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.