Thursday, October 25, 2007

This is Also News...Good News.

Buried deep in the Business section, C3, today, slightly above the fold, comes this modest headline: Congress to look at college endowments. Well, it seems that Congress has been looking at some endowments for awhile now. The message is simple: some people in Congress think that elite US universities with multi-billion dolloar endowments should spend some of their money, say as much as private foundations must do to keep their nonprofit status. Legislation may be more directive and expect such institutions to help students directly, such as by providing more aid or or by creating limits on endowments as colleges raise tuitions beyond certain limits.

Here is the thing: Harvard, Yale—the two universities mentioned in the article—and any others that fall into the category should not have to be told anything by Congress or forced into doing the right thing through legislation. They should do what Princeton is doing and pay for the students' tuition.They should pick up the tab for students who want to teach or teach piano or edit books. How many billions do you need to run a university? What can you do with 1 billion? Let the legislators focus on health care or other issues. We should be able to monitor the ethics of of an embarrassment of riches ourselves.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tufts Leads the Way

Now this is worthy of a front page story. Tufts University is, according to the Boston Globe, "offering graduates an unusual deal: Take a job as a public school teacher or social worker, or work for any nonprofit, and the university will help pay off their college loans for years to come." The article points out that while some law and medical schools have offered similar incentives this effort is unprecedented in its promotion of public service careers, for encouraging students in all majors, and for influencing students before they accept their first job.

The article goes on to describe the details and that Tufts does not intend to cover the entire debt. However, the plan is well thought out and couldn't be more important, exciting, impressive, and needed. This is true leadership. Tufts decision addresses the issue of crippling debt and the need for students to follow their passions, not just their pocketbooks. The decision speaks to higher education's purpose of serving society by producing educated leaders in all sectors, who in turn will serve as models and mentors for future generations of students. Other colleges and universities, especially the ones with healthy endowments, should follow suit. Students should choose Tufts for this very reason and parents and alumni should give generously to support such inspired leadership.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why is this News?

September was relatively quiet as colleges and universities kept their heads down and let the students and faculty roll on in. Virginia Tech is testing out sirens and judging by my admissions counseling business the applications frenzy is well underway for the class of 2012. So I guess there really isn't any news for the Globe readership to chew on save for the editorial decision to run a story on Page One that the UMass Alumni Association isn't such a hot commodity. I get that UMass, as with many state schools, is late to the fundraising ball and, thus, late to develop their alumni's interest in the school post commencement. I just don't get why it is front page news or even news at all. It is not like alumni associations boast memberships of 80 to 90 percent of its graduates. Indeed, as the article points out, "the national average among 85 universities surveyed last year is a membership rate of 18 percent, but that figure is higher at many public state universities." How much higher? Penn State claims 34 percent.

Okay. So UMass needs to do a better job with their current students to ensure that they see themselves as part of a life-long community. So UMass needs to make up for years of neglect. Here is my question. Why is the state of the alumni association front page news?

Why is the Globe trying to embarrass UMass?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Virgina Tech, Fallout

The report from the panel appointed by the Governor in Virginia was released and called "scathing" by the New York Times reporter in the Globe of August 31. At issue, as predicted in this blog months ago, was the failure of the administration to cancel classes after the first two shootings. The President, however, now in the hot seat, is defending himself. Probably the first step toward eventual resignation. He still believes he did the right thing, "based on what [we] knew at the time. You have to understand how fast things were occurring"

I think the panel did understand how fast events were occurring and further understood that when two students are shot dead no matter what else is occurring you do not conduct business as usual. You freeze the moment in as many ways as you can to contain the unknown.

I appreciate that Virginia Tech administrators thought all the damage was done and that the perpetrator was off campus. But they were wrong. The campus police didn't have anyone in custody or admitting to the crimes; they had two dead people. It was the time to think the worst. It was the time for the director of communications to speak up and bring truth to power. It was the time for the director of public safety to speak up. It was the time for extreme caution. But instead there a hope for the best. Thishas been seen as a lapse in judgment because it was a career-moment judgment call.

So President Steger would be better served saying that in hindsight, yes, he should have closed the school. He should graciously see it the other way. And if the confidence of the trustees and faculty in him as a result of this incorrect call is so severely undermined that he will, with regret, step aside.

President Steger says the assailant, Cho, was solely to blame. Other reports have called for better systems to monitor the behavior of the mentally ill on campus. Invariably there are discussions about rights to privacy versus the role of the college in loco parentis. This is all well and good for future planning. But the President is simply not on safe ground here. It comes back to this. Would lives have been spared if classes had been cancelled? What would have happened if Cho had been frustrated in his ability to get into Norris Hall or found no one there when he arrived? The panel seems to think there could have been a better outcome; at the least the President's behavior would have passed muster. It is not that the President is to blame for the murders. It is that perhaps something, rather than no thing, should have been done.

The article continues with a comment by Larry Hincker, a university spokesperson, who says, in response to a suggestion in the report that the institution adopt key cards for most of the buildings, that the school would have to "think carefully" about such a change because it would influence the way people interact on campus. I can only hope this comment was taken out of context. Mr. Hincker needed to express his gratitude to the panel for highlighting those areas that would make his campus a safer place. He needs to acknowledge that while such changes might feel uncomfortable he has no doubt that they would make Virginia Tech a more secure campus. Which, by the way, right now, for Virginia Tech administrators, is Job #1.

A Cruel Time For College Applicants

I wish I could have more sympathy for Webster T. Trenchard's sympathy for the college applicant. In his August 23 op-ed in the Boston Globe he takes on one inconsistency in the college application process that he finds particularly problematic. Of all the issues there are, I'm afraid Mr. Trenchard's point is just not that strong and can be easily explained away.

He describes a common situation. Prospective students who visit college campuses or read the literature are told that SAT scores fall in a range and that institutions are looking for diversity and a complex suite of attributes that are indescribable by simply looking at grades and scores. Students are encouraged to apply because "you'll never know." Cynicism is put aside, and students and parents may pin their hopes often on a dream and not on their reality. Then comes the acceptances, when it appears as if grades and scores matter very much. Expansive welcomes turn into explanations of how students just weren't competitive in the pool.

