the most important people are faculty and administrators. This of course comes out of the academic caste system which holds sway at too many campuses in which faculty and administrators are Brahmin and everyone else is second to lower caste including students.

If the administration does not send out a message that students are the most important people on campus, then there will certainly be faculty who will agree. This is most prevalent in research universities in which publication and grants are the most important objectives. Student success takes a backseat to them. This situation tells faculty that they are most significant and that not treating students well is less important than a new book or grant. This again is an administration problem since it is the group that sends out the messages of what is important.

If a faculty member who is a horrid teacher but gets grants is honored,  that sends a very powerful and negative message. If a great teacher who spends most of her time making sure students do well does not get tenure  that is another horrible message; one which is too common by the way.
If the required courses such as composition are taught by adjuncts, what is the school telling students about the value of these courses? Well, that they are below the level of tenured faculty who have better things to do and teach.
If office hours are not really required and checked to see if they are held or if a note on an office door tells students that “they really better have a good reason to interrupt my work” that we found at a university is allowed to stay there, these send out messages that it is okay to not treat students well.
If students are allowed to be treated rudely in offices like the bursar or registration which we find at some schools when it is common knowledge that certain offices and specific people treat them very badly, that is another message. 

Or if administrators are allowed to be “too busy to see students”.  
Or a sign on a door to a nursing office tells students they are not allowed to enter the office area without specific permission from a faculty member as we found at a college recently... Well, I am sure by now that you get the picture.
So it is a cultural change that needs to take place as spoken about in earlier articles.  For example, when I spoke with the provost who asked the question to begin with, I wondered if the other faculty were bothered by the behavior of “the few”?  I also asked if the department chair was aware of the behavior or ever monitored drop numbers and grades?

She told me that many faculty were bothered. This is something I hear in many schools when we work with them to improve service. Faculty do not like it when a colleague treats students poorly or do they really? Do they empathize with students or just sympathize? Empathy is Jenni’s homemade ice cream while sympathy is a store’s low price generic brand; a real difference in depth and quality. If the faculty really cared they would realize that colleagues that treaty students poorly are a direct reflection on them and their professionalism. They might even do something like talk to their bullying colleague. If not it is a culture that says students are not important enough to say something.

And if the faculty are afraid to say something then at least the department chair should. That is his job after all. Doing what is best for the school, the students and supervising faculty.  If nothing else, when evaluations take place, this is a time that notes can be made. And I do not mean that one has to do an evaluation formally. A conversation might have effects. Accountability is a very important pressure after all.

When I was a dean, we had a faculty member teaching English composition. His classes started with twenty-five students but always ended up with less than fifteen and some of these students did not pass.  Why? Because he announced that he was tough. That most students would not get a good grade and many would fail. He would then go on to prove how smart he was and how bad the students were. He also was quite cold to students and not always available for extra help. 

I sat down with him and showed him the statistic’s he had in enrollment and that of the department. He protested that his colleagues were just “pussies who are afraid to tell students they can’t write and that they don’t belong in college’. I disagreed. I then used a clause in the faculty union contract that stated the college could assign a faculty member to courses and even to workshops to improve skills. So I assigned him to take three courses in educational philosophy, educational psychology and classroom skills at another university in lieu of three courses he was to teach. I told him that he would be taking these courses until he understood that his bullying and maltreatment approach to teaching was not acceptable.  

When it was time to evaluate the department chair who was aware of the problem but did nothing, I noted that he was not attending to all of his job when he allowed faculty to berate or intimidate students.  He was not happy but I wasn’t either and the students certainly were not. He worked with HR to find out more about evaluation and supervision of faculty and staff.

The end result was that the teacher who took the courses came back to the classroom as a changed person. He was not perfect but he had learned what was expected and that was not easy grading but proper behavior toward students. His retention numbers ended up in line with other  faculty. And what was equally important, there were other faculty who thought treating students poorly was okay who quickly saw it was not. They noted very quickly that we would take steps to correct poor service behavior and they learned to treaty students better.

This was the beginning of a cultural change at the college. It became a keystone moment in which we made our values known and let it be recognized that we would do what we needed to support these cultural values. The culture controls our behaviors and the desire to be part of the culture can be a powerful one. That is not to say that every faculty member is going to come over to the bright side but many more will if the culture places value on appropriate service to students. So to change the faculty you don’t want behaving poorly, change the culture to create pressure on them to conform to cultural norms, folkways and a new tradition of students first.

As for what we do in our work with a college or university to get faculty on board with customer service, we often start by checking out the culture when we do a campus customer service and retention audit to see if it is one conducive to the objectives of appropriate service to students. We study both the  overt cultural issues and well as the meta issues. We often find that one source of the problem is mixed messages from the administration coupled with weak communication of expectations. This is often a performance and accountability problem. Too many schools do not hold people accountable, especially administrators, for generating a positive, service-oriented culture. So we end up working with the school to develop change the culture and create an accountability system that will stress good academic customer service throughout the institution at all levels. We also work with schools to develop forums for communication of these values. Too often in most schools the situation is like the college mission; printed on posters and business cards but otherwise ignored. If you want people to value something, it is important to show its value in behavior and enforce it.

We also let faculty know what we mean by academic customer service. Once they realize we do not mean coddling students or giving out high grades (which many do anyhow) they are willing to listen. Not all of them but most or at least enough to start shifting the culture. We explain that what we are asking them to do is to treat students with value, integrity and recognizing that their success is the most important part of their classroom work.  

We also show them in direct dollars how much money the institution and thus they are losing from poor service that causes student dissatisfaction and attrition. We show than that the school is likely losing millions of dollars that could go into release time, travel funds, new equipment, clerical help and other benefits to the faculty.  Often this common cents (yes I used the right word) approach makes many faculty become more aware of the direct value of treating students well and teaching at the highest level possible.
We also provide coaching for individuals to help them grow into the people they and the school would like them to be. Too often people simply do not realize how they are behaving and do not see that what they are doing might not be as good for them as another behavior might. Coaching can help bring these people along to reach their fuller potential.

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A New Book on Collegiate Customer Service

From Admissions to Graduation: Achieving Growth through Academic Customer Service

 by Dr. Neal Raisman, the leading expert on collegiate customer service and author of three best-selling books on the topic

From Admission to Graduation is available through the Administrator's Bookshelf

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the concept of being committed to student outcomes. But I question some of the tactics. Basically the old-school prof was simply forced to curve his class. That could have been achieved without sending him to outside classes which cost money and takes him away from the job. I also think that "customer" is offensive to a lot of folks just because it implies a Walmart purchase relationship. One of my colleagues uses "client" instead of customer because it implies a deeper relationship.

The best part of this article was the discussion of culture as the root of most of the problems of poor service. This is totally true. Universities administrators only care about research. The message is clear -- teaching doesn't count. That's what is the root of poor service.