Want to Better Serve Students? Design With Empathy: Reflecting on ListenUp EDU 2019


“I just had a colleague tell me that she had a leadership breakthrough recently when she realized that her team didn't need her to know all the answers, but she needed to listen, learn and share more. This is how I would describe ListenUp.”

Did the last conference you attended have a dance interlude? How about an artist in residence? A jazz musician? Was every session interdisciplinary and interactive?

I could go on, but rather than list all the things that set ListenUp EDU, the conference we hosted two weeks ago with Campus Sonar, I suggest you browse the #ListenUpEDU hashtag on Twitter and Instagram yourself.

ListenUp was about, well, listening—listening to students, to alumni, and to our teams in higher education in order to better serve our constituents and create change within our institutions.

If you’re interested in hearing about what’s in store for Listen Up 2020, sign up for the mailing list on the conference site and we’ll keep you posted. For the benefit of those who didn’t make it to ListenUp this year, I’ve tried to summarize the conference in four points.

Higher education as we know it is not designed for students.

Though colleges and universities’ primary function is to educate students, they often cause a great deal of pain and inconvenience for those whom they are supposed to serve. This much becomes clear when you take the time to map out the hoops students have to jump through and byzantine protocols they must follow in order to navigate their college experience.

Alex Aljets, University Innovation Alliance fellow at Oregon State University, led a process mapping session at ListenUp where participants mapped all the necessary steps a hypothetical student has to go through in a very non-hypothetical process to change their major. Turns out—surprise!—there are far more steps in that process than there need to be, and the process itself is opaque and hidden behind layers of staff who students might not know to talk to in the first place. Typically, that’s because administrative processes aren’t so much designed as they are accumulated over time, the product of dozens of shortsighted decisions each made for the convenience of administrators, not the students who are administrated.

The university/college is made of systems, not just people and teams, and these systems are often obstacles to students.

Colleges and universities aren’t just made of teams of people—they are systems composed of systems composed of systems. Fortunately for us, realizing this makes it much easier to fix problems. Understanding the challenges within our institutions as systemic ones rather than personal ones makes it much easier to get buy in from the stakeholders whose help we need to design solutions—it’s much easier to get stuff done when a system is at fault, rather than when a person or team is blamed for poor performance.

Flaws in these systems are what get in students’ way. The protocols that every student must follow in order to graduate—registering for classes, switching majors, scheduling advising appointments, paying for college—are complicated enough for students who feel well equipped to deal with them. They’re even more complicated for students who are unfamiliar with higher education, those who don’t have the time or resources to figure it out, or those who feel excluded from the system in the first place. Kassie Infante, Assistant Director of Alumni Engagement at Phillips Academy Andover, and Amma Marfo, writer and speaker, addressed these students’ predicament in the ListenUp session they led on inclusive service design. I found their definitions of and distinction between diversity and inclusion vs. equity and justice to be a useful heuristic for evaluating the success of the systems within our institutions. (They cite the 2017 essay, “Language of Appeasement,” as the source for their definitions.) Diversity and inclusion, by their description, are surface level measures of success— “We invited X number of wheelchair users to attend,” or, “We increased our admission of low-income students by X% this year.” Equity and justice, in contrast, are about making transformative change to enable real success—“We made the oldest campus buildings, where important student services are located, wheelchair accessible,” or, “We now support low-income students with emergency grants for unexpected expenses and have increased graduation rates among that demographic by 15% as a result.”

The systems that make up our institutions are the problem. What are we doing to fix them?


The way to help and serve students is by practicing empathy and creating a “culture of care.”

Empathy is a skill. Listening is a skill. They are both things we have to practice to get better at. Emphasis on the word practice—they are things we have to do actively and invest in improving. We can meet students’ needs and reengineer our systems by practicing empathy and practicing listening. Our ultimate goal should be to create a “culture of care,” that is, a set of systems and practices where listening to and empathy for student needs are innate. Johanna Hussey, Assistant Director of Engagement Programs at Brown University, shared the quotation, "Nothing about us, without us, is for us."

Andrew DeVigal, Professor of Practice and Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, said in his ListenUp session, “The term voiceless bothers me. Everyone has a voice. We’re just not listening to them.” When we listen to our constituents, we learn what their needs are, how they are and aren’t being met, and how we can redesign systems to improve. When we build this listening into systems themselves, the people running those systems can improve them over time without intervention from those outside. In a culture of care, systems are engineered and re-engineered over and over again as student needs change.


We can build capacity for empathy and cultivate a culture of care by becoming and empowering intrapreneurs within our institutions.

We all know what an entrepreneur is—an innovator and businessperson who starts something new. “Intrapreneur” is a term that Liz Gross, founder and CEO of Campus Sonar introduced us to—she uses the word to describe someone who makes innovation happen within an existing institution.

Many of us in higher ed self-identify as intrapreneurs who work within our institutions to make positive change. If we are subservient to the systems we run, we can’t change them. Only when intrapreneurs are empowered—when people have the authority to fix the problems within their sphere of influence—are institutions able to adapt and transform to meet student needs.

So how can those of us in leadership roles empower our teams to be intrapreneurs themselves? Andy Shaindlin, VP of Alumni Relations at Brown University, quoted MoMA Curator A. Hyatt Mayor on the subject: “I wasn't hired for what I know. I was hired for what I can find out.” As our teams listen to our constituents, we need to listen to our teams in turn and build consensus for action from the ground up rather than issue diktats from the top down. Listening needs to occur at every level of our institutions.

Are you interested in attending ListenUp in 2020 and developing these skills? Sign up for ListenUp updates and we’ll keep you in the loop as we finalize details for next year’s conference:

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