Mr. Trenchard wisely understands that the admissions officers operate in a competitive environment themselves and are more than encouraged to bring in the most number of applicants as possible. After all, the more applicants who apply and are rejected, the more selective the institution appears in the all-important college ranking systems. He just doesn't want parents and students to get their hopes up and he feels their pain. He feels there is a discrepancy between the position of the admissions officers when they are selling and when they are accepting.

I would suggest to Mr. Trenchard that the admissions staff feel no such discrepancy and not only to do they believe that anything is possible during the admissions process but they have acceptances to back it up. College admissions offices are still reading individual applications and giving individual consideration to applicants. It is true that a student whose SATs and grades are radically below those required of an institution's stated standards cannot expect an offer of admission just because he or she has won an Olympic medal or brought peace to the Middle East. But where the student is within range or at the low end, such a student has a chance for consideration. And that is what the admissions officers mean: that kids have a chance. Maybe not your kid, but some kid. Further, no student is accepted in a vaccum. Each is indeed part of a cohort of applications against which he or she is compared. Admissions officers are creating a class. That is why a student with identical scores and grades from different coasts will get a different response to an Eastern school. Yet both sets of parents heard the same marketing pitch and both students had the same "chance." I'm not saying it is fair. I'm not sure the admissions staff is saying it is fair either.

So it has always made sense for students to apply to some schools from which acceptance seems likely, the proverbial "safety" schools and some which are a reach. It is imperative for parents and guidance counselors to understand that the process is fraught with uncertainly now precisely because the pool is so competitive and students are being encouraged to set their sights higher. But I have to say: you just never know. My cousin was accepted to Tufts University, notoriously high-faluting in its admission policy, and Oberlin and rejected from Wesleyan. Why? In another case, a male student from California was admitted to Wesleyan; a similar female student with superior grades from Massachusetts was rejected. We found out it it was a demographic decision: Wesleyan wanted men from California.

So parents can take the admissions officers at their word while understanding that it might not work that way for their child at that particular moment in time.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reaching Out to Siblings

Just back now from Maine, and lighter pursuits, and I find a front-page story in the Boston Globe that reports that colleges are providing programming for the siblings of candidates when the families come to campus. The motivation is really not about giving mom and dad a break from babysitting. Or entertaining the younger members of the family so the older ones can better focus on college selection issues. It is, rather, a boldface way to create an early and positive impression on the younger siblings that, admissions staff members hope, will stand them in good stead as these youngsters begin the college applications process.

I appreciate that middle school students and high school freshmen and sophomores might find visits to colleges interesting and if presented with any combination of programs—educational, cultural, athletic, or social—could well benefit. Indeed, students of these ages often find themselves on college campuses during the summer pursuing just these sorts of activities. Such students are—without question— put on the institution's mailing lists and are part of its outreach in the years that follow.

But the article reporrts a more blatant approach and although it makes sense from a marketing point of view, it just feels a bit slimy to me. The reason it doesn't sit right is because these siblings really haven't signed up for the program; with any luck at all they have yet to drink the college admissions Kool-Ade and are still leading normal, happy lives. They haven't signed up for the SummerMath Program at Mount Holyoke. They just got in the car with their parents and older brother and off they went, perhaps because their plans to stay with friends fell through. Next thing you know, they are the target of the admissions officer. If BU and the other institutions that are initiating this practice were genuinely interested in reaching out this youngsters, without a marketing component, because that is what insitutions of higher education do, that would be lovely. But this feels more like kids having to sit through the sales pitch to get a free dinner. It isn't that—I get it—it just feels that way.

Monday, July 16, 2007

President Fallon Finally Fired in Laura Dickinson Murder Cover-Up

The President of Eastern Michigan University has been fired. Although former President Fallon says he doesn't know why he has lost his job and is unhappy about the process, maybe the dead student, Laura DIckinson, found in her dorm room last December has something to do with it. Originally the school's investigation concluded that there had been no foul play. Several months later another student was charged with rape and murder and is awaiting trial.

Bad things happen on college campuses. Laura Dickinson lost her life, perhaps brutally by the hands of another student. This ought to be tragedy enough. But it is not. Apparently, according to a CNN report, "Many in the university's administration were accused of covering up the truth and endangering students to protect the image of the school, which had been marred in recent years by tensions with faculty, students and the community." Well, this scandal certainly isn't going to help brand equity, is it? Of course the president should lose his job. What is amazing is that the status of Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Vick and Public Safety Director Cindy Hall are still on the job. University spokeswoman Pamela Young said she couldn't comment on Fallon until after a meeting this afternoon. Hasn't there been enough cover-up? And speaking of Pamela Young, what role did this Director of Communications play? Was she involved in the cover-up? Was she simply told that the death was accidental? It is possible. And equally possible that she is in up to her eyeballs. Howard Bunsis, president of th faculty union, wants "total focus on what happens in the classroom between students and faculty." I hope Bunsis was quoted out of context because it seems that a lot of conversation, healing, and administrative redirection overall is called for now and none of it is related to the classroom.

Apparently it doesn't go without saying wherever catastrophic events occur, candor and effective administration are the order of the day. An appropriate march to justice is always, by definition, the way toward greater brand equity. Cover-up never is. Rush to judgment—see Duke University—never is. While Eastern Michigan would have been loathe to discover, as Virginia Tech did, that one of their own may have been capable of a brutal crime, surely if the evidence was followed in the only way appropriate to honor Ms. Dickinson, that is, to its honest conclusion, then it is a truth with which the students, faculty, family, and community would have to deal. Indeed, they are dealing with it today. That, and a seemingly horrific act of commercial misjudgment. It is one thing to gather all the minority students and put them on the cover of your viewbook to sell your diversity; it is one thing to manipulate your statistics to improve your rankings. These are the "crimes" in the fight for brand equity. Eastern Michigan's administrators failed to grasp by an order of magnitude what their allegiances demanded. And so did any Board members if they were calling for extreme measures to improve brand equity beyond reason. They are part of the problem. Bunsis says everyone involved in covering up information about the slaying shouldn't be working for the University. I think he has it right. May Laura Dickinson rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Alumni Giving Tied to Size of Loan! Duh.

