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Catching a Curveball

From unexpected enrollment jumps to extraordinary data errors, it’s how you field what you don’t see coming that makes a lasting impact.

By Anna Jackson

Riding a Bubble of Attention

Many sports pundits and armchair quarterbacks dubbed it “the greatest bowl game ever,” and Boise State University, Idaho, may never be the same after winning the 2007 NCAA Football Fiesta Bowl. In the weeks following the Broncos’ nail-biting, one-point overtime victory, the university was pushed into the national spotlight. Back in Boise, inquiries were pouring in from prospective students, and the bookstore was smashing sales records for apparel and gifts.

Fortunately, Boise State had a heads-up that a big story might unfold. As the football team prepped for the Fiesta Bowl, administrators began talking about the potential impact of the university’s first bowl game. During December 2006, administrators noticed a strong interest in the university and in the state of Idaho. Yet, anticipation could not adequately prepare leaders for the whirlwind of attention that would follow. Stacy Pearson, vice president of finance and administration, says it was how the team won more than the victory itself that catapulted the campus into the limelight. From January 1 to February 15, the university received 634 more applications than it did during the same period in 2006. This represented a 17 percent increase among undergraduate applications and a 24 percent increase among graduate applications. With Fiesta Bowl fever in full swing, institutional leaders had to determine how best to take advantage of the bonanza of increased attention, says Pearson.

Since administrators knew that the focus would not last forever, a sense of urgency drove their decisions. Immediately after the victory, the university leveraged its underdog reputation in ongoing recruitment and fundraising activities, using pictures from the game in mailings to prospective students and donors and posting the photos on its Web site. While the victory was certainly a hot topic, Pearson says the university would have been remiss not to highlight other significant events, including campus visits by Al Gore, country singer George Strait, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Nevertheless, for a state best known for its potato crop, the praise served as external validation for the image that the university had long sought to establish, says Pearson. “It was really exciting to have such a positive image of our university go out.”

According to Pearson, the university was well-prepared for the onslaught of public attention. Prior to the game, institution leaders considered how best to portray the campus, using game-time television advertisements. The bookstore manager developed new merchandise designs that would attract a broader audience. Even so, the university had to scramble to meet the demands brought by nationwide attention. The bookstore hired temporary staff to accommodate the upsurge of orders, and the communication staff worked long hours to convey key messages about the university.

Still, some developments threw the university for a loop. The offer by an alumnus to buy the rights to the football team’s story was one example of the Fiesta Bowl win’s far-reaching effects that were never fully anticipated. Beyond student interest, Pearson says university leaders were also surprised by the number of inquiries about faculty and staff positions from individuals around the world.

Confronting a Firestorm

When the Media Come Calling

Any unexpected event may bring media attention to your door. To minimize negative press or to take full advantage of your time to shine, create a media action plan and have it at the ready.

According to Brian Ohlinger, associate vice president for facilities management at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, news of a structural fire and its close proximity to the VCU campus proved a difficult message to relay to the public. “We learned that you have to get your story out quickly, or others will get the story out for you.” VCU’s strategy included tapping individuals with positions of authority to speak on behalf of the university. They were prepared to provide clarification about the fire, ongoing updates, and information about how to help the surrounding neighborhood.

Here are three strategies other university leaders have used when faced with media challenges:

1. Get ahead of the curve. As the story of an erroneous e-mail, indicating students’ admission to UNC months prior to student selection, spread beyond Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina was up front with the media, taking full responsibility for the mistake. Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions, understands why the story was of interest to media outlets far beyond his state. By and large, he thought that the reporting was fair to the university. “Our position was that we made the mistake,” says Farmer, “so we were not going to complain about the inconvenience it caused to us;” instead, UNC apologized sincerely for the inconvenience it caused to students.”

2. Coordinate your messaging. At Boise State University, administrators soon realized that they were sitting on a big story. After fielding numerous media requests, the communication department drafted a press release with all of the major developments brought about by the institution’s underdog Fiesta Bowl victory. Stacy Pearson, vice president of finance and administration, says that by having a sound communication plan in place, the university was able to capitalize on a rare and exciting opportunity to highlight, before a national audience, the institution’s many achievements beyond its football victory.

