The ‘Delicate Duplicitousness’ of What I Do

In a guest post today, Rick DiFeliciantonio, vice president for enrollment at Ursinus College, in Pennsylvania, describes the duality of his job.

A liberal-arts college is a strange and quirky combination of a church and a business, and the vice president for enrollment must act as both pious membership chair and hard-nosed, back-room sales manager. I must keep focused on my sacred role in the development of the soul of the 17-year-old, while at the same time stay apprised for my Board of Trustees of the imperatives of marketing, branding, and price optimization. My heart is responsible for the mission of the ministry; my mind is responsible for the company’s bottom line.

I am sometimes accused of evasiveness, even equivocation. That may be true. A kind of delicate duplicitousness is built into the nature of what I do.

Another way to describe my challenge is for you to picture me trapped in the overlapping section of two circles in a Venn diagram. One circle requires fluency in the rhetoric of human development. The operational terms of this circle include standards, counsel, personal, encouragement, meritorious, personal attention, responsibility, judgment, grades, guidance, service, self-awareness, and character.

The other circle is dizzy with the business discourse of customers, net revenue, yield funnels, management, econometrics, creative destruction, signaling, outcomes, positioning, disruptive adaptation, and obligations ratios.

Some terms magically reside in both worlds yet have different meanings, depending on the context (like the picture puzzle where sometimes you see two faces and sometimes you see the lamp in between). The term “qualification” lives within both circles, meaning qualified as in “prepared to do college work” but also meaning “likely to continue through the sales funnel.” An interaction is “an intimate discussion between a student and a member of the faculty” (even better if it takes place on the grassy quad) or “a signal a prospective student sends to a college which the college promptly codes and in turn re-signals by sending an additional piece of snail or e-mail.” A scholarship can mean “money to support deserving students,” or it can mean “discount.”

Conversely, there are also examples of two different terms that mean the same thing: A dean of admission is the same as an enrollment manager. A counselor is the same as an admissions rep. Strong financial aid is the same as leaving money on the table.

The number of terms that do not mean at all what they appear to mean is endless: A “good recommendation” is hardly a recommendation at all; an “applicant with a solid transcript” is marginal and bound to struggle. Any criticism of the U.S. News rankings is tacit support. A “completed application” is a document with a name, address, and Social Security number. And a “college’s mean SAT” excludes many below the mean (which has the charmed effect of raising the mean).

I have good days and bad days. I have come to understand a good day as a time when my lived duality is resolved, or at least for the moment not smacking me in the face with its impossible contradictions. A bad day is being smacked in the face with impossible contradictions—by an angry parent of a prospective student or, worse, by my CFO. A bad day is making the mistake of overusing the discourse of business with a parent, or misusing the discourse of development with a member of the board.

I have learned this: I no longer believe any consultant who tells me he or she can easily resolve those two worlds for me. It is not easy to do so, and no one can do it. And if you are ever in a discussion with me about your son or daughter interested in my college, and it seems I’m saying one thing and meaning another, that’s because I am, but not really.

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