The other day, I picked up a great local newspaper called the Washington City Paper and started reading an article called “The Office” that focuses on DC Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s efforts to revive, improve, and reform the DC public school system (DCPS).
As I read it, I found myself drawing many parallels between what the DC public schools are going through and what Gallaudet is experiencing. From the administrivia issues at the DCPS Central Office to Gallaudet’s College Hall, upset teachers at high schools to upset professors in HMB, you name it — there was something for everyone.
I worked at Gallaudet from August 2006 to June 2007, and I will be drawing on some of my experiences working there.
(Italicized quotes are from the City article.)
“…the central office has become a metaphor for all that has gone wrong with the D.C. Public Schools—all the stalled reform plans, all the forgotten, expensive consultant studies, all the revolving-door superintendents…”
When I worked at Gallaudet, I saw a lot of plans that had been put in motion over the years, forming a palimpsest of plans on top of plans that ultimately choked all possible innovation. Many of these plans were excellent ones, with excellent intentions.
Consultants had also been involved at many points, with expensive contributions, and their time and expenses were not used to their fullest potential. For example, a consultant was called during the King Jordan administration that reviewed the necessity for centralized communication and made excellent recommendations that were not followed.
The high turnover of the end of the King Jordan and duration of the Davila administration has been seen for everyone. Many good people have left Gallaudet, to search for greener pastures elsewhere. And somewhat ominously, the good people that remain are also looking.
Sometimes you can only extract so much thankless work out of people for so long before they leave, no matter how good things get.
“At the DCPS central office, people have not been held accountable for their work, and I am determined to change this. People who do not do their jobs well should not be working for a school system.”
I can say that accountability is something that is improving at Gallaudet, however, during my time there accountability could be expressed in one phrase: pass the buck. Whenever something happened, nobody stepped up and said, “This is my fault, I’ll take care of it!”
No, it was always “It was that department’s fault. It was that OTHER department’s fault.”
I also got the runaround: endless loops of “Not my responsibility.”
Nobody took full responsibility to ensure that the client, be it the student, faculty, or staff person, was fully satisfied or served. President Davila has taken great strides to improve this, but there is still a long way to go before uncompromising excellence is a byword of the campus.
One tenet that I’ve learned in my corporate travels is that you must treat your employees the same way you treat your customers; specifically, you must treat them both excellently. For if you treat your employees badly, eventually, you will also treat your customers badly. Therefore, there must be a culture in which the most junior staff member feels valued and supported 100%.
“If you’re a teacher, anytime something goes wrong with a paycheck—and things will go wrong with your paycheck—don’t even bother with a phone call.”
I hear stories from student and teacher friends at Gallaudet. They are full of anecdotes of the “Gallaudet Way.”
A friend never got loan money until mid-semester, thereby making it extremely difficult to pay for books, which caused serious delays in her studies. This happened every year.
Another friend applied for a job a few months ago, and Gallaudet reported to the background check of the employer that he was never a student, even though he plainly was and was in possession of a Gallaudet degree. This person had been previously celebrated in Gallaudet publications. How ironic.
Each of us have our stories of Gallaudet inefficiency, screwups, or other kinds of things that we say, “Oh, that’s Gallaudet!” I don’t point them out maliciously here, but as a way of illustrating how much we’ve come to accept that there is a Gallaudet way of doing things, and that it’s far from fast, efficient, and in the best interest of students, faculty, and staff.
“The fix? Henderson says the plan is to move all of the DCPS records to a system called PeopleSoft, which is what the rest of the D.C. government uses”
Gallaudet does already use PeopleSoft, but yet there are a whopping 10+ forms on paper to fill out when you become a new employee at Gallaudet. Yes, this is an artifact of the fact that Gallaudet is a Federal facility, and has Federal health insurance, life insurance, and retirement plans.
In comparison, when I got a job at my current company, I had one form to fill out — the W2 form. All the rest was automatically handled for me, and I just had to log into one centralized website for health care elections, Metro transit deductions, 401k allocations, etc.
In the time I spent at Gallaudet, I noticed that they do have a smooth running but extremely expensive implementation of PeopleSoft that is underutilized. The PeopleSoft system that they had could do much more, if it was given the attention and support from all sectors of the campus.
“Today, Ackerman’s on the faculty at Columbia University, and she speaks surprisingly fondly of her time at DCPS. “D.C. was the hardest district I ever encountered. It was also the most rewarding, because I found incredible people doing things with incredibly limited resources.” She talks about the central-office workers who spent nights in their offices in sleeping bags.”
While I worked at Gallaudet, I met many people who were trying their utmost to make Gallaudet a better place. But like the City paper continues to say, “A broken system will make brilliant people look incompetent.”
This is exactly the problem that Gallaudet faces, and like the DC Public Schools Michelle Rhee, President Robert Davila’s path is clear — keep moving forward and making improvements. Infrastructure, systems, and centralization are hard and unsexy problems to work on. But above all, each and every employee and customer should be treated with the utmost appreciation and respect.
Things to Try
- Think about the experience from a representative staff, faculty and student member. Twice a year, go through the paces. Request transcripts, request a name change, ask about common personnel, accounting, and administration questions. Track how long it takes to complete these tasks. Improve them
- Once a quarter, send a “undercover” person to eat at the eateries on campus, buy from the bookstore, use the health facilities, ask for help from the tech folks, track customer experience, etc.
- Learn more about the Office of Assessment and how they are assessing and collecting metrics about the Gallaudet experience.
- You a student, staff, or faculty member? Tell the administration about things that have always bothered you.
Source for quotes:
The Office, Washington City Paper (a must-read)