3. Use the media to your advantage. At the University of California, Davis, the story that broke in May 2006 was a nearly 26-percent increase in freshmen acceptance for the fall. In intervening months, as the university prepared classrooms, dorms, and course schedules to accommodate the record influx, various media outlets visited the campus on many occasions to cover the enrollment story. Fred Wood, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies, says that the ongoing visits may have been driven in part by expectations that the university would experience difficulty meeting its enrollment commitment. During one interview, recalls Wood, the reporter observed that the university seemed to have everything under control and wondered aloud where the story was in all of this. On each occasion, university leaders were able to show that the institution was well prepared for the influx of new students. The conscious effort by UC Davis to use the media to the university’s advantage resulted in parents and students who were pleased with the process and reassured by the institution’s progress in the months leading up to the fall semester.

One windy, Friday afternoon in March 2004, flames swept through a building that was under construction in Richmond near the Monroe Park Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). When debris in a trash chute ignited, all four floors of the building quickly burned. During the six-hour blaze, 19 other structures in the neighborhood were damaged, including the School of the Arts.

Brian Ohlinger, VCU’s associate vice president for facilities management, says the campus immediately activated its emergency preparedness plan, calling in a disaster recovery firm the day of the fire. Over the weekend, more than 100 workers repaired damage to the School of the Arts. By Monday the building was open for business—thanks to the university’s comprehensive planning and semiannual practice sessions, says Ohlinger.

While damage from the fire was contained to a handful of VCU-owned buildings and several buildings in the surrounding neighborhood, the event presented several major challenges to the university. Foremost, the campus needed an effective mechanism to reassure worried parents outside the Richmond area. The university used an alert button on its Web site whereby parents, students, and those in the community could access updates as new information became available. “It was critical for people outside of Richmond to get information immediately,” Ohlinger says. “By directing them to our Web site, we could have tens of thousands of users getting the same information at any given time.”

Although the fire did not technically take place on university property, the proximity of the burned building meant that VCU was inextricably linked to the blaze. The university was also swept into some of the criticism about the construction project that caught fire. While the building was owned by a private developer and was planned for residential and retail use, VCU had struck a deal to lease the residential portion of the building to students. As it turned out, the fire came at the most vulnerable stage of construction. Without sheetrock, interior finishing, or sprinkler and alarm systems, flames were able to spread through the building undeterred.

Shortly after the fire, students were given the choice to opt out of their leases or live in a local hotel until the building was ready for occupancy. According to Ohlinger, 50 students broke their leases and found alternate housing, while 122 students kept their leases, paying their agreed-upon rent while living in a hotel adjacent to campus. During the building’s reconstruction, the developer paid the difference between the students’ lease rate and the hotel rate. Meanwhile, the university found other students to sign mid-year leases. In January 2005, the building was completed and opened with full occupancy, as planned.

Locally, VCU wanted to do everything it could to assist the nearby neighborhood. Led by the university’s president, the campus hosted an open forum to inform residents about services available from the city of Richmond. In addition, the university set up a relief fund that raised more than $80,000, says Ohlinger. Residents and the neighborhood civic association were very appreciative of the university’s outpouring of support. 

Taking Growth in Stride

Time will soon tell how Boise State’s win will affect overall enrollment. However, if the Idaho institution’s acceptance numbers continue to swell, the University of California, Davis, has some words of wisdom to share.

To say that UC Davis was in for a surprise in May 2006, when more incoming freshmen accepted admission than expected, is an understatement. To be exact, 1,131 more freshmen enrolled in fall 2006 than in 2005—a 25.8 percent increase—resulting in the largest freshmen class in the history of the University of California System. UC Davis was faced with a major challenge: how to accommodate more students without compromising the university’s commitment to provide all students with a great campus experience.

Fred Wood, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies, was in Washington, D.C., when he learned the news. His first reaction? Get home and start preparing as soon as possible. One year later, Wood says the enrollment challenge involved months of hard work by staff and faculty across the campus. Key to the effort was the university’s communication staff tasked with reassuring parents, students, and the media that the institution would be ready for the influx. After the initial “wow” factor that came with the announcement of the larger-than-expected incoming freshmen class came the big question: What must we do to ensure that all students will have a great experience once they get here?

An interdepartmental team began strategizing. First, the university tackled the issue of enrolling new students in introductory classes. According to Wood, the university was able to buy time on the bigger issue of finding classroom space by reserving seats in introductory courses for incoming students, which limited space available to current students. This was a difficult decision, says Wood, but the university’s two-part enrollment process allowed upperclassmen to enroll in these courses after freshmen had an opportunity to do so and after additional courses could be added during the summer. The university also bumped up its summer session course offerings, encouraging current and incoming students to take introductory courses during the summer to reduce demand in the fall. For a required entry-level writing course, the university encouraged incoming freshmen to take the course elsewhere during the summer if summer school at UC Davis was not feasible.

