Employee Morale: The Holy Grail of HBCU Success

Most people believe that productivity is quantitative in nature; how many products are sold, how much profit is earned, and how many leads for new customers you can create. Higher education poses many of the same metrics; how many students are enrolled, how many degrees are awarded, and how many dollars are raised from streams outside of tuition and auxiliary business.

But in the 21st century, employee morale is the engine that drives that productivity, and adds to it marketability and retention at all levels of a workforce. In tech industries, companies are as known for the ways in which they strive to make employees happy, as they are for the quality of their products.

This isn’t the case within higher education, where wages typically aren’t the highest, workloads aren’t the lightest, and executive leadership is a byproduct of nepotism and politics, not a symptom of mission and merit.

At historically black colleges, where resources are slimmest and politics are the most visibly dangerous elements of leadership, low morale may be the greatest threat to productivity and expansion. On far too many HBCU campuses, boards and presidents don’t trust each other, presidents and administrators lack faith in each other’s competencies, administrators can’t identify managerial talent beyond personal relationships, and managers work their staff members too hard and too often with too little appreciation.

Most of these deficiencies are tied to a lack of resources, not talent or ability, which leaves 80 percent of the campus workforce underpaid, under-resourced`and unhappy, while 100 percent of the student body, unknowingly, suffers from a less-than-optimal college experience.

HBCUs have never been bursting at the seams with windfalls of cash or tens of thousands of students. But in the early generations of HBCUs, teaching and service culture was defined by a ‘hard-but-fair’ civility and the notion that the survival of Black America at large would be defined by schools’ ability to produce capable graduates.

Evolution in race relations, technology and political access changed all that. Civility has been replaced with quiet wars between campus pathologies of how ‘white schools do it,’ how ‘black folks can’t or won’t do right,’  and the complexity of serving a student body which can no longer afford or recognize the value of being on a black college campus.

Unlike Google or Facebook, HBCUs can’t create workplace satisfaction by offering flexible scheduling, six-figure salaries for most employees, or by hiring more staff to cut workloads. They can’t fire board members who are placed to fulfill political or financial agendas, and they can’t violate labor laws by firing employees who may lack energy and creative spirit, but who still meet the basic demands of a job description.

But what HBCUs can do is regularly and anonymously survey the workforce to find how many people work for, or with, people who regularly prove a lack of general aptitude and care for their job. They can assess departments and divisions for very specific trends in unhappiness tied to technology, lack of personnel, bad management and output expectations – leading to a global view of the campus’ well-being and productivity.

Good leadership would take that data and use it to make annual determinations about budget allocations, personnel management, and areas of increased executive review. And if they are really keen, this data will give insight into typical HBCU accreditation problem areas like financial record keeping, academic administration, athletic compliance, and enrollment management.

Poor leadership would promise changes stemming from results of the data and never use it, thus breeding more contempt and ill will from the most valuable stakeholder group on campus – the faculty and staff who create the happy graduates whom you hope will give back and claim the school in their professional development.

Employees must be made to feel heard and given the sense that they have a role in the direction of a black college campus. And if you don’t give it to them, they will take that direction by taking their frustrations out upon each other and the students.

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