How can I be tactful in a difficult situation?
March 19, 2010 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Need to be tactful in a tough situation. How do I go about it?

I'm in my third undergraduate year at a large, well-respected engineering school. My major currently has about 200 undergrads, many of whom are taking advantage of a program that offers in-state tuition to out of state students if my major is not offered in the home state of the student. Due to budget cuts, this program is about to be dropped. Enrollment is certainly going to fall in the coming years, which makes recruitment of high school students that much more important.

However.... the two men who are in charge of attending the high school recruitment events (think sitting at a table, talking to students who come up and express interest) are the epitome of (bad) stereotypical engineers. One of them is a foreign research engineer who speaks very, very little English, and the other is a professor who is perpetually stuttery, sweaty, and generally unpleasant to look at/speak with. I am often at these events as a representative of my major; I have a very good relationship with the department and happen to be a charismatic, socially well-adjusted female. What usually happens at these events is that the students come sit near me and ask me questions directly, and the two men sitting there rarely speak. I don't mind being the center of questioning at these things, but I really feel as though I'm trying to make up for the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the department's choice of recruitment people. There are definitely charismatic, well-spoken professors and staff in our department, but they probably claim to be "too busy" to attend these events.

With our numbers likely to drop in the next few years, I think the department should care more about the image they are projecting to prospective high school students.
I'm a member of the student advisory board, which periodically meets with the administration in the department to talk about issues that have been raised from a student's point of view. In my opinion, this is exactly one of those issues. The other members of the board agree with me, but we are all at a loss of how to bring this up tactfully without stepping on the toes of the current recruiters. Another slight hiccup: the sweaty, stuttery fellow is the faculty leader of the advisory board, so we obviously can't put this in the minutes or updates we give to him after each meeting.

Honestly, my first visit to campus involved a tour given by the research engineer, and if I hadn't already made up my mind about pursuing this major, he would have singlehandedly changed my mind. I truly feel that seeing these men as representative of my department at recruiting events could be changing students' (especially women's) minds about considering this major.

So, MeFi, how can I (or the entire advisory board) emphasize to my department, tactfully, that I think it is important to pursue more charismatic options for recruiters? I can speak directly to the head of the department if need be, but honestly, this is probably pretty far down his list of important items, and I don't think he realizes how important image really is to high school students looking to choose a college.

Please post if you think I've left out any relevant information. Also, I can be reached at

tl;dr I am in a position to tell my department that they need to care more about the image they are sending to prospective high-school students for recruitment purposes, but I don't know how to bring it up tactfully without stepping on the toes of the current (uncharismatic, frankly quite off-putting) people in charge of recruiting.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just like in any PR situation, women (the most attractive ones that can be found) tend to attract men (I assume the engineering dept is male-heavy?) At bare minimum, suggesting that one of the two "recruiters" is a woman, ya know, to balance out the sexes, would hardly be considered insulting. Who knows, the recruiting job may be a bore to the existing guys.
posted by teg4rvn at 2:46 PM on March 19, 2010

Talk about "relaunching" your high school recruitment initiative. Suggest that the engineers on the faculty surely must have other things to do and, while their service was much appreciated, you're positive that the recruitment slack can be picked up by knowledgeable students.

Underline how it's important for the high schoolers to talk to someone closer to their age and who were in their shoes a few years ago. Presented like this, I think any toe stepping can be minimized.
posted by inturnaround at 2:47 PM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

What if you suggested that the recruitment representatives were just undergrads or grad students? You could frame it as an effort to save time for the busy faculty members who would otherwise have to do it, and play up the fact that the undergrads/grad students might have a better sense of what it's like to be a student at your school and/or will be more able to readily connect with high-schoolers.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:48 PM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

Is there perhaps another faculty member, whom you trust, that can offer you guidance on this? They'd have better insight in to the faculty politics and ego issues, I'd think.

Anyway, it sounds to me that your Advisory Board exists for just this very reason - to provide a perspective to Department decision-makers that they would otherwise lack. Your Department Head has this low on his list of priorities because he doesn't know what you do about students. It looks like it's up to you to remedy that, so don't hold back from speaking to him directly. Good luck.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 2:53 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first thing in tactfully criticizing someone is to begin with a compliment. Whatever you decide to say, start off with something like "Drs. Smith and Jones are working really hard on recruitment, which is great and really appreciated. However, I wonder if the students might appreciate hearing more from other undergraduates... (or whatever suggestion you might have). Your suspicions that they have the job because they are the only ones who volunteered are well-founded. I am on the faculty at a medical school and occasionally have to ask for volunteers for various weekend or after-hours projects, and it is hard to find them. While it would be good if other faculty could step up to help, you may have to resign yourself to helping these guys do a better job. There are other good suggestions here regarding political issues that you may not be privy to as well.
posted by TedW at 3:12 PM on March 19, 2010

Everybody already knows. The trick is to find a face-saving way to articulate it.

"I get a lot of people talking to me at these recruitment events. Maybe because I'm an undergrad. It might be intimidating for high schoolers to talk to Dr. Sweaty and Dr. Scary. Maybe we can find someone who is more approachable for kids to talk to."

You can say this right in front of Drs. Scary & Sweaty. "Approachable" then becomes the code word for "not a raging dork."

Don't worry about hurting their feelings. They probably don't even like doing recruitment events.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:14 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aside from the flirty aspects (which is grody but sadly true), you should have a woman on the recruitment team to recruit WOMEN. Hel-LO!

I'll bet Drs. Scary and Sweaty got their positions because nobody else wants the job. Or maybe because the department places more emphasis on meeting with donors/prominent alums than recruiting, and the higher-ups/old guard/more personable professors probably want to do that themselves. Drs. S&S are probably just as freaked out by it as you are. God knows they know that they don't fit in; they're nerds.

How about speaking to your university's admissions reps directly? They should have a liaison or two to your department. And I agree with TedW and think you should approach it that way.
posted by Madamina at 4:46 PM on March 19, 2010

It's often helpful to phrase suggestions as positives rather than negatives; as opposed to saying "this isn't working, let's change it", what about suggesting "wouldn't it be great if..."

Are there particular professors (researchers, grad students, etc) who you actively think would be great at it? What if you talked to them to see if they had any interest, and then, as a Board, suggested those people to the department because they are "very approachable", "young and energetic", "really have a lot of enthusiasm about the program", etc. (or whatever phrase suits your nominee best). That way, you're not just pointing out a problem, you're helping them improve things.
posted by aimedwander at 6:19 PM on March 19, 2010

You can't get rid of someone without a replacement. You should sell it to the charismatic guys yourself, and then get their advice about how to give their champion long-serving colleagues a respite from their extensive, most likely tiresome service for the department. ;)
posted by salvia at 10:55 PM on March 19, 2010

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