Oh my goodness. Is it really news that students who leave colleges with massive debt don't appreciate the fundraisers coming after them from said colleges, especially while they are still paying tuition to said schools? To whom is this news? Certainly not to any one I know. Not to a single parent who is sweating out FAFSA applications. Not to my cousin who was in graduate school and staring down so much debt and so terrified of it that she took a leave. Not to the communications director who is trying to persuade—yet again—the fundraising VP from making every communication with the alumni a pitch. PEOPLE!

Colleges are expensive: they are expensive to run and they are expensive to attend. But I can assure you that most of the people who are paying to attend think they are paying as much as they possibly can. It cannot possibly be news that there is a problem ahead for the fundraisers who will be looking to alumni to meet school goals. Students go to school as a means to an end. Indeed, the experience is mostly marketed as a means to an end. The article on the front page of the Globe, headlined— Colleges fear debt puts damper on donations— gets right that giving has not been an integral part of the academic experience. Trying to make it so at a time when the financial pressures are so weighty is nothing if not bad timing.

I am not saying that the average college graduate can't contribute $20 a year to UYou. But the kids think it unseemly for the schools to ask. The family feel extremely put upon. The fundraising staff are under seige to bring in their quotas. The communications staff are trying to streamline the mailings so that families don't get four solicitations and a tuition bill all at the same time. And colleges are busy alienating wealthy alumni who apply for jobs by sending them rejection letters saying they aren't a good fit (see my earlier blog). PEOPLE!

If this isn't the time or place to talk to about better efficiencies or if this isn't th time or place to talk about the problem of escalating costs or if this isn't the time or place to talk about private colleges becoming solely for the rich or the poor then perhaps it is the time and place to say that instituitons should not be depending on the Boston Globe to let them know what the students are thinking and feeling about fundraising. It makes it seem that school administrators are completely out of touch. It perpetuates the notion of an ivory tower and not in a good way.

The Globe reports that administrators at smaller, less competitive schools are at a disadvantage and are worried about this trend. They fear the Princetons and Harvards will have an advantage. PEOPLE! Princeton and Harvard DO have an advantage, always have, always will. Harvard has an endowmenet of $33 BILLION. It still charges tuition and stills racks in big bucks in fundraising because it is one of the few instituitons that has built fundraising into its student culture. Also, it has a little brand equity so its graduates tend to do fairly well. But that doesn't mean that Harvard's behavior isn't unseemly when it solicits $20 bucks from the family that forgoes vacations so that Junior can hunker down in Cambridge for four years.

Colleges fear that debts puts a damper on donations? This is a no brainer. I'm saddened to hear it is news. I suspect it is not news to many administrators. I wished someone would listen to them.

Another Institution Rebuffs US News & World Report Rankings, Sort of

Today it is reported that the University of Maine Farmington will no longer complete the peer review section of the US News and World Report rankings form. The school will continue to fill out more objective sections of the form such as numbers of students who apply and are accepted, etc. The leadership feels, however, that it is irresponsible to judge other leaders based on hearsay and other subjective measures that may not be supported in fact. In other words, the good 'ol boy, you- say- you- like -me -and- I'll -say- I- like- you portion of the questionnaire strikes the U of M Farmington leadership as problematic. Good for them. And PS: The school was doing fine in the rankings so it ain't sour grapes.

UMESS: Continued: How to Pick A President

The Globe reports in big letters that UMass trustees are commited to an open search for its new president. The subhead—more compelling—is that many on campus are wary of the process. How unfortunate that the story is being managed by the voices on campus and the press, if, in fact, there is to be an open, transparent, and recognizable search for a new president. Wilson and the trustees had an opportunity in the face of all the tumult to do some damage control. They could have gone out of their way to make it clear that they intended to follow accepted protocols in higher education for filling a presidential opening, including perhaps hiring a search firm. The outreach to faculty and top administrators could have begun immediately. There would have been nothing to loose and everything to gain. Why no downside? Because the creation of a search document requires those conducting the search—in this case the trustees—to say what they are looking for. Simply put, they are looking for someone they can work with and someone who shares their vision regarding centralization of campuses. It is not clear that they are looking for a puppet. That would be unfortunate and might necessitate an appointee. A real search committee, consisting of faculty and administrators, would likely prevent such an appointment. A search firm could help in relaying the information to the trustees that a VP of Communications should be communicating. But there doesn't seem be to one. It is imperative for WIlson and the trustees to bring in a president who can help see their vision and work closely to address faculty concerns. WIlson and the trustees can demonstrate that they understand and hear the issues faculty and administrators are raising by simply following standard search protocols. It would be a huge win for them. And might even uncover a great president.

Monday, June 4, 2007

UMESS: Continued: Wilson surprised

Two weeks later the headlines continue. There is chatter that Chancellor Lombardi was beloved; that he was not; that he had agreed to support Jack Wilson's plan to unify the institution and then withdrew his support. There are no real surprises until we learn that Jack Wilson was surprised by the uproar. And that surprises me. Because uproar was absolutely predictable.

According to education reporter in the Globe Marcella Bombardieri, Wilson believed that since he had been taking about unification of the system for two years and because Lombardi's support on campus was mixed that any formalization of his intentions would not cause such an uproar. In this Wilson demonstrates true misunderstanding of how academe behaves. He had only to watch the experience of Larry Summers at Harvard and the behavior of his faculty to get a glimpse of how faculty behave in the face of unwanted change.

Wilson could have expressed his intentions without much response ad infinitum. It was only when he DID something that the faculty responded and it responded swiftly. Wilson is surprised because in his mind he had been preparing the campuses for action. But all the people on the campuses heard was chatter. It didn't effect them until there was a plan. And then it was as if it was brand-new information to be reviewed and assessed on its merits. Wilson should not have been surprised, however. His communications counselors should have been able to tell him that his faculty constituency was going to react and that, as a result, news would be made. This was completely predictable. And now the faculty have made the issue about governance and not about whether UMass should be a unified system or not. Which, by the way, is the way that faculty typically stand in the way of change. It is a form of filibuster.

