Employee morale and student retention

In the last few months, recruitment and retention have become a hot topic on my campus, as I imagine they have been elsewhere as well. This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this. At my former institution, retention was a big enough deal that annual salary increases were tied to achieving certain numbers: if the university didn’t retain a certain percentage of students, no one got raises that year. If they did, we’d get raises but the retention goal would be higher and more difficult to reach the next year.(1)

At that institution, retention was equated with customer service. The better customer service we gave, the more likely students would be to stay, or so it was thought. We were required to read Be Our Guest and to take regular trainings on the topics covered in the book. The only thing I have personally retained from those trainings is that you’re not supposed to say “no problem” when a customer asks you to do something because it implies that what they’re asking you to do might be a perceived as a problem and if you need to point (for example when giving campus tours, which we were encouraged to do), you should always point with two fingers instead of one and never with your left hand.(2) I have no idea if any of this actually contributed to recruitment or retention but the university sure did spend a lot of money on make sure it was taught to us.

My current institution has not gone quite so far in this direction yet but the increased focus on retention is definitely giving me flashbacks and making me a bit apprehensive about the future. It seems to me that the more emphasis institutions place on recruitment and retention, the more it comes at the expense of employees’ well-being because these efforts are always all stick and no carrot. If you can’t show that you’re contributing to recruitment and retention in a way that the administration considers satisfactory, your job and your entire program will be threatened.

The weird thing is that in principle, I fully support finding ways to increase recruitment and retention on campus and not just because I understand that more recruitment/retention means more money. I want students to be successful. More than that, I was a student here myself once upon a time. I had a great experience—so great that I came back to build a career here. I want our current students to feel the pride that I have for being a graduate of this institution. I love my campus.

And I think the current focus on students’ well-being is a good thing. Certainly there is a customer service aspect to these efforts but I like that, at least so far, we’re focusing on supporting students through what has been a very tumultuous couple of years. This is much more meaningful than teaching people to point with two fingers instead of one on a campus tour. (Or making faculty do campus tours in the first place. I will admit to being slightly elitist about this.)

But it’s hard to support students in this way when I don’t feel supported myself.

This last year, my overall morale has been very low. It plummeted even further recently when I lost my trust in some of my campus’s administration following some shenanigans related to my recent promotion.(3) The library feels like it’s collapsing around me as we lose more and more people to early retirement or greener pastures without being able to replace them. Some of our very best advocates have left or stepped down because they’ve felt so powerless in the face of everything that’s been happening recently. There’s more uncertainty and instability here than I’ve ever experienced before and the road ahead looks pretty rough. If things get better, it’s not going to happen quickly.

This low morale seems to be a campus-wide problem, or at least one that’s not unique to the library. With the difficult times we’ve been going through, everyone expected that things would get hard but whether they needed to be this hard, or hard in this specific way, seems to be a big question on everyone’s mind.

So how does this affect students? My guess is that low employee morale ultimately harms an institution’s ability to recruit and retain students. It’s a lot easier to sing the praises of your institution when you feel supported by that institution. And even if students don’t witness low morale directly, they can probably tell the difference between employees who participate in these efforts because they genuinely love their institution and those who do it because their livelihoods are being threatened if they don’t.

I did a quick search to see if anyone has ever studied the connection between employee morale and student retention. The closest thing I found was something about morale related to student employees, which I think says a lot. It could be that someone has studied this question and I just didn’t find it (like I said, it was just a quick search). Or it may be that the relationship between the two just seems so freaking obvious that no one has bothered to study it. (4)

Either way, it baffles me that the retention-focused administrations I’ve encountered are either unaware of that connection (or the possibility that there is a connection) or willfully ignoring it despite the harm it does to the very goals they claim to be so important.

Maybe they think that in order to raise employee morale, they would need to solve every problem and since that’s impossible to do, it’s better just to ignore it. I actually don’t think this is the case. The thing is, people are smart and they understand that you can’t fix everything. But rather than blaming the stuff you can’t fix on the people who are most affected by it, maybe try a little compassion instead. You know…the same compassion you want us to show students so that they feel supported and are more likely to persist. It’s literally the same equation.

The problem is, to get to that equation you have to substitute “paying customers who bring us money” for “paid employees who cost us money.” More and more, employees aren’t treated like an investment. They’re treated like an expense that needs to be justified.

So, yeah. As we place more and more emphasis on recruitment and retention on our campus, I will continue to do what I need to in order to justify my existence here. I will connect what I do to those goals and I will show how I and the department I lead support the university’s efforts in these areas, however we need to. I will support students despite the fact that I am not being supported myself and feel like everything is crumbling around me.

But if you ask me to read that Be Our Guest book again, I’m out of here.

*

  1. This is one of the many reasons why I am so glad to have since moved on to an institution where I have access to a union.
  2. Because in some cultures, you wipe with your left hand after using the bathroom and it’s considered rude to point using that hand. Which is fine. Obviously I want to be respectful of other cultures.
  3. Another reason I am grateful to be working somewhere with a union.
  4. It could also be, as a friend who I ranted to about this idea pointed out, that quantifying “morale” for research purposes is probably hard to do, though there are plenty of studies out there that have managed to quantify “employee satisfaction.” I don’t know if morale and satisfaction are the same thing, as defined by scholars, but it seems like they would be closely related.

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