Groundhog Day again? Really?

I love higher education. But like any relationship, what originally attracts and enchants can later be irritating and disappointing.

When I talk (and tweet) with colleagues across the country about making a living on a college campus, we agree about the benefits. Besides the educational mission, we love the flexibility, the chance to be creative and the opportunity to connect with smart people. Similarly, what drives us nuts about higher-ed is also consistently articulated. The decentralized authority that make us yearn for top-down, let’s-make-it-happen decisions is the backside of the creativity and flexibility we enjoy. And, those really smart people we like to have around bring conflicting albeit well-supported ideas about how things should be done, and the resulting mind-numbing committee meetings where all opinions can be heard equally.

Frustrated by a lack of progress?

Close your eyes and re-experience the meetings I’m talking about—same topic again this week, same concerns as last month, same individuals stonewalling change, same missing person who has to be there before you can finalize anything, same decision-less adjournment. How to cope? With those I’m closest to at William & Mary, the coping phrase is Groundhog Day. The first words we utter after leaving said meeting? The refrain when we are copied on the same email exchange that happened last year this time? “It’s Groundhog Day again.” We chuckle, the frustration subsides a bit, we move on.

What I hear most frequently when catching up with others who work at a college or university is concern about 1) how difficult it is to get anything done and 2) the fact that nobody can make a decision. I submit that if your discipline is communications, web, marketing, or design, it gets worse. Governance for certain aspects of campus life is more clearly defined. Everybody knows that curriculum is the purview of the faculty. Most agree that the registrar should maintain academic records and issue transcripts. But the practice of “higher-ed web,” everybody gets a piece of that, right? Deference to the communication professionals is less typical because everyone thinks they are experts when it comes to the web. You get more Groundhog Days.

How do I turn things around?

It takes a certain personality type to be a successful communications professional in higher education. There are four traits that will turn things around and get things done despite the culture of consensus decision making found on most campuses:

  • Take risks.
  • Say things people don’t want to hear.
  • Be willing to work really, really hard.
  • Make decisions that won’t be popular with everyone.

Take risks.

Choose the projects that you have full expertise to handle and go for it. This approach works especially well if you are riding the momentum from an earlier successful project. The day we launched m.wm.edu at William & Mary, was the first day that our campus knew we were developing a mobile site. We went mobile without a task force, without a campus discussion of what content should be present on the site and without a preview presentation to executive leadership. The internal web team did the research, learned from other universities, applied deep knowledge of William & Mary and made the decisions that normally delay a project. We took a risk. Yes, we even selected the colors for the visuals and determined the order of the buttons.

Say things people don’t want to hear.

Many people on your campus will respond well to education about web convention and best practices. But applying what they’ve learned to their own site takes objectivity and a change in habits. Always respectfully, I say any and all of these out loud: 1) The belief that visitors to your site won’t click and scroll is one that 40-somethings are holding onto from 90s web days. 2) You and your colleagues are not the primary audience for your departmental website – you’re not the demographic either. 3) You have applied so much bold and italics formatting to the text on this page that, in your effort to make me focus on something, I can’t focus on anything. 4) Actually, usability testing with prospective students provides evidence that visitors to the biology department website also want global access to other department websites and to the Admission home page.

Telling people what they need to hear in a direct way is a skill and practice makes perfect.

Photo by Jamuudsen, Flickr.

Be willing to work very, very hard.

Most people who work at a university have too much to do and too little time to do it. Your willingness to do “the work” to make something happen on the web can stand out as unusual and welcome. About three years ago, we relaunched wm.edu with a new suite of design templates and custom banner photography for each academic department. Our approach with the faculty department chairs was, “we’ll do the hard work.” We developed their IA and navigation, shot and selected photos, rewrote copy and hired a bunch of student interns to copy and past their content into the new CMS. We then approached each department with a preview link to a well-conceived site that was ready to launch with their approval. In 99% of the cases, the faculty were pleased even though the new design required the William & Mary global navigation and certain visual elements they could not remove or alter.

Make decisions that won’t be popular with everyone.

Before deploying an enterprise CMS, our campus web editors had full reign and wild, wild West it was. What a departmental editor could do to a website was limited only by their knowledge of HMTL. Now, with nearly 800 CMS users, the editing of web content is WYSIWYG and less than 20 individuals – and most of those are web team members – can get to the HTML view. Yes, we took away functionality; but most quickly realized that editing content was easier and more streamlined. Naturally, this decision wasn’t popular with those who made regular use of HTML on their web pages; so we talked with them individually when they contacted us about the missing option in the WYSIWYG editor.

Should I stay or should I go?

To be direct, you can’t give in and you can’t give up. If your style and strengths aren’t compatible with the four traits above, then make sure you work for a higher-ed leader who has them. If a centralized, top-down, one right way approach is what you crave, higher-ed might not be your gig.

Love it, or leave it. I hope you love it.