Of recruitment and rumors

Prospect College Taigu (Shanxi Province)

Prospect College Taigu
(Shanxi Province)

A new academic year is upon us–my third as “deans” of the Prospect Colleges.  My first year was spent in a near-vertical learning “curve”; my second, in nuancing my understanding and in dismantling policies and procedures that had been imported wholesale from the Roosevelt Academy in the Netherlands, regardless of cultural suitability or feasibility.  This year will be spent in redefining and more aggressively promoting our agenda for the colleges and in celebrating our first graduating class next summer.  It will also, I hope, mark my serious entry into the blogosphere.

I am once again at our northern campus in Taigu. This past weekend marked the arrival on campus of the 2015 freshman class, signaling the start of a four-day recruitment rush period for our college. As the liberal arts/honors college of a larger campus, Prospect College cannot accept direct application, that is, we can only hope to entice students to apply to our college once they are already registered and have arrived on the main campus. This means that we have only four days in which to invite and review applications, conduct interviews, offer admission, and get new students moved out of their originally assigned dorm and into our dorm. And all this is happening while they are paying tuition, bidding family farewell, undergoing orientation, getting library and meal cards, outfitting their dorms, and preparing for their military training, which starts…today!

Down in Chongqing, Prospect College has solid support across the Yitong campus and has enjoyed an increasingly good reputation; we have had little trouble attracting students. In 2012, the first year of operation, we met our goal of 150 students without too much trouble. In 2013, for the same 150 slots, we had approximately 300 applicants, all of whom were examined in English and math, and then were interviewed by a panel of teachers. In 2015, to our great surprise, we had over 600 applicants—an embarrassment of riches that had us scrambling to raise our exam cut-off scores and to devise group interview strategies in order to complete the task in the time allotted. Teachers and administrators worked every day from 8 AM until 10 or 11 PM, breaking only for lunch and a brief rest, and then dinner. We expect a similar bumper crop of applications this year.

Here in Shanxi Province, however, the situation is quite different. In 2012, as in Chongqing, we met our goal of 150 students for the entering class, pretty much by accepting all comers. In 2013, we had 180 applicants and were slightly more selective. Last year, however, we were stunned to find that we were unable even to approach our target, despite last minute “advertising” at new student meetings, during which the vice dean and I explained our methods and goals, and staff and student representatives made impromptu pleas to take a look at us. I found it all rather unseemly, a feeling that intensified to real embarrassment when, at the new student convocation, the campus president devoted much of his speech to extolling the virtues of Prospect College. But it was all to no avail, and our final enrollment figures barely topped 100. I was disappointed but felt that we were okay for a year so long as we had taken in good students; we vowed to analyze the situation and prepare better for future recruitment efforts.

Mr. Peng—head of the Board of Directors (and thus owner) of the campuses—was extremely unhappy with this unexpected turn of events, as well as a growing number of other matters on the main campus, and he made his displeasure clear. In the aftermath of hurried and heated meetings, the experienced and dedicated president was ousted (he left under the pretext of age and poor health), followed by another half-dozen “older” administrators. Having just left Taigu, I arrived down in Chongqing unaware of the coup d’état until my vice dean called to say that she was not going to wait around for the axe to fall: she decided to “fire herself” and would return to teaching at Shanxi Agricultural University. At that point, seeing an opportunity to control Prospect College (which they’d never really understood), the “young Turks” now in charge of the Taigu campus took it upon themselves to hire a replacement vice dean, without my knowledge or consent. Fortunately, their candidate—who’d been given a response deadline in advance of my hastily arranged return flight to Taigu—had the good sense and grace to call and ask my advice. This led me to contact Mr. Peng and request his intervention. He responded at once, instructing the new administrators that I was to conduct my own search for a new vice dean and that the final, irrevocable decision would be mine alone. Memorably, he asked everyone in a mass email, “Is this a college or a kindergarten?!”

As it turned out, my ultimate choice was the same person previously identified, so we were all able to save face and salvage some working relationships out of the debacle.