Next, the planning team identified recently vacated space to convert into classroom space before the fall quarter got underway. The office of administration made this renovation project its highest priority. Likewise, the resource management and planning office promptly released money to allow departments to hire additional instructors and to finance necessary refurbishments. Finally, to meet the additional demand for student housing, the university decided to convert some dorm rooms from doubles into triples. Whereas 60 students were housed in triple rooms the previous year, in fall 2006, that number jumped to 1,200. Information technology staff ensured that the rooms had enough access points for the technology needs of three students instead of two.

In the end, UC Davis added more than 100 courses to the catalog, provided new teaching facilities, converted dorm space, hired instructors, and enhanced communication lines to keep students and parents apprised of progress. With fewer than six months in which to plan, Wood says the hard work of so many employees was indicative of the university’s spirit. “The mantra around campus from the beginning was that we would make this happen and do it well.”

Undoing E-Damage

An incident in January at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, felt “a bit like a lightning strike,” recalls Stephen Farmer, UNC’s director of undergraduate admissions. Late one afternoon, two employees in the admissions department were working separately to send messages to different groups of prospective students. When several inadvertent human errors converged, however, the university soon experienced something that would make any admissions department reel: Routine e-mail messages sent to approximately 2,700 students mistakenly included the phrase “Congratulations again on your admission”—months before acceptance decisions were finalized. The error was quickly identified, but even as the department was sorting out a response, a local television station picked up the story, followed by newspapers and radio stations. Once the Associated Press reported the incident, news of the error began making the pages of international publications.

Within 40 minutes of the e-mail blunder, UNC admissions staff had identified the problem, which they believed was contained to 500 students. Twenty minutes later, an apology was sent to this group of students. The following morning, however, employees realized that the error was bigger than the initial estimate and extended to all second-deadline candidates. Farmer and his colleagues decided to e-mail all of these applicants—more than 10,000 students—to explain the previous day’s e-mail error and express their apologies. During the course of that day, the affected group was narrowed to 2,700 students. Staff sent another e-mail directly to this group. The department also e-mailed high school counselors to explain the situation.

UNC did not stop there. The admissions department also set up a Web site with up-to-date information about the admissions process, created an e-mail in box to field inquiries about the error, rearranged staff priorities to handle incoming telephone calls, and mailed hard-copy apologies to the 2,700 affected students. While all this happened at a time when the department was very busy reviewing applications, department staff didn’t think twice about taking immediate action, says Farmer. “We basically dropped everything to try to respond effectively and sympathetically to those students affected,” he says. “We realized that, at the time, this was the most important thing to students who got the [erroneous] e-mail.”

Developing Internal Awareness

While the immediate stress associated with each of these unforeseen scenarios has subsided, discussions about how to move forward linger. Here are some of the lessons leaders are noting and continuing to analyze.

Identify causes and pressure points. At UC Davis, the admissions department is working to better anticipate enrollment fluctuations. Wood says he is not sure that the university’s leaders will ever completely understand the reasons for the enrollment boom. In fact, the institution had experienced a lower-than-expected yield rate in 2005. Possible contributing factors to the subsequent increase may be enhanced recruiting activities in 2006 paired with the academic and nonacademic benefits the campus offers and its desirable location in a college town. Also at play may be the growing trend for students to submit an intent to register at multiple institutions.

To better understand factors that affect matriculation, UC Davis made a few changes to its 2007 admissions process. For long-term analysis, the university uses a time-tested, matrix formula to identify pressure points in enrollment and allocate additional money to these areas. In the meantime, the 2006 experience paved the way for some immediate improvements. For example, the university plans to continue to offer some dorm rooms to accommodate triples, which offer a costs savings to students. Wood says he and his staff were surprised by the demand for triple rooms in 2006. In fact, the student satisfaction level for this living arrangement was as high, if not higher, than that of students living in doubles. Finally, the university is continuing to encourage students to enroll in summer school, even offering half-price tuition incentives for certain high-demand courses.

Anticipate and avoid the potential for human error. At UNC, admissions staff had used for six years—without incident—an enterprisewide database system to manage student communications. The problem with wayward e-mail, according to Farmer, stemmed from the failure to anticipate vulnerability due to human error. Even though UNC’s data glitch was an isolated incident, discussions about the error continued for months afterward, including talk of whether admissions department staff responded quickly enough.

