University Marketers, Heal Thyselves

University Marketers, Heal Thyselves

Can we really steer clear of Charybdis, or are we just plain Scylla?

Hear that sound? It's a clarion call, courtesy of David Kirp. In his must-read book, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, published earlier this year, Kirp eloquently summarized our challenge as university businesspeople and marketers: to find a way to reconcile the "values of the marketplace" with the "values of the commons."

The few who can, like Dickinson College (PA) and NYU, survive as winners. The rest of us lose spectacularly. Like the University of Chicago (IL), we can hew to academic quality while risking our tenuous grip on financial viability. Or, like the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and (interestingly) DeVry University, we can succumb to a Faustian embrace of the marketplace while placing our academic souls in peril.

How do we strike the balance? Can we really steer clear of Charybdis or are we just plain Scylla? Based on my experience leading the branding and integrated marketing efforts at Bryant University (RI), let me suggest three practical paths along which higher education leaders should immediately embark.

Redouble our efforts to measure successful outcomes. We have an alphabet soup of places to start--NSSE, CIRP, and ASQ-- and we could begin by debating their comparative strengths and weaknesses. But let's not just fall back on the existing standards.

Instead, let's face the harsh reality: The U.S. News and World Report rankings are the defining platform for external measurement of quality in higher education, and generate internal focus far beyond their real value. And, more damning: We let it be that way.

Higher education is astonishingly poor at defining success, measuring it, and thereby establishing a factual, data-driven basis upon which to make reasonable judgments about making improvements. We don't see this as necessary, and we don't insist upon it.

Granted, the task is made difficult by lack of clarity on purpose and objectives, and institutional culture that lacks a common language. But there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Smaller, nimbler social enterprises such as New Profit (www.newprofit.com) and New Leaders for New Schools (www.nlns.org) are using the "Balanced Scorecard" method, pioneered by Robert S. Kaplan at the Harvard Business School (MA), to quantify success metrics for their strategic goals. They use this method to manage rapid growth while achieving remarkable levels of social change. So, measurement and nonprofit success are not a priori mutually exclusive.

Restart a dialogue on the purpose of higher education. This one initially gets a big yawn. In a world of Janet Jackson and the global war on terror, it seems neither sexy nor scary enough to warrant focus. Besides, didn't Cardinal John Newman already figure this one out? Higher education cultivates critical thinking. The elite liberal arts institutions rule the roost, and everyone else falls into a long line of relative prestige according to how "applied" we are.

But, remember: The people who pay the bills think the point of higher education is for students to learn so they can get jobs. Parents grow increasingly restless about our annual habit of marking up tuition. Government officials wield appropriations and Pell Grants like weapons of mass distraction. Jobs? In a global, information-based economy? Sounds pretty "applied" to me.

I believe there is a path to satisfy both imperatives. But it begins with clarity of purpose. So let's dust off Newman and challenge some of the old assumptions. After all, he wrote "The Idea of the University" in 1854. Surely some new knowledge has been created, disseminated, and applied in the 150 years since then.

Find some common ground. It's too easy to descend into pointless lobbing of ancient shibboleths: "Marketers are polluting the Holy Grail of Education," or "Faculty members are inbred, move too slowly and resist change." One need only look at the critical response to Kirp to date to see evidence of this knee-jerk reaction. The San Francisco Chronicle published a shallow book review that quickly descended into standard cliches about how terrible it is for universities to have to market themselves.

Instead, we'll get to solutions faster when we realize that we'll all hang separately unless we hang together. Administrators choose careers in the university, rather than more lucrative ventures, precisely because we value students and learning. Teachers who exercise rational choice do not find it in their long-term interest to cling to a parochial view of quality at the expense of institutional viability. So we sit, together in this boat. Let's find some common language so we can communicate about rowing without tipping over.

In these pages (University Business, February 2004), Kirp suggested that to galvanize the dialogue "higher education needs its own Arnold Schwarzenegger." Could he mean that, left to our own devices, we will merely grope for solutions? None of us want the decade ahead, with its challenging demographic trends, to mean "Hasta la vista, baby" to delight in the life of the mind.

But if we build upon these ideas, we can start along the right path. The Arnold that we find along the way may not be Schwarzenegger, but it will most certainly not be Benedict.

Ed Sevilla is executive director of College Relations and adjunct professor of Marketing at Bryant University.


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