In evaluating the poor recruitment outcome in 2014, we identified several factors: (1) Shanxi provincialism and conservative resistance to innovation that has yet to prove its value in the marketplace; (2) general ignorance on campus about the nature and role of Prospect College; (3) rampant negative impressions of the college, fueled by a vicious rumor mill; and (4) our failure to prepare adequate and enticing publicity materials in the proper media and locations. Regarding the first factor, it was present from the start but mitigated during the first year by our having been handed the records of the best incoming students and asked to choose from among them; it was not an entirely voluntary admissions process. At this point, the only remedy will be time and the successes of our future graduates.

Regarding the second factor, our new vice dean worked tirelessly to address it during the course of the 2014-15 academic year. She sought to work as closely as possible with other administrative units to demonstrate that we are colleagues, not competitors. This has proven far more difficult than one might imagine, partly because funding in some quarters is driven by headcount. For departmental student affairs counselors, in particular, loss of even a few live bodies to Prospect College would negatively impact their already-low salaries; one can hardly blame them for not talking us up to their freshmen.

What is harder to understand is the pervasive tacit endorsement and propagation of false information, e.g., our tuition is higher; our students pay exorbitant electric fees because they have kitchens; we require students to go abroad and airfares cost US$3,000-$5,000 per student; our teaching methods are less rigorous; our teachers are the worst on campus; etc. In truth, tuition is exactly the same as all other students on campus, depending on major; each student’s share of the kitchen electric bill typically comes to no more than the equivalent of US$8 for the entire academic year; and students apply to go abroad and, if selected, each receives a subsidy of US$1,000 toward airfare, which is typically less than $2,000. Nonetheless, such disinformation is passed along by departmental representatives, by student dorm monitors, and by others—all of whom appear to new students as experienced and knowledgeable. Given the entrained reluctance of Chinese youth to question authority openly, new students will tend to believe such statements, no matter how far-fetched, and will not seek independent corroboration.

So now here we are again. The administration, worried about a possible repeat of last year’s poor showing and fearful of Mr. Peng’s anger, determined initially to simply assign some group of students to Prospect College in order to hit the target of 150—a ridiculous and counterproductive move if ever there was one. Here again, I am fortunate to have Mr. Peng’s support: over lunch in Riverside this summer, I informed him of this plan and requested his aid in calling for patience as we refute rumors and repair our relations with the main campus. His subsequent email did just that, but people are still very nervous.

Last year, once registration closed, I suggested that the Taigu vice dean for student affairs go down to Chongqing and observe our recruitment procedures there. The calendars at both schools differ by a week so we were able to quickly arrange flights for him. Seeing hundreds and hundreds of students lined up for our entrance exam and interviews was astounding. This year, using what he learned from his colleagues down south, our vice dean produced printed and visual recruitment materials that are more attractive, and he arranged for informative posters to be place strategically around campus. All weekend, punctuating the sometimes lugubrious piano music broadcast across the campus (underscoring parental melancholy and thus reminding students to work hard so as not to disappoint their grieving parents), announcements highlighting the “special characteristics” of Prospect College urged students (and parents) to come check us out.

So far, we have offered admission to nearly 90 students but only 60 or so have followed through—victims, no doubt, of the churning rumor mill. We may yet attract a few more after some large group recruitment meetings later today and tomorrow—meetings that will showcase a new video, teachers and students talking about their experiences at Prospect, and me, the exotic and, I’m told, ke-ai 可爱 (“adorable”) foreign-dean-who-speaks-Chinese. I’ll keep you all posted.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan Montrose
    Aug 24, 2015 @ 04:44:00

    Wow! Quite a struggle! I understand how hard it can be to “correct” commonly held misconceptions having worked in an excellent program for 15 years that had a broad reputation as being the place they sent “bad” kids. Good luck most adorable dean. ☺️

    Reply

  2. Femke
    Aug 25, 2015 @ 12:13:34

    Fascinated as always by your stories and insights, and the miraculous world that is China… Go Taigu students, dare to be different!!

    Reply

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