Individual members of the faculty will attack the process by which change has been suggested or will attack the style of the person who is charged with making the change—often it is one and the same—and the net result is NO CHANGE. Oh, eventually, some change seeps in. But there are dead bodies strewn about, lost reputations, lost jobs, settlements, and a lot of talk. Instead of the vision for UMass dominating the headlines, we have reportage of leaked emails and no comments. I wish I could say that with better communication the crisis could have been averted. Better understanding of faculty behavior might have helped. Getting buy-in from all the trustees or at least knowing which ones didn't buy-in would have helped. Getting buy-in from key faculty would have helped. Painting a positive picture of the vision that would excite the tax-paying base and making your argument in the press would have helped. But those are all elements of a strategic approach to change and have supporters few and far between on campus.

Bombardieri says at worst Wilson has lost influence over the system he is trying to unite. I think the worst is that UMass may have lost a vision that would have transformed it for the better.

Friday, May 25, 2007


It started quietly enough, as the college commencement season was in full swing, honorary degrees competing for attention on the front pages of the Globe with the souls of American servicemen in Iraq. But now the town is emptying out—except Harvard whose Commencement isn't until June 7. And the furor is in full swing at UMASS. On the Amherst campus, the flagship, where we previously heard about millions of dollars of deferred maintenance issues, now comes the votes of no confidence by the faculty. The faculty, all but one, is taking issue with the resignation of the Chancellor, who is stepping aside to allow the five main campuses in the system to come under one administrative roof and take on the competition in full strength. Except the trustees, forgot, which they do at their peril, that faculty think they RUN THE PLACE! Any actions so boldfaced as this one, that so sharply removes faculty input and by definition suggests facuty have no role in mega-governance issues is taken very, very badly by our friends on the faculty. I'm not at all sure this is as much a cry of support for john V. Lombardi as Chancellor of UMASS Amberst as it is a cry of distress about process from the usual suspects. So now, backtracking in the face of the faculty uprising, Jack Wilson says he will review the plan for the administrative merge. Hindsight is 20/20. If the trustees had convened a group of faculty, it is unlikely any proactive announcement would have been made this spring. If a plan had been derived with faculty input and then presented to faculty senates, it is unlikely that any proactive announcement would be made in the near future. It may be easier in this case for Wilson and the powers that be to beg for forgiveness than to have asked for permission. Faculty, unfortunately, are not reputed to adapt well to change nor are they likely to put the needs of a system ahead of the needs of their individual institution. Some would, of course. But there would be dissent and this dissent would gum up the works. Meanwhile, UMASS has to move ahead. The story will continue to play out of course. This is just the opening salvo. But at least it is not lost in committee.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Rating the Rankings

My good friend Joel, a professor at Johns Hopkins, sent me the link to the Baltimore Sun (.com) on Sunday, announcing that St. John's was boycotting college ranking. The subhead: Annapolis school, 11 others scorn peer survey of U. S. News. I barely had time to respond to this because the very next day a Boston Globe headline read Wheelock raises cry on college rankings. Subhead: Calls magazines list subjective and unfair.

Bravo St. John's. Bravo Wheelock. And bravo to the ten other schools that have signed a letter sent out to other institutions urging them to boycott the rankings and not use them in their publicity materials. Some of the other schools have reputations strong enough to benefit from being ranked on the list—this is not sour grapes. It is an act of integrity and values in the face of what may be a runaway train of excesses. What are those excesses? Well, as the departed, defamed Dean of Admissions of MIT of last month's news cycle was suggesting there is too much pressure on high school students to get into the "right" schools and too much pressure on parents to pay for them. These parents and students, in addition to their guidance counselors and admissions consultants, are pouring over lists and guide books and rankings to help determine which are the "right" schools. Chief among these is the US News and World Report. What Editor Mel Elfin started as a way to sell magzines decades ago and perhaps as an interesting feature as turned into a Bible that literally puts peoples' jobs on the lines. Committees exist on college campuses devoted solely to figuring out how to manipulate the data necessary to move up on the ratings. And those in the know know the data is hinky; that is, it does not begin to measure what your son or daughter will learn. For example, the selectivity rating can be affected not by how much smarter the students are but by how many more applicants submit their materials. The more who apply and are not accepted, the lower the percentage of accepted students and the more the selective the school. So more marketing and time is expended to attract more students—who many never have a chance of actually being accepted—to increase the number of applicants. Excess.
Imagine the money that is spent on attracting students who shouldn't be applying in the first place and think about the public trust. It doesn't jive.

Useful information, such as which schools have better resources in one discipline or another, is well, useful. But what does it mean when a college is 56th best liberal arts college in the country as opposed to 66th or 75th or 35th? What does it means for the students or for their futures? In real terms, it probably means very, very litle. But I can tell you that on those campuses, if the president is so inclined, it can mean a day of hysteria when the rating come out. I have been on such campuses where schools are going down on the list. Memos go out from the Provost and say, simultaneously, the following: rating don't matter but unfortunately they do and we're going to fix this injustice. These 12 schools have said ratings don't matter. Period. Think of the time they'll save by not worrying about their scores or filling out the forms. Imagine that same time being put into teaching, research, and service. They may actually become better schools.

C'mon Harvard. C'mon Yale. C'mon Amherst. C'mon Wellesley. You've got nothing to lose. Everyone knows you're always 1, 2, or 3..

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Deferred Maintenance at UMass Amherst

It doesn't come as a surprise that UMass Amherst is, as the Globe reported today, "facing a daunting repair bill." In addition to a $790 million building effort that began four years ago, the campus now requires an additional $1.8 billion in the next decade. Yesterday it was reported that the school required $830 million but that number has been increased.

