04/22/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

University Communication: Why Babel Fish Won't Help

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams introduces us to the Babel fish. His narrator describes it as "probably the oddest thing in the universe." When you stick one in your ear, you instantly understand whatever anyone says to you in any language. If you've ever traveled abroad (or intergalactically), you understand the usefulness of Babel fish.

However, just translating words doesn't ensure actual communication. Adams' narrator is quick to note that, with its translating powers, "the poor Babel fish . . . has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

Every university campus has "communication issues." Rumors flourish, but actual messages routinely get lost, misinterpreted, or misconstrued. The array of instant communication modes at our fingertips actually intensifies this phenomenon. Rumors that once spread like wildfire now proliferate at warp speed.

Like most people these days, I'm in a perpetual swirl of communication. Messages cascade over me, from the trivial to the deadly serious: from students, faculty and staff, legislators, board members, families of current and prospective students, community members, reporters, alumni, donors, colleagues around the state and around the country. What will tuition be next year? Why didn't the campus close when it snowed? Why was my son denied admission? What are you doing about the temperature in my classroom? Why don't we start a baseball team? Can I meet with you to discuss . . . .

Naturally, I try to initiate and respond to messages--honestly, professionally, and quickly--or send them on to someone who knows more than I do. I communicate in a variety of ways: email, meetings, open forums, memos, letters, reports, speeches, interviews, blogs, personal conversations. But I'm a realist about my efforts. I know the messages I attempt to deliver aren't always the messages people actually hear.

Effective communication is especially important on our campus right now as we undertake significant change. People understand conceptually that universities have to adapt, to be nimble. We know that the world has shifted around us and that we need to change as profoundly as every other sector of the economy. We want Southern Oregon University to prosper; we know we need to work collaboratively, to think creatively about our future. We know we can't stay the same and thrive in a turbulent world.

Nonetheless, fear runs deep. Fear of change runs deep. I can share what I know with every constituency, but it's much harder to respond to rumors, to unspoken anxieties and worries. I can never know if people are truly hearing the messages I'm trying to convey about budgets, legislative actions, enrollment trends, planning initiatives--or if they're hearing something altogether different. And, of course, that problem works two ways: even when I think I understand, I'm almost certainly misconstruing at least some of the messages coming to me as well.

George Bernard Shaw stated the situation beautifully: "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

On any university campus, people appear to be communicating, constantly and enthusiastically, on every conceivable topic, in every available medium. Yet, on every campus, people complain that there's not enough communication, not enough transparency. When I Googled "lack of transparency in higher education," I got nearly eight million results.

As a university president, I keep trying. I relay information in multiple modes, repeat key messages over and over, make personal connections, and reflect on what others may already know, believe, or fear. I listen. I try to understand. Yet I know my efforts are only partly successful.

There are no easy solutions. Effective communication happens only when everyone involved makes constant, mindful, and untiring efforts. None of us can ensure that the message flow is working perfectly.

Modern technology really hasn't helped. Babel fish would just make matters worse.

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