Extreme Makeover: N.C.'s Black Colleges Reinvent Themselves
This is reprinted with permission from the News & Observer of Raleigh.
If you work at N.C. Central University in Durham and aren't interested in improving your telephone skills, you may want to think about finding a new job.
That's the message from the chancellor's office, where new NCCU leader Charlie Nelms is ratcheting up his expectations for the 1,500 people who work at the historically black public university in Durham.
Laziness is out; courtesy is in. When the phone rings, answer it. Or else.
"It ensures your ability to keep your job," Nelms said recently of his new customer service mandate. "There may be people who prefer not to do something. But a condition of one's employment is to represent [the university] in the best, most positive way you can."
As universities expand enrollment and the competition for top scholars becomes increasingly fierce, some historically black institutions have found themselves in a dogfight for students they haven't always had to work so hard to impress. In some places, that competition has exposed service and ethical deficiencies that administrators are moving aggressively to correct.
When Nelms arrived at NCCU last summer, he soon realized that the campus had some problems. Phone messages went unreturned. Simple questions went unanswered. And frustrated students had low expectations of their university.
Nelms quickly launched his "Quality Service" plan, a series of mandatory employee training courses aimed at changing the university's collective attitude, behavior and culture. Such a formal undertaking is rare within academe in North Carolina, though two of the state system's other historically black universities have, in the past two years, provided ethics training for employees in the wake of embarrassing financial crises.
At least one state has made better service a formal priority. Two years ago, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue mandated a sweeping customer service initiative for all state departments, including the 35 public universities. Each campus has at least one ongoing service-related project.
At Savannah State, a historically black institution, for instance, employees are working to improve the registration process. At Valdosta State, they're tackling telephone etiquette. And at the University of Georgia, faculty and staff are trying to link online registration more closely with the purchase of textbooks.
The push for better service dovetails with a renaissance for North Carolina's historically black colleges and universities that are public institutions.
Charged by the University of North Carolina system to increase enrollment, administrators at NCCU, N.C. A&T University, Fayetteville State University and other HBCUs have spent the past seven years in a recruiting frenzy, putting up billboards on major highways and generally invading one another's territories in pursuit of students.
All the while, the game was changing. HBCUs were once the default destination for promising black high school students; that is no longer necessarily the case.
"HBCUs like Fayetteville State University and NCCU are losing the niche they've had historically," said John Mattox, a physics and astronomy professor at Fayetteville State. "Campuses are wide open for the best black students. It used to be that black students preferred the HBCUs because they didn't feel welcome at white institutions. But that's no longer true. So we have to reinvent ourselves."
This reinvention is taking varied forms. At NCCU, it is the proactive effort of a new chancellor responding to a clear message from students sick of professors who don't respond to their calls and e-mail messages, and staff members who don't make it easy to, for example, pay a bill or get a copy of a transcript.
Corey Dinkins, a senior from Rocky Mount, got a taste recently while waiting in a long line to register for class. After an hour, he realized that the staff member working his line had gone to lunch and hadn't said anything.
"They just didn't care," he said. "I've invested so much time and money into this university, and all you get is bad vibes."
Over the past two years, N.C. A&T and Fayetteville State have each suffered financial foul-ups. Each time, leaders turned to ethics expert Vic Hackley for help. Hackley, former head of the state's community college system, did a stint as A&T's interim chancellor in 2006-07, when he uncovered financial fraud and abuse, and initiated a series of ethics seminars for students and employees.
"It went over extremely well here," said Clarence Page, a residence hall administrator who last year headed A&T's staff senate. "Dr. Hackley made it very clear our focus was on students."
Hackley is now minding the shop at Fayetteville State on an interim basis, brought in on the heels of a disastrous financial audit. There, too, Hackley has started ethics workshops for students, faculty and staff.
Mattox, chairman of Fayetteville State's faculty senate, said FSU students are frustrated with the level of service they receive. An infusion of top-down ethics alone won't solve that problem, he said, but it won't hurt. Mattox thinks an institution's collective attitude can change through effective leadership.
"I don't think you could get every single employee to march in lockstep, but it would be appropriate to examine what might be done to inspire a higher level of service to our students," he said. "It could create a cultural revolution in thinking, where the focus is on service."
Jon Boykin is a project manager at N.C. State University and chairman of the UNC Staff Assembly, which represents workers at all UNC campuses. He predicted Nelms' mandate in Durham may meet with some resistance.
"I am confident that there will be employees who perceive their performance as extremely good and rightly so," Boykin said. "There will be others who will take offense if they have not previously been confronted with the issue."
But, he said, Nelms has had success elsewhere in placing a strong emphasis on serving students and may be able to sell NCCU on the idea, too. The employee training begins this month.
Time and Tenacity
Nelms acknowledges that changing a culture is like turning a battleship -- it can take time. But he is certain the program will work as long as it has teeth. To that end, he has made the training mandatory and will survey students to evaluate its success. In addition, service will become part of everyone's job description and performance review, so the only incentive staff members will need to buy into the program, Nelms said, is the desire to hold on to their jobs.
'Changing a Culture'
Howard Aldrich, a UNC-Chapel Hill sociologist who studies the culture and operations of large corporations, said incentives often prompt employees to change their behavior. But there shouldn't be direct rewards for good work, he cautioned.
"People end up doing things only because they get rewarded for it," Aldrich said. "You want to change a culture."
NCCU's faculty and staff appear to recognize the service deficiencies. In a recent employee survey, 38 percent rated the quality of service as "fair," while 8.2 percent said it was "very good," and 1.3 percent, "excellent." Nearly 90 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the quality of service needs improvement. Roughly one-third of NCCU's 1,500 employees responded to the survey.
Still, administrators who are pushing the student-as-customer concept are also dancing around that phrasing, knowing that many in academe recoil at the notion of students as paying clients. Nelms' program is called "Quality Service" because the "customer" terminology rubs some the wrong way. At Valdosta State University in Georgia, a service initiative born in 2000 also intentionally stayed away from the "customer" wording, said Rebecca Murphy, assistant director for human resources there.
"That whole slogan -- 'the customer is always right' -- provides some challenges," she said. At her university, the program's cheery title is "Partners For Campus Excellence."
Ann Lemmon, the UNC system's associate vice president for human resources, said that even if all employees adopt a new, positive attitude in their dealings with students, there may be times when that positivity gets lost, she said.
"If you're the person who tells a student they didn't get a loan, they won't be happy no matter how nice you are," Lemmon said.
Faculty say students who demand better service bear some responsibility as well for being courteous and respectful. Tamara Moore, a NCCU senior from Charlotte, admits some students come in with bad attitudes. They will inevitably clash at some time with a professor or staff member, she said.
"A lot of times, [students] don't want to wait," she said. "They shouldn't wait until the last minute to do things."
Bernice Johnson, who works in academic services at NCCU, said her colleagues may embrace the new philosophy in concept, if not necessarily in practice. And if that means continuing to push students out of their comfort zones, so be it, she said.
"We understand the university is a business," she said. "But we also know we have to keep it as the academy and make sure students become independent thinkers who do things on their own."
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