I've been on campus and what little I saw suggested that the need is quite real. Deferred maintenance; science facilities that must keep pace with ongoing advances; technological requirements in classrooms, and for faculty, staff, and students; not to mention staying competitive in the ever-expanding creaion of luxury dormitories and dining hall environments all combine to confront the administration and trustees with a ferocious, insatiable montster of constant building and repair needs. From where the money though?

It should be obvious, even though it is the tonier schools that get most of our attention, that the unsung heroes of higher education are—and will increasingly be—the most affordable insttituions: to wit, the public colleges and universities. I often counsel students and familiies of modest means to look to state schools as their best-case scenarios. It does not necessariy follow that graduates of state schools earn less than graduates of private institutions. However, the pattern of giving is quite different and thus we are back to our building problem.

Public institutions of higher education are increasingly asked by their state governments to raise money the old-fashioned way: from their alumni and other outside sources. State support is no longer a given. Here in Massachusetts I personally think it is a crime that we don't have a state system that can be counted among the "public ivies," as does Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and other up and coming systems. If education is one of our industries we should be capturing all of our homegrown students who want an excellent education and cannot afford a private school or prefer the advantages of a large state college. So, point number one is that Massachusetts should get busy and do whatever it takes to make UMass shine.

Still, a couple of billion dollars is a lot of money and there is another side to this. Students have come to expect education as a right—as indeed K-12 is explained as a service to society. We need an educated citizenry. But higher education is more typicaly considered a responsibility, an advantage. For this, there is a price. And students who were part of the public system are as indebted to their institutions as are the rest of us. Parents and families of those students are no less beholden. Their chidrens' education was subsidsized by tax dollars and, to the extent possible, their goodwill and generousity must also be called upon. In other words, the culture of giving must take hold in the alumni of public higher education just as surely as it has in the classes of the Harvard Business School. This requires a change in attitude that must be communicated when the students and their families first come to the campus: that higher education is a privilege and giving something—anything—back is what we do.

(By the way, I'm not saying it wouldn't be great if the government didn't provide higher education for its citizenry—maybe it should—Norway does, but the taxes show it. We just don't do it here.)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Student Aid in Trouble

I've been sort of ignoring this story because it is so awful and so obvious: the idea that colleges and universities have been colluding with loan companies, sacrificing the trust of families and students, and not providing the most favorable financial alternatives for their students is just beyond my comprehension. Andrew Cuomo is unearthing the relationships in New York and already some colleges have come forward and are rectifying their procedures.

Today I read on the Higher Ed Watch Blog of the New America Foundation a report that, if true, is stunning. The blog reports the a University of Texas Student newspaper has found evidence regarding preferred lenders that does more than suggest that the institution selected lenders based on the perks it, the institution received, from the lender. These perks consist of meals, gifts, and other forms of "marketing." This was not an informal system of rewards, according to the blog. The UT Office of Student Financial Services maintained a list of "lender treats" and rated the lendor based in part on the number of treats it received.

Maybe this can be seen as business as usual but in non-profits it is not Business as Usual. There seems to be evidence that a lender who offered O% interest loans to students but did not market itself aggressively to UT might have been taken off the list. If these allegations are true, the implications are horrific. Consider: the financial aid officers who parents and students assume are working on their behalf are, in fact, pitching for the other team. It is like when you find out the realtor at the open house is working for the seller: except that that is common knowledge and the broker is compelled to explain the relationship to you as the buyer. Not so the financial aid advisor, who is busy munching on his or her free sandwich.

Something went horriby wrong. I don't think there is any singlemost more important stressor facing families of the college-bound today than expenses associated with higher education. It is reprehensible that there is even an inkling of impropriety let alone actually standing in the way of students getting the most help they possible can. Heads should roll. Non-profits are a public trust. That trust has been abused wherever the lenders have been preferred over the students.

For those of us in communications—sometimes called public relations or marketing—who are often fighting connotations of the evils of Madison Avenue or accusations that we are bringing an unauthenticity to the halls of academe, it is ironic that the real scam may be in financial aid.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Marilee's Grave

I don't have good news. On the MIT Admissions Blog, which has yet to be purged of Marilee Jone's materials, there is post entitled, "Who Needs Harvard?" The date of the blog is August 15, 2006. Here is what she writes:

"Just because you haven't heard of a college doesn't mean it's no good," argues Marilee Jones, the admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an outspoken advocate of the idea that parents need to lighten up.

Well, if she felt that way REALLY and does have a degree from St. Rose's College imagine how much more powerful her message would have been had she owned up to it. Then she could have made the point that prestige was besides the point. Instead she seems to be saying the opposite: prestige matters so much I had to lie...and keep lying.

The Boston Globe reported today that her book sales have increased since her resignation.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Back to Virginia

I'm reading a reflection from Michael L. Dame, the Director of Web Communications at Virginia Tech on a PR newsletter. The headline reads, in part, that Virgina Tech rejects the "Media Blame Game." Since I am only nominally media but did have some blame to pass around I was more than a little attracted to this. A lot of what the print and broadcast press focused on during those dark days was on college communications plans so I found the following a most ironic piece of information.

"Let me start," Dame begins, "by saying that I'm not part of the emergency communications team the President organizes. So I wouldn't be on the first list of contacts or anything." Do I have to spell this one out? I appreciate he is not in charge of the communications office but he is charge of WEB communications which is a key avenue for getting information out fast. Why is he not on the emergency communications team?

In the morass of a blame game here is where institutions are vulnerable to criticism. He was not contacted until 9:15AM by his supervisors "who told {me) we were going to post an alert on the website and that they were going to send an email out, along with the other normal alerts. The email alert, handled by our news and information director, and the website alert were both posted around 9:29 a.m." Seems a little late to me.

Reading on I discover that Dame doesn't so much reject the role of the press as understand it. The headline turns out to be as incendiary as the perhaps the coverage was. But Dame understands why the story was compelling and why it saturated the airwaves. He even understands that the coverage allowed his colleagues and Virginia Tech students to tell their stories to the world. He really doesn't discuss any blame except to say that while the institution has considered emergency situations and planned for them, this one was unimaginable.

All I'm saying is that he should probably be among the first to know.

