10/31/2011 04:22 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

Customer Service Hell Up at Howard University

In circles concerned with higher education, particularly those orbiting HBCU culture, customer service for students and community has long been recognized as a scourge upon institutional progress. A myriad of justifications, excuses, reasoning and cop-outs have been provided for every unanswered phone call or email, rude in-person interaction, and lost form. For most HBCUs, it is more than reasonable to look at paltry state and federal funding, poor alumni giving and incompetent leadership as the roots of inadequate customer service.

The same cannot be said for Howard University, which has, in recent weeks, been the object of several pointed and scathing reviews of its customer service profile. Established through an act of Congress and through generations of political, civic and economic change, Howard has maintained its aura and appeal as the 'Mecca' of HBCUs. But Howard now faces a growing tide of discontent from internal and external constituents questioning its commitment to excellence, and competency in valuing customer service.

Howard maintains its legitimate place as America's HBCU in part through consistent federal appropriations exceeding $230 million, and a wealth of research and development opportunities garnered through philanthropic partnerships and leveraged corporate alliances. The story of black excellence in the United States in all forms of professional, civic and social progress bears an indelible Bison imprint, and its traditions of student activism, alumni achievement and faculty brilliance are as rich today as they've been throughout history.

But in recent years, the Howard mystique has become as synonymous with administrative ineptitude as it has opportunity and achievement for students coming from all corners of the world. For years, students, faculty and staff have internally lamented a seemingly school-wide culture of elitism and broken service structure. Criticism once reserved for discussion in the Punch Out, on Facebook exchanges and through forwarded email threads now finds a place on widely read blogs and media outlets.

Recently, a national black publishing company publicly chided Howard for breakdowns in an approved acquisition deal for titles held by Howard's now-defunct Howard University Press. The reason - BCP did not hear from university officials at all following the finalization of the acquisition agreement.

(Black Classic Press Publisher W. Paul) Coates said that since the announcement of the agreement, "the university's representatives have not provided the assistance or communication necessary to complete the transfer. Further, they have not signed or returned the agreement formalizing the transfer that their attorneys negotiated with BCP. Despite their attempts to finalize the agreement, BCP's representatives have been frustrated by the university's silence."
Attempts by PW to contact Howard University provost James H. Wyche have not been successful. Coates told PW that, "All inquiries about Howard University Press and titles it previously published should be directed to Howard University."
Weeks prior, an editorial described Howard customer service as 'horrible,' outlining several attempts to provide the university and its students business and academic opportunities.
Over the years, I have regularly presented Howard and its student's opportunities to make money and to further the mission of their school--to educate Black students.

Last week, I was called by a friend and asked to find 2 law students she could interview for internships in her government agency. I told her I would call Howard's law school and have them call her. I talked with a woman in their career placement office and she said she would call my friend. A week later and my friend still has not heard from the school.

So, 2 days ago, I decided to call George Washington University's Law School (GW)--a predominantly white school in Washington, DC. I told them I needed two Black law students to consider for internships. Less than an hour later, my friend was contacted by GW and 2 lucky students are on the verge of getting an internship!

Two years ago, Howard made local headlines when university students protested a lack of efficiency and feedback from the university's financial aid and housing departments - a usual source of angst for HBCU students everywhere, but a surprising occurrence for many holding Mecca-sized expectations at the university.

No school is immune from spot deficiencies in customer service. Personalities, workload and the pressure of today's 'need-it-now' culture all demand for any service professional in higher ed to be a scientist in protocol, technology management and efficiency modules, along with being an expert in interpersonal communication when faced with diverse customers and circumstances. The HBCU, with its challenges to increase tech infrastructure, facilities and human resources, regularly confronts this tall order in a cramped space with slow Internet and malfunctioning heating and cooling systems. Howard is not exempt from this circumstance, and like many other HBCUs, works hard to climb these obstacles and thrive in spite of them.

But Howard positions itself to be the best of the best in higher education within HBCU culture, and is growing its efforts to grow that brand within American higher ed culture as well. As such, it must quickly and honestly recognize that it has a higher standard to meet in the consistent delivery of exceptional customer service for every individual coming through its doors, particularly for those who seek to walk out as Howard-trained scholars ready to proudly carry the Bison banner in their future endeavors.

Immediately, it must admit to its constituents that its customer service has not lived up to the brand so painstakingly established through years of loyal service of select faculty and staff, and broadened by the excellence of students and alumni. Howard University must do more than invite in customer service consultation or programming initiatives to demand the obvious from employees - to smile and speak gently to students, return all phone calls and emails, and do all things to benefit tomorrow's leaders.

Howard must fire people. It must fire non-responsive deans and chairpersons with a consistent history of academic complaints and grievances. It must fire vice-presidents and managers that do not regularly invite and integrate student feedback into service programs and training initiatives. It must introduce technology at every available and affordable intersection of campus management to create defined and mutually acceptable accountability for students needing specific services, and the staff charged with the cheerful and knowledgeable execution of such.

If Howard, with its rich history and resources eclipsing those of many of its historically black counterparts can't do it, what HBCU can?

The nation's top luxury brands in commerce aren't defined by the quality of the product, but by the quality of the people working at the largest and smallest divisions of the corporation. Their expertise, friendly interactions and willingness to serve beyond reasonable expectations creates the sense of luxury and makes the hefty economic commitment worth the expense. Howard's product, academic enrichment for the social benefit of a people, is without compare.

Everyone who values HBCU culture and Howard's worth within such should hope that a growing institutional culture of poor customer service hasn't rendered that brand beyond repair.