On Thursday of this past week, my job as Vice Dean for Education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School included reading all the names for graduation. The Vice Dean for Faculty and Research officially runs the graduation ceremony. The Dean makes comments and shakes hands. We hear from an alumnus, a student, and a keynote speaker. Then, I read.
This year, we had a very large number of Chinese names—as we will for the foreseeable future. More in August than May given the timing of different programs. In May, for the Chinese names that I did encounter, I simply used the phonetic pronunciation that had been supplied. I found it somewhat confusing given where the real and phonetic spellings were on the cards that were handed to me to read. I found it confusing because the same real spelling was represented by different phonetic interpretations. And I found it confusing because I had not taken the time to have a conversation with a native Mandarin speaker to help understand the nuances of the pronunciation for the names I was reading.
So, this time, six days before graduation, I took the list of names and phonetic interpretations and met with a staff member who is a native Mandarin speaker. We spent two hours going through the names with my attempts at pronunciation, her guidance, and my rewriting a lot of phonetic interpretations.
Then two days before graduation, I rewrote the phonetics again—this time so that my colleague who was preparing the name cards could read them. And on the day of graduation I spent about 30 minutes reading all the names quickly. I found a few rules of thumb that if I would remember would make a big difference in my ability to read the names in a way that would make it sound like I was confident and that I had paid some attention to their actual pronunciation.
So, the graduation ceremony arrived on Thursday. I didn’t hear directly from any of the students afterwards (this is a group that I did not know very well), but I heard a number of comments that made me quite pleased. One person said that I had been volunteered to help with translation (I don’t know any Mandarin other than the names). One of the English as a Second Language instructors told me that the students were definitely impressed. The director of our MS Finance program told me that the students were happy. Was I perfect? No. But the key is that I was credible and that students noticed.
Making the people I serve as a leader (or business-person in the business of higher education) feel that I care about them is critical. Even using the phrase—people that I serve—shows how I think about my leadership and the business of higher education. It carries over to other situations. For example, why do my wife and I go to small retailers that charge us more? Because the employees make us feel like we matter.
So, do I think the school will get more students because I read the names well? Not necessarily. Or that is not necessarily the direct effect. But it can’t hurt. If students leave graduation happier, they are likely to make a first donation as alumni that is bigger. A bigger starting point puts them in line to be bigger donors later. If they are bigger donors they are more likely to promote the program. The more they promote the program the more students we get in the future. That could take years to play out. But it sets the foundation for a strong and healthy relationship with these individuals over time that can certainly benefit the school. That is why I will make a similar or greater effort next time. And if I do this five or six times, I should be able to manage without having to spend quite so much time in advance as I’ll know all the rules of thumb for reading the pinyin spellings of the Chinese characters.