More News on Marilee

I had really hoped that this story would go away. But it seems that there are layers to be unpeeled and Marilee Jones' movitvations and intentions are the subject du jour. She actually has a degree—which explains why she wouldn't have taken the time to earn one—and it means that now my suggestion that she do so must be retracted. It was not fear that motivated Ms. Jones when she fabricated her degrees. It appears to have been shame. She has a degree from St. Rose's College. She decided that one degree wasn't enough and St. Rose's wasn't enough to meet her ambitions. So she borrowed the ability to get a degree from other institutions—perhaps more rigorous than St. Rose—perhaps simply more well-known—and we pick up the story from there.

Her feelings of insecurity and shame, ambition and drive that led to her downfall are Greecian in their tragedy—although no one is dead. But they have been discussed here and in pages and pages elsewhere. Her motivations to reduce the stress level and to encourage high school seniors of all abilities has a more personal feel to it now but what more is there to say, really?

But think of the power of brand equity in this one young woman. There are countless accomplished men and women who graduated from institutions of higher education that are not on the US News & World top 100 list or fall into the category of third tier. The students rise. Forget about all the other facts of the Marilee Jones incident—notably that she didn't need the degrees for her first job at all and her credential would have been sufficent to qualify her for the deanship—she didn't respect her own school and hew own work because the universe didn't recognize it in ways that mattered to her. She was the ultimate snob, here: worse than MIT, whose hiring practices would not have discriminated against her.

And why, when the story broke, did she let the impression linger that she didn't have a degree? The story just gets sadder.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Merrily, Merriy, Merrily....

The Marilee Jones story is getting more ink than the death of Reagan it seems. It is a big story but its lessons seem quite simple.
1. Don't lie on your resume and expect to get away with it. The short term gains probably aren't worth it.
2. You don't seem to need a college degree or advanced education to work in admissions. I hate to write this, I suspect it is wrong. But that is the predominant message. It also seems that you don't actually have to have a degree in the sciences to sound like a scientist, although having a scientist spouse might help. That is a snide interpretation of facts but Ms. Jones was a successful administrator, even a gifted one. And she didn't have any degrees.

However, maybe if she had finished an undergraduate degree she might have ended up taking a course in ethics, psychology, or probability. One thing is clear: Marilee had an enemy, either in her office or outside. But somebody figured something out or knew something and used it against her when the time was right. Maybe someone noticed she had added Ph.D to her credentials on the website of a professional organization and figured out she never earned one. Earning a doctorate takes time and they don't suddenly appear. There are mistakes in third-party biographical information all the time. Had the Ph.D been attributed to her by mistake, she could have fixed that, had the Dr. in front of her name or the Ph.D after it removed. We will never know if that was the smoking gun or not. Despite all the news coverage, there is much about this story that we don't know.

MIT behaved cleanly and appropriately in this matter. And, by the way, it had no choice. For people who feel that Marilee's service should have persuaded the MIT administration to be lenient with her, I would suggest that they were. They allowed her to resign, write her statement, and have protected her from a story that was full of detail regarding who told what. It is unlikely that Ms. Jones hurt MITadmissions during her tenure. It is unlikely that inferior candidates were admitted. Ms. Jones, after all, had a staff—all of whom are required to have appropriate credentials. Her message, which was essentially that parents and their college-bound children should chill, is wise irrespective of why or how she came to this conclusion.

Did the search committee that hired her fail? Only in hindsight, in rigor perhaps. But she was not a candidate whose credentials were new to the institution. It would be entirely human for the search committee to assume that their predecesors were rigorous in their judgment when she was first hired. What they did not know at the time was that Ms. Jones was first hired for an administrative position that did not require a college degree. Since it was irrelevant to her first hiring officer, the facts were not checked. Once hired, she became part of the MIT family. A zealous human resources manager might have gone back to check her college information but she had been with the school for more than ten years. They knew her! But, the betrayal, is most keenly felt by these colleagues who indeed did not know her at all.

This is the saddest part of the story. She didn't have to fictionalize her original application to be hired at MIT. She could have been promoted. She would have been given the opportunity to obtain her bachelor of science degree, probably at MIT. Or she could have done it with less stress at another lesser, local institution to fulfill the requirement. Over the course of 28 years she could have also knocked back a one-year M.Ed at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard or taken an executive MBA of some kind at MIT's Sloan School. All with the approval and support of her managers. If only, if only.

For those of us with college and graduate degrees obtained years ago, this seems like a no brainer. She had everything to gain and nothing to lose by simply being who she was. And those of use who put in the time, who sacrificed, who pay back loans, who got those rejection letters, who faced our strengths and our weaknesses, who went the distance to graduate: we get to say so.

The fact that she was fabricated her degrees and didn't correct her resume as time went on was indeed a failure of courage. Had she revealed her indiscretion earlier it is possible, although unlikely, that she would have been allowed to stay in admissions even if she had finished an undergraduate course of study. MIT explained it all very well: admissions staff are the gatekeepers for maintaining the integrity of the institution for the future. They must model, at the very, very least, the basic qualities expected of all candidates: an honest report of their credentials.

Does Marilee Jones' error of judgment fall into the same category as Dr. Joesph Ellis's fabrications about his service in Vietnam to his students at Mount Holyoke College or the controversies surrounding the reliability of scholarship? Psychologically they are in the same family. Joe Ellis lost his chair, took a leave, kept his job, got some therapy, apologized and went back to work. His fate was decided upon by faculty, however, and he had tenure: a tougher nut to crack. He was still qualified for his position. Marilee Jones, without any college degrees, did not have the basic requirements for a deanship at MIT—or anywhere else for that matter—even if one completely discounts the fabrication.

I don't know if she is finished professionally or not. She is co-author of book that will not be summarily removed from the shelves. Her co-author and publisher are standing behind its content. You don't need a degree to write a book. I suspect some therapy is in her future. But I think now she should hunker down, fill out those damn forms, take that SAT or ACT, and get her degree. Its time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lost in the Wake of Virginia Tech

Briefly Noted: Cathy Young, in a Boston Globe editorial, wisely suggested that feminism went awry when it put the strength of its rhetoric against the Duke lacrosse players. Never convicted in a court of law or by a jury of their peers, these young men will, we hope, recover and lead productive iives untainted by the scourge of on-going anger. How sad that people forgot about men's liberation. That not all men are predators, that the end result of every college party need not be date rape.

