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.