Has Campus Branding Become Higher Education's Version of Fake News?

AuthorFear, Frank A.

This is a personal story as much as anything--not just a story about collegiate branding--so bear with me as I frame this essay in personal terms. That approach helps me make sense of what I have experienced over the years. I hope the personal touch will bring life to these issues. My story begins in the early 1980s when I was a young, assistant professor on the tenure track at a major state university. I taught grad students, conducted research, and did a lot of student outreach, connecting what they were learning in the classroom to my own research. The cornerstone of my work was a year-long graduate course on the theory and practice of community development. Because so many students were interested in pursuing public/nonprofit careers, I always made sure to include course topics associated with organization management and leadership. One topic was social marketing, a relatively new concept back then (Weinreich 2006). I was interested in helping students think through how they might market a nonprofit or public sector organization--just as they might do if they worked for a business. Social marketing had broader applicability too (Andreasen 2001): how might students introduce an idea or service to the public in a constructive, successful way?

I watched the concept of social marketing catch on nationally. I was pleased to see it adopted by many colleges and universities and I included collegiate examples in the course (Larson 2013). One example came from the University of Oregon's 1990 television commercial entitled "World Class." (1) The television commercial is interesting in that it takes a monolithic approach: the entire spot focuses on Oregon's national rankings.

Providing external evidence to support organizational claims is an important--and classic--characteristic of brand marketing. As an example, let us flash forward to 2016,25 plus years after the University of Oregon spot aired. It is a General Motors spot about how several cars in its product line topped the J.D. Powers'evaluation of initial quality. (2) Note how GM adds a dimension of customer interaction in the spot--and secures customer affirmation too--in response to its Powers-based assessment of product quality. I like both spots because they are straightforward, grounded presentations of product quality. You might quibble with sources of evidence (I actually do, in both cases), but both ads get high marks on truth telling.

The same can be said for another, yet different, approach. There is not an external data source to verify claims made in "Brighter Future 2017" by St. Martin's University of Lacey, Washington, but I like the way serving the public good is this organization's center of gravity. [3] Note the strong emphasis on how the school serves students. A point of pride is the amount of money being set aside for undergraduate scholarships. It is also interesting--and reinforcing for anyone who values the social impact of higher education--to see how St. Martin's views funding for scholarships as an investment in society (the commonwealth) as a whole.

If everything in collegiate marketing and branding today was like the University of Oregon and St. Martin's spots, I would not be writing this essay. Having said that, when you finish reading this essay you may conclude that it is much ado about nothing. What is the big deal about campus branding, a seemingly trivial matter? It is because I do not see it as trivial, although I actually once did. Today I see it as a window into the way institutions think about themselves and how they want the public to view them. In some instances, it reveals an underbelly, showing what higher education in America has become: self-absorbed and arrogant.

The issues I will describe in this essay evolved over time. Things began to change at least three decades ago, perhaps as long as a half-century ago. I began noticing changes as early as the mid-1980s and, by the early 1990s, it was clear to me that the landscape had changed dramatically. By then I had supplemented academic roles with administrative assignments. I had a bird's eye view of how a university was being run. In the beginning, I did not know what to call this change. Let's simply call it it. I just knew something was different. Early on I figured it was just me, that perhaps I was misreading the environment. Humanist Alice Dreger (2015,18) well describes what I did next: "Sometimes the best you can do--the most you can do--is point to the sky, turn to the guy next to you, and ask, 'Are you seeing what I'm seeing?'" The answer was yes. To give you a sense of the dynamics of this metamorphosis, I will start by describing the way things were before.

The approach I have always taken (and taught) is that public and nonprofit organizations--including higher education--are first and foremost social institutions, founded to serve the public good. But these organizations also need to be run like businesses. I have always believed that the most successful organizations are strongly committed to mission, have a public serving vision, and have in place a strong set of business structures and processes. These twin characteristics--social institution and business operation--need to be in balance.

But make no mistake about it: back then, I experienced many public and nonprofit organizations that were not in balance. The pattern was almost always the same: organizations strongly committed to their public mission had fundraising issues, personnel problems, executive director challenges, or other things of that sort--the stuff that formal organizations often encounter in business operations.

The same dynamic challenged higher education. Over the years I worked with many administrators who, although quite accomplished in their respective fields, were not as adept at leading and managing departments, colleges, or universities. They seemed to be afflicted by the Peter principle, that is, promoted to the level of their incompetence. (4) Here is the thing: I was accustomed to dealing with what I have just described--and the issues associated with it--because I accepted it as part and parcel of public and nonprofit life. It was the so-called paradigm. But in the 1990s (at least as I perceived it back then) the paradigm shifted. It flipped, actually. Business operations now got top billing and the social institution side of the organization got the shorter end of the stick. There was still imbalance, just a different type of imbalance--one that was not easy for me to either accept or accommodate.

The metrics spoke to the shift. The most valued metrics were about money, efficiency, and competitive standing. Certain functions became privileged--those that enabled a school to compete successfully with peers. A wave of new administrators spoke to the shift. We called them bean counters. Always there, but mostly in staff positions, bean counters were now everywhere, including in significant fine positions. They were department chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents. They had power. You could not laugh anymore.

For me it was a profoundly headshaking experience. I was convinced the shift would be problematic. Social institutions are not businesses. They need to be run like them. The cornerstone of public and nonprofit life is the way that values, missions, and visions interconnect to serve the public good. Nothing good comes--and a lot of bad can happen--when business operations become preeminent. One might argue that certain forces compelled the paradigm shift. Declines in public funding. Greater competition. More public scrutiny. Calls for accountability. All of those things are true and the literature and press are replete with renditions of all of the above.

But this change was also willed. The administrators who came through the door--and the boards that let them in--were highly skillful in this new way. They relished taking charge, shifting things around, much like we have seen in Washington, DC. What I experienced back then was a paradigmatic change with ideological moorings. The philosophy was different. Ways of valuing were different. It was not the way I had come to know--what mentors had modeled and taught me. There were different answers to what a university could be and what a college education is for.

It took me a number of years of thinking, reading, discussing, reflecting, and writing to come to the conclusions I have just shared. Why? Nobody was shouting the change from the mountaintop. It was more like a creep. That was an insidious feature of it: this shift just crept up and over time took hold. By the mid-2000s I discovered that my new experience had a name. It had a name long before I discovered it. It was neoliberalism (Monbiot 2016). Business operations reign supreme. Markets are king. Success is measured by individuals and organizations...

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