Staff members likewise continue to assess areas for improvement. Several checks have been implemented to prevent a similar error. Now, when one staff member is queuing up a message to send, another staff member must review the message prior to delivery. Adding this layer of oversight to the process should prevent users from selecting the wrong group of students for a particular message or sending information that is not applicable to all recipients, says Farmer.

Since January, the admissions department has been especially careful with e-mail communication to the 2007 applicant pool. “We did not want to presume the generosity and graciousness of students again,” explains Farmer. When final application decisions were ready, department staff discussed whether to mention in decision letters the January e-mail. They ultimately decided against saying anything, since the university had repeatedly addressed the matter when it first occurred. In addition, says Farmer, staff were concerned that mentioning the error would make bad news worse for those students who were not extended an offer.

Spread the wealth. On the heels of its Fiesta Bowl thrill, Boise State had to develop a strategy for dealing with another unexpected consequence—a moderate windfall of unexpected revenue. One alumnus sent a $250,000 pledge in support of a new building for the College of Business and Economics. Similarly, the unprecedented merchandise sales by the university’s bookstore offered a boost in support of operating expenses. Other proceeds from the Fiesta Bowl will be used to develop and fund a civic leadership scholarship program for recent Idaho high school graduates and to cover several new initiatives of the main campus library. Stacy Pearson admits there is some pressure to achieve a new goal soon, but she is excited to see what direction the university will take next. In the meantime, says Pearson, “We are leveraging both the reputation and proceeds of the football program and sharing the ‘wealth’ with students and faculty.”

Sharing 20/20 Hindsight

Catching a curveball—good or bad—depends on this: university leaders coming together to develop a sound game plan. Each institution highlighted in this article can offer some recommendations for doing that.

Commit to quick improvement, and make it happen. UC Davis actually had previous experience, in 2004, with a last-minute scramble to accommodate 90 students who enrolled late. Obviously, the 2006 dilemma posed a much greater challenge. No matter the scale, for institutions that experience unexpected growth, Wood offers some advice. First, commit to ensuring that the enrollment increase works out well for all involved. A positive experience includes the institution’s fulfillment of its commitments to housing, a student’s ability to graduate in four years, and the availability of required courses. Second, Wood suggests that once the situation is understood, institution leaders immediately begin to plan, take steps to show parents and students that the issue is being taken seriously, and make it clear that the situation is under control. Finally, Wood stresses the importance of strong leadership directed by someone who can bring the appropriate group of people together to share information throughout planning and implementation of expanded services and accommodations.

Take responsibility, and offer sincere apologies. Here is how Farmer sums up the lessons UNC’s admissions staff learned: Be careful, even when using processes that are familiar to you, because unexpected results can still occur; tell the truth about what happened; and, when you make a mistake, apologize and mean it. The 2,700 students directly affected by UNC’s e-mail blunder were quite understanding about the mistake and appreciated that the university acted so quickly, says Farmer. To his surprise, some students even thanked the admissions department for owning up to the error.

>>> Conversation Starter
What’s been the latest surprise situation to challenge your campus? How did you handle it and what did you learn? E-mail: carole.schweitzer@nacubo.org.

Keep your disaster recovery plan alive and well. The fire at VCU was not the first natural disaster to hit the campus during the 2003-04 academic year. In the fall, the university had activated its emergency preparedness plan in response to heavy winds and rains caused by Hurricane Isabel. Preparation is key in dealing with these types of disasters, stresses Brian Ohlinger. He advises that you practice your institution’s disaster plan and know the ins-and-outs of the local response system. It is also important to continue to tweak and improve the plan based on real experiences, says Ohlinger. Keep students, faculty, staff, and parents well informed of the status of an event. And know where to find firms that specialize in disaster relief for fire or water damage. This may entail finding companies outside your local community. Finally, remember to be a good neighbor by assisting your community with its recovery process.

Anticipate success, and calculate appropriate responses. According to Pearson, foresight and communication were crucial to Boise State’s post-Fiesta-Bowl success. “If you anticipate a winning season, plan ahead to how you will leverage success on the athletic field to showcase the academic, research, and student programs on your campus,” advises Pearson. She also emphasizes the importance of a sound communication plan with strategies to deliver messages to the media, prospective students, and donors. Such a plan includes preparing a specific message and visuals and identifying the appropriate individuals who can speak on behalf of the institution. In the case of Boise State’s football win, the athletes and coach proved perfect spokespeople.

The parting lesson for managing the unexpected? Train all you can to catch whatever curveball comes your way—and make each situation a learning experience that prepares you even better for that next pitch.

ANNA JACKSON, Chicago, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


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