The VPM Blog

For Deans: The Danger of Adding Headcount

Posted by Don Crow on Sep 21, 2017 12:00:00 AM

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At the end of 2008, I transitioned jumped from corporate America into the world of Higher Ed administration. Over the next three years, I would see and learn many things, and ultimately decide that my value in Higher Ed was on the outside.

A few of the things I learned which are relevant to my declaration that the danger of adding headcount, particularly in administrative roles, are:

  • There is little to no goal setting, therefore there are no objective ways to evaluate the performance of your non-faculty positions outside of the development, or fundraising team.
  • Especially in marketing and communications, there is no incentive to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to best practices, software or even to adjust to the shifting tastes and attention spans of today's society.
  • The support structure, i.e., professionals who've "been there, done that," mentors and professional organizations are almost always home grown. Annual conferences and meetings are composed of others in the same role at different universities all fumbling along 10 years behind their for-profit counterparts. The blatant resistance to change or adopting the practices of the business world would be comical if it weren't so depressing given the attitudes towards rising costs and student debt.

Which leads me to another area bumping up against the trend in adding administrative head count in higher ed - shifting consumer attitudes.

Unless you're an Ivy League or Top 25 University (school or college in select degrees), you'd be foolish to ignore the number of parents and students asking what value they are getting in exchange for the annual tuition increases.

There is even one private university close to home which recently decided to cut tuition in half because the President remarked, "the marketplace spoke, and we listened."

And the marketplace is speaking - a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that especially with men, people in rural areas and young adults - Americans are losing faith in college degrees.

But wait, your Director of Marketing is asking for a full time videographer and another website person or maybe they want a full time social media community manager! Of course they are. It's the headcount version of the US and Soviet Union arms race of the 1970s and 1980s. The business school across the state added staff, so we must do the same. It's FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), on a much more expensive and unsustainable level.

There are some approaches you can take to balance the requests of internal staff with the long term best interests of your school or college:

  • Look for "win - win" scenarios as we say in the business world. What's the most value I can derive from the least amount of long term resource allocation? In other words, start viewing headcount as overhead and account for it on a fully loaded basis (salary, benefits, office space, equipment, parking, and so on). Could you staff the team with one person internally and outsource the rest?
  • Listen to your advisory boards on what is needed versus what is being asked for internally. For example, your communications & marketing team doesn't need a full time videographer and staff just because another unit on campus hired one. Outsource it!
  • Part time responsibilities and full time roles don't mix. Stop playing the game where two or more departments split the cost of one full time employee. If there is no real justification for a full time hire then, (1) does the work really need to get done, and (2) if it does, it might be a good time to audit who is doing what in the department.

Looking for a working model that works? In our six years of partnering with Higher Ed this is the hybrid team structure we find works best and delivers the most value for the college.

College (Internal) Agency (Partner)
Director of Communications and Marketing Founder / Agency Partner (Chief Marketing Officer level resource for the Dean)
Content Producer (writer, typically a former journalist) Account Executive (Part Public Relations specialist, content producer, marketing automation expert, and overall the person who is working after hours)
Website Manager Copywriter
Intern (for specific visual social media content, events, and student facing engagements) Videographer
  Graphic Designer

In this model, the college's internal assets - magazine, alumni emails, website and event support are well covered with people who have a vested interest in seeing them continue, and continue to be successful. [NOTE: while we're talking about earth shattering ideas, you should reconsider keeping that print magazine.] We add to that with subject matter experts in areas such as design, video, social media platforms, marketing automation and strategic planning that the college doesn't need on a full time, 40-hour week basis.

Additionally, as consumer (incoming students and parents) desires change, the agency can provide the support needed in emerging platforms because they have to stay on top of the latest greatest platforms, behavior shifts, and overall market trends. It's not much different with alumni - your agency partner is better suited to adapt to their preferences because they aren't so close to the forest they cannot see the trees as the saying goes.

Adding internal headcount in marketing and communication may stop the ask in the short term, but it's a long term disaster and detracts from the real mission of your school or college.

In conclusion, begin pushing back and asking more questions when staff ask for help in non-faculty and teaching roles. Be a great steward of public and private funds and focus on your core missions of education and outreach. Step off of the well manicured lawns of your school and talk to business leaders about how they employ hybrid teams that position them for long term success and the dips and spikes of today's marketplace. Who knows, your university may add a digital sign underneath your oil painted likeness in the lobby with a nice note about how you were the first dean in 100 years to cut costs and still grow enrollment, graduation rates, and alumni who are raving fans.

Yes, we can walk the walk when it comes to knowing what students want out of their dean. In fact, we recently wrapped up a research project of our own where students and young alumni told us what type of relationship they want with their dean and on what platforms. Just tap the button below to get a copy of our FREE white paper on the new, "Digital Dean."

digital deans white paper

Topics: higher ed marketing