Virgina Tech, Day 2, Alive

The Convocation indicates that the University staff has been busy. It is polished in the right places. The school itself is not suffering a brand equity problem today: nor should it. The questions remain about the wisdom of the administration's actions and university preparedness, in general. An independent board will be called to evaluate the situation. Fault will be found. But consensus today is that a bad thing happened at a great school. As long as there are innocent students, decent faculty, and administrators such as the Dean of Students and Director of Counseling Services, the health of the institution will prevail.

Today we add a new problem: a troubled student, perhaps capable of violence, and the institution's responsibility to either that student or to the student body. MIT faced this very question on a student suicide. The gunman was identified as a problem and bought to the attention of the administration. Concerned faculty were told that nothing could be done. True? The gunman was taken out of classes and tutored individually. The gunman may or may not have been advised to seek counseling. The gunman, nonetheless, was able to buy guns. Now we are beyond the scope of higher educational administration and deep into gun control. We cannot hold the university responsible for national gun policy. But here's a question. Were the gunman's parents ever contacted? I know, I know. He was 23. He was an adult. The school is required to maintain his confidentiality. I nonetheless ask—because I'm sure the administrator who said 'nothing could be done' and the faculty who identified him as a problem—I'm sure they are feeling today as if perhaps something more could have been done. Surely, surely something. Or maybe they just should have locked the campus down after the first two shootings.

Emergency Preparedness Plans for Colleges? Not New

Emails to CNN are calling for colleges and universities to be better prepared for emergencies. As if this were a new idea....Fifteen, twenty years ago institutions of higher education were grappling with the complexities of such a document. Often it falls to the communications staff to manage the process; more often than not, it ought to. Because the communications staff, unfortunately, is the one capable of imagining the worst: it is often the staff responsible for cleaning up after the worst occurs. I have personally encountered resistance from other administrators when attempting to create such plans who did not want to speculate on tragedy or who felt that the school's responsibility ended where civic responsibility began. Bean counters did not want to consider the value of phone banks or extra blankets; broadcast emails were the least of my problems and even they were a source of debate. Any one who has worked in nonprofits understands that even writing a three-sentence alert might require three editorial rounds and the sign-off of several individuals. This is not what you want to be explaining the parents, the students, the press, and—in Virginia Tech's case— the world when they are asking about getting critical information to the campus community.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virigina Tech, continues

The press conference did not go well. Since there is not a lot of information that is either available or appropriate to transmit and since the masses of reporters and news organizations are yet to be on the ground in Virginia, and since there is no one on the run in a White Bronco, the focus is on the behavior of Virginia Tech and the local police. This is the worst case scenario for the institution: there is a terrible tragedy AND somehow they are caught unprepared or vulnerable. Why didn't the school shut down after the first casualties? Because they thought it was contained. But there was no evidence that it was contained because they did not have the shooter. The institution should have closed its gates immediately after the first shooting. No one should have been allowed in. Local radio stations should have warned commuting students to turn around. Parking lots should have been attended and people sent home. Did they do a "hard target search" or any search at all?

Obviously, no school has a SWAT team on staff. The president said they have emergency protocols (the commuications guy says not), that they practice but there can be no rehearsal for this kind of event. There is some truth to this, of course. But that is NOT the answer you give to the press, because it speaks to your powerlessless. When the question is raised, "How do you contact students on their way to classes?" at the press conference, I can only hope it was not the first time such a question came before the president. Because that is a reasonable question to anticipate and include in an emergency preparedness plan. And there are answers, ideas, strategies. And if you can imagine one gunman killing one student, you can imagine his killing more than one. The evidence on the ground today could not only suggest that the event was over after the first two victims were discovered—as the police chose to assume— but also that it was NOT over. And that is the fatal vulnerability at Virginia Tech: the failure to imagine the worst or even the obvious: That the gunman was still on campus, still armed, and still crazy.

There are too many excuses coming out of the communications guy, the president, and the police chief and the questions are repeating themselves. It is weakening the school. Reporters don't need vague denials. Broadcast emails to 9,000 students on campus or 29,000 total students plus faculty and staff can't just be sent out at the push of a button. They need to be batched or you can crash your system. There are some things that just take awhile to do. That is fair, it has to be. But on other issues the press is not getting the recognition it needs that perhaps mistakes were made, that perhaps lives were tragically lost today unnecessarily. Someone asked if new security measures would be looked at? The president says he needs facts first. I suggest he has 32 facts. When students are jumping out of windows, you might want to take a look at your security measures.

Virginia Tech Nightmare, Continued

The news conference. The President is speaking along with the Chief of Police. He seems calm and in control. Students are instructed to contact their parents. So I got that wrong. Of course, you would expect that parents and students would be in immediate contact with each other. Students are communicating with each other via Facebook and on sports message boards. But parents do need to hear something official from the school, too.

Why? Because they need to know if the students are going to be taken care of, they need to know if dinner will be served as usual, they need to know what is going to happen next, they need to know if they should come and pick up their children. And they may just not get the infiormation they need from their hysterical freshman who has his or her roommate's blood on his shirt.

In no time at all the press asks about the two-hour gap. Why wasn't the school shut down? Why wasn't a swat team called? When did campus police step aside and let the town and state forces take over? Why weren't students notifed not to come to campus? How can campuses be better prepared? Do they have a communications plan? Did they use it? Will they change it?

Well, these ARE the core questions, after all. And the media is asking them of the police chief and Virginia Tech's president in rapid succession, repeating them because they are not satisfied with the answers. Indeed, the answers are problematic. The chief offers the expected 'can't comment' responses. But there is an inconsistency that the reporters pick up on that he later denies that is unfortunate.

One spokesperson, who I assume is in communications, says there is no communications plan. He seems tired and haggard. And he lets the press conference go on too long. Because the press is beginning to have a field day.

