UV Letters

Dec 18, 2015 BACK

The Five-Minute University

Volume V, #26

One of my favorite old Saturday Night Live characters is Don Novello’s Father Guido Sarducci, the chain-smoking priest. While his Find the Pope in the Pizza skit was genius, his best was the Five-Minute University.

Father Guido’s Five-Minute University aimed to teach students in five minutes “what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.” The Five-Minute University was bundled, like the degree programs we know and love: “It would cost like $20. That might seem like a lot of money, $20 for just five minutes, but that’s for like tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks, everything. Everything included.”

In Spanish, students learned ¿Como esta usted? and muy bien. In economics, students learned supply and demand. Then for spring break, since there’s no time to go to Fort Lauderdale, the Five-Minute University turns on a sun lamp and serves students orange juice (the aforementioned snack in the bundle).

***

I served a lot of orange juice in high school, waiting tables in a busy brasserie, mostly on brunch shifts. I learned a lot from being a waiter (including – Five-Minute University-style – the modification code for sunny side up – 118). And I developed a fascination for how good restaurants work. So when a restauranteur I admire, Danny Meyer (of Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, a host of other remarkable New York establishments and now, spectacularly, Shake Shack) set out the secrets of his success in a 2006 book, I was an early, avid reader.

In Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Meyer employed a range of anecdotes (good guest/bad guest, good fried oyster Caesar salad/bad fried oyster Caesar salad) to distinguish between service and hospitality. Service is a monologue, said Meyer. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. “Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you.” “The core of hospitality is being on the guest’s side. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response.”

While the Five-Minute University doesn’t pass Meyer’s hospitality test, few colleges and universities do. In keeping with the food service theme, Exhibit A is last week’s New York Times report on how some institutions are force-feeding students with mandatory meal plans and even dining fees for students who don’t purchase meal plans in order to fill budget gaps or “finance a $177 million student union with limestone cornices, clay-tiled roofing and copper gutters.” Although these efforts have given rise to complaints, requests for refunds and even lawsuits, universities are holding their ground.

Danny Meyer – who once took a guest’s salmon off her bill because she said in passing that she didn’t enjoy it (even though she ate most of it) – would not be pleased. For Meyer, hospitality almost always involves being generous in the short term. “It’s almost always worth bearing a higher short-term cost if you want to win in the long run… Generosity of spirit and a gracious approach to problem solving are… the most effective way to earn lasting goodwill.” In short, the golden rule of hospitality: treat guests the way we would want to be treated.

Although hospitality may be scarce in higher education, North Carolina’s High Point University seems to be an exception. After all, as noted by Jeff Selingo in College Unbound, High Point is probably the only university in the country with a concierge desk where students can get restaurant reservations and send out dry cleaning. But is High Point (and its highly compensated President) really taking the side of students in constructing a first-run movie theater, outdoor hot tubs and a steak house, or in funding the position of Director of WOW, an executive charged with pleasing students? These services are being provided to students, not for them. According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, High Point students pay an average annual cost of $33,943 (double the national average) and graduating into jobs paying $37,500 (close to the national average). As some portion of the high tuition bill is paying for the hot tubs and the Director of WOW, High Point is not taking the student’s side by saddling them with excess debt. High Point may be providing service, but not hospitality. If Meyer were to visit High Point, he’d see it as a shining example of the difference between service and hospitality.

If not High Point, what kind of higher education hospitality would meet muster with Meyer? Meyer takes the guest’s side. And so colleges and universities must take the student’s side – as some alternative “full-stack providers” are beginning to do. In my view, there are three elements to taking the student’s side:
1) Developing and delivering specific high-quality educational experiences that produce graduates with capabilities that specific employers desperately want; and
2) Working with students to solve for the financing of the educational experiences; and
3) Connecting students with employers during and following the educational experience and making sure they get the job.

***

Meyer’s secret sauce for hospitality is counterintuitive. He puts the interest of his employees directly ahead of his guests. Employees come first for Meyer because it’s the only way to ensure that his restaurants take the guest’s side: “the only way we can consistently earn raves, win repeat business, and develop bonds of loyalty with our guests is first to ensure that our own team members feel jazzed about coming to work.”

While it’s hard not to feel jazzed about the stated mission of colleges and universities, it’s possible that faculty, staff and administrators at our 6,000 Title IV-eligible colleges and universities are distracted from their focus on students by bundled meal plans and steak houses – or perhaps because many are compensated and promoted based on factors wholly unrelated to students. It’s also possible that faculty members aren’t best positioned to provide real hospitality for students if they’re being attacked by their governor.

Motivating and empowering faculty, staff and administrators to take the student’s side and do everything in their power to achieve meaningful outcomes is what higher education hospitality is all about. If your institution isn’t doing this, it may not be much better than Father Guido’s Five-Minute University.

***

This marks the last UV Letter of 2015. We began the year talking about Millennials and throughout touched on topics as diverse as the impact of smartphones, rankings, the importance of structure for completion, “just-in-time” higher education, ePortfolios, the skills gap, and the future of accreditation. If we were successful, we got you to smile, laugh and think. Thanks for spending five minutes with us every two weeks; hopefully more productive than the Five-Minute University.

Equally important for us are the many provocative discussions spawned by each Letter. Many Letters serve as test grounds for investment theses we act on – investing in enterprises that aim to help institutions take the student’s side. Thanks to your engagement, our aim continues to improve.

Happy holidays to you and your family from all of us at University Ventures.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.

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