Service of When it Works it’s a Beautiful Thing: Baruch P.R. Helps Turn a Lemon into Champagne

September 11th, 2013

Categories: College, Mistakes, Newspapers, Public Relations

Baruch Coillege 060913

Large organizations that listen to their P.R. counsel can often work magic when things go wrong, which, of course, they inevitably do. That is what just happened at Baruch College, where I’m involved in a mentoring program. Baruch is part of the massive and complex City University of New York system, one of the most extensive and decentralized educational institutions in the state.

Baruch in ManhattanBaruch, as do other city and state colleges, charges students who are New York residents a significantly lower tuition than it does those from out-of-state. For some reason it had been charging tuition for a recently admitted student, Matthew Levy, a lifelong New Yorker, at the “out-of-state” rate. When Baruch caught the error, it informed Levy that in future he would be billed at the lower “residents” rate.

Not unreasonably, however, he decided to seek reimbursement of the approximately $7,000 he had overpaid and approached a clerk in the school’s admissions department to help him. The clerk told him: “Normally, if you paid, you don’t get your money back,” but that he could file an appeal, including as evidence of his New York State residency, copies of his driver’s license and voter registration card.

Matthew, no fool, went one step further. He also wrote to David Segal “The Haggler” in the Sunday New York Times Business Section and asked for his help to expedite the refund. 

Christina Latouf, Baruch VP Communications

Christina Latouf, Baruch VP Communications

Segal wrote: “The Haggler contacted Christina Latouf, a spokeswoman for the college. She needed a day or two to figure out what had happened, and then she wrote something rather remarkable. In an e-mail, she said that the school not only took responsibility for stumbling blocks inserted between Mr. Levy and his refund, but also that changes would be made so that such errors don’t happen again. Those changes include working with the City University of New York — of which Baruch is part — to review out-of-state designations.

“‘Further, if a student’s initial documentation indicates they have always been a New York State resident, we will no longer request additional documentation,’ Ms. Latouf wrote.”

Baruch StudentsSegal praised Baruch for changing its system: “Do you hear that, dear readers? It is the sweet sound of modest reform, a noise as rare as the quack of the Scaly Sided Merganser.”

He continued: “‘At the heart of this case was an incorrect coding designation,’ Ms. Latouf wrote, in conclusion. ‘While we have put some measures in place (such as the one that triggered our initial outreach to Matthew), we will build and utilize new technologies to put more safeguards in place, and train staff to assure coding is accurate.’

Baruch students 2“True, soothing and conciliatory words are cheap. But Baruch is off to a good start. Two days after the Haggler called, the school contacted Mr. Levy, and that same afternoon he e-mailed the Haggler a photograph of a document waiting for him at the bursar’s office: a check for $7,245.”

I’ve met Latouf, who is Vice President for Communications, External Relations and Economic Development at Baruch, and dashed off a note to congratulate her. She responded: “It was a lot of work, but we’re all very pleased to have been able to turn a potentially negative story into a positive.” 

She did more than that: She showed the world what a well-oiled organization she works for. Who couldn’t admire the speed of the reform? Baruch includes 1,500 full time academic and administrative staff and more than 17,000 students. That someone in the administration listened to the communications VP and agreed to and implemented changes at warp speed shows trust. Like The Haggler, I think this is unusual and laudable.

Do you?

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7 Responses to “Service of When it Works it’s a Beautiful Thing: Baruch P.R. Helps Turn a Lemon into Champagne”

  1. JPM Said:

    You tell a great story and describe a level of common sense competence one would expect of town clerks in well run, prosperous, up-state communities, but not of the staff of a large government-owned institution functioning in an urban environment. Bravo Baruch and all responsible!

    You are writing about a college, and your readers may include academics capable of answering a question about tuition, which has been deeply troubling me for some time. I have yet to hear a plausible answer.

    My tuition as a senior 50 years ago as an undergraduate at a privately owned New England college was $1,600. Now tuition at that same institution is more than 40 times that amount. What happened? Yes, there has been inflation, but it has been not even remotely enough to explain an increase of this magnitude.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    JPM,

    I think any organization, large or small, in academia, government or in private industry, should see this model as “it can be done–no excuses.” We’ve become so used to dragging feet and passing the buck that it makes too many of us numb.

    I have heard one reason tuitions in private institutions reach in the stratosphere of $40 to $50+ thousand/year is because most students don’t pay that much–there are so many scholarships and grants around. Add easy credit [and unrealistic hopes about future salaries] and voila.

    Another reason may be because they can.

    There are PR/marketing agencies that perform lackluster work with little enthusiasm and companies that happily pay $millions for it. There are others that charge a fair price and achieve spectacular results based on creativity and hard work. Similarly what you pay for your education has little to do with what you’ll gain from it based on many of the Baruch alumni, students, faculty, deans, administrators and support staff I’ve met. But that’s always been true in that what a student puts into the work may matter most.

  3. JPM Said:

    I’ve heard $70,000 as today’s number most equivalent to my $1,600.

    I think you may have the right answer, “Because they can.” That is why the student debt crisis is such an impending “burst bubble.” However, that does not answer the question as to what the colleges are doing with all that money.

  4. Martha Takayama Said:

    The essential focus of this beautifully written article is that a bureaucracy was willing and able to recognize and take responsibility for an error and not only correct it but take measures to prevent a recurrence.

    In a world in which one is buffeted with meaningless “I am sorrys” when trying to address or redress endless bureaucratic, procedural and far more serious errors it is uplifting bordering on the miraculous to read such a positive story. The rapidity of the actions taken to correct the error would seem record breaking by today’s standards. For those concerned with the “bottom line” it certainly is time-saving and efficient. Let us hope that this experience is indicative of a sign of a new social or cultural trend.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    I am laughing because I WISH I’d hear bunches of “sorry’s.” It’s usually “sorry about that” said in a dull voice with blank look indicating “go away.” If I followed up on all frustrating instances where corrections would solve the problem for umpteen others after me, I’d get nothing else done.

    To take action and make a change on top of cutting a check in record speed–almost a miracle in any organization! Let us hope this represents, as you note, a new trend–wouldn’t that be great!?

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    Latouf was avoiding a law suit which may well have ensued had the school insisted on reaping ill gotten gains. The $7,000.00 is tiny compared to being charged damages, legal and court courts which would certainly have followed. Even should the school win, the bad smell of having stolen from a student is something that does not go away.

    Mme Vice President is doing her job. Any other reaction on her part would have plunged the school up to its neck in legal alligators. Some might call this good PR, others, plain old common sense.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I know Christina Latouf, though not well, and my bet is that the school’s reputation was what she was trying to protect more than it’s pocketbook due to a lawsuit.

    Credit should also go to the administrative team that listened to her spot-on suggestions and approach or maybe it was they who came up with the solutions.

    I have only been outside PR counsel to giant and small corporations while she’s working inside, but from my vantage I could share hair-raising examples of employees who not only wouldn’t play ball when it made sense to do so, they’d cause agita for their brands and colleagues. Common sense was the last thing on their minds.

    PR is nothing more than common sense, and it’s quite extraordinary how few people seem to exhibit much of it. Sure, Christina was doing her job—and doing it better than most as before the hand of potential bad publicity struck, she had already earned the respect of colleagues within the school–also common sense, but not always possible.

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