Virginia Tech Nightmare

There is so much news today but rarely does higher ed news demand comment from the President of the United States. CNN hasn't broken its coverage for some time now. There is untold damage at Virgina Tech today—32 dead, no other details yet—at the hands of a singular gunman—also no details on him yet. An event of this proportion knocks the institution's communication staff off the front lines right away. The police, the news channels, the hospitals have taken over the crisis communications. That leaves Virginia Tech's leadership and media relations staff to work with their internal constituencies and serve as liaison to the external agencies.

I'm watching CNN as I write. The question has just been posed: Will this effect admissions? Uh, yes. Let's move on. It may also effect fundraising. But right now, today, these are unseemly questions. In the long run, when the coverage has died down, it is the students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni whose wounds need the most long-term attention. Was the institution particularly vulnerable? Can an institution of education—Columbine or Columbia—be prepared for such an event. And how do you know that such an event is in progress? In the case of Virginia Tech, there was one shooting this morning. Two hours passed before the next one. What transpired during those two hours? Crisis mode, of course. But not preparation for another attack. Not calling in a SWAT team. There may be some vulnerability there. Hard to say. Faculty and staff have been sent home. Red Cross is on campus for counseling. I imagine staff and faculty need counseling, too, and might need the same support of community as the students do. Hard to say what the thinking is there. Obviously, student affairs staff, including residential life, ministry, health providers, aren't going anywhere. Essential services such as dining hall and maintenance are still on campus. So are the communications people who are busy coordinating information for media outlets. Telephone lines may have been set up to contact parents. Important civic, government, and other constituenceis are being contacted. This is not just a school's nightmare. The new tagline is worst massacre at a school in the history of the United States.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Transmen in Western Mass

Open the Boston Globe Magazine this Sunday, the one with Bill Cosby on the cover with the promise of an article discussing the pedagogical impact of Fat Albert, and meet the the women of Mount Holyoke College who are deciding to become men.

Leading the contents page is this quote:

"I cried the day I woke up and found my breasts gone." -Mt. Holyoke transgender junior Kevin Murphy.

You just can't buy press like that.

And its branding you just can't erase. Spend your millions on identity work. Develop that logo. Convince yourself itself not a problem. No matter what you do, no matter how many percentages you release on the number of straight women in the student body there will be public perception. There may be as many lesbians at Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges as there are at Barnard or Berkeley or Oberlin (where the students introduce themselves with their pronoun preferences, as in "My name is Anne and I go by 'her' and 'she'.") but it really doesn't matter. Because the line in the article that will have senior leadership, admissions, development, and communications—not to mention trustees, alumni, and some faculty—going slightly nuts—is this one:

"No parent is surprised anymore when their daughter goes to an all-women's college and then comes out as a lesbian."

Really? Of course not. But it doesn't matter. Of all the great things going on at Mount Holyoke this is the story the Magazine wants.

Sure, the more interesting question is whether a women who becomes a man has any place in an all-women's college. And, at what point, is this person a man? Does that, by definition, make the dorms co-ed? Is that fair to the other women? What is the institution's role? These matters are lightly touched upon in the article but they are not the focus. Because this is not an article about higher education. The article is more about gender identity in college-aged women. Unfortunately, wittingly or not, the article also obviates years of Mount Holyoke's own attempts to balance its own identity. And as compassionate as I can be to the students in the article who are confronting the issues of their lives bravely, one would still be hardpressed to consider this "hit" good news.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Here is What I Mean By Marketing

My cousin is adjunct professor at a top-tier college in Western Massachusetts. She doesn't have a degree from there herself, but her daughter does. She has been working there for almost twenty years. So, to be clear, she is both faculty and parent of an alumna. In the past few months, she applied for a full-time position, never was called for an interview, and understood she wasn't a candidate. That wasn't really the problem. The problem was the letter of rejection which she received, which was actually signed by one of her own classmates. It said she wasn't a good match for the college.

She felt the sting because of how absurd it was to receieve a rejection letter telling her she wasn't a good fit from a school with which—at the time of the rejection—she was currently holding two contracts.

Here's my problem. Do colleges and universities have any idea how much bad will and lost development dollars they suffer because they do not pay attention to their rejection letters?

Having received rejection letters or no response at all from my own almas mater, that careful attention to what you are telling your alumni, your staff, or other key audiences, is the easiest—and cheapest— kind of marketing the school can do. Why lose your own constituencies? You don't have to hire all your alumni, of course, but it makes all the sense in the world to acknowledge them in some special way when you reject them. Protect and nuture the relationship because, after all, your colleagues down the hall have just called them up and asked them if they could increase their donation this year. And fundraisers won't know why alumni just won't answer the phone. Maybe its because it is dinnertime. Maybe its because they were just told they are not a good fit.

Every year institutions of higher education spend more and more money on "marketing" and some are even desperate in attempts to find occasions to receive positive press or to move up in the ratings. They fail to recognize that while rejected candidates as an overall class may not be significant stakeholders, alumni, or part-time staff, or volunteers, or adjunct faculty, or parents of students or any other people already affiliated with the institution are de facto ambassadors. People will talk. This is a given. Whether they speak in positive or negative terms this is the only question. It is up to the institution what will be said. Forget brochures and CD-roms and press coverage once a year by the New York Times. Institutions should treat the constituencies already on their side have with some care. Have a separate form letter than goes to alumni if necessary, but recognize that you can't tell them they don't fit in one letter and enjoin them to be part of the community in another.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

An Introduction

Here in Boston higher education is always front-page news. Obviously, we have a lot of colleges and universities and some are pretty famous. But it is not just proximity. There is audience here, too. Many local residents who came to study here never left. So there are alumni. And all these folks—or at least a large percentage of them—had children who were collegebound. So the interest never really flagged. Plus all the professors and the administrators who were educated elsewhere—they, too, pay attention to their "industry" although none would ever speak of it as such. There is critical mass here in Boston consisting of those who believe in the magic of higher education, those who critique higher education, and those who are employed by higher education. I fit into all three categories.