Wednesday, November 26, 2008

'Tis the Season

Sometimes information causes a stir just because of bad timing. In the midst of a financial crisis, one institution of higher education after another reported significant losses and the need to shore up, buckle down, tighten in, and hold back. It would have been unseemly to do anything else, especially for the institutions that seemingly have more money than God. But here is the thing: every school lost money if it was invested. And every school relies on a complex formula of monies from its endowment (expected earnings & not ginormous losses); relatively stable demands for financial aid; tuition revenues; and predictable donations from alumni, corporations, foundations, and generous individuals--not to mention access to capital markets. So, absent all these, presidents of the most prestigious and most wealthy schools shuddered. It is not considered good practice to actually spend the endowment, although some institutions may need to do that. But others will try first some of the other tried and true methods of cost reduction such as hiring freezes and budget costs across the board.

What matters is that 1. the problem is real but different for each institution and 2. given the current climate of government bail-outs and executive privileges, the community at large is not all that sympathetic. So no one is weeping for Harvard--nor should they--which is not likely to close its doors. But some schools that took the important and expensive step of moving to a fully need-blind admissions policy are finding themselves without the cash reserves to fund it. Again, they are not closing their doors and these institutions are not tuition-dependent. Nonetheless, they have to cast about, truly, for a strategy and they have to communicate to the public that they, too, are mortal institutions and have to show their vulnerabilities.

So newspapers carry the message that prestigious institutions are paying attention and they lost money, just like you.

Into this environment comes the yearly reveal of presidents' salaries from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Usually the highest paid faculty end up being deans of medical schools and other members of the medical profession. I have to say, being a college president is largely a thankless task: it is 24/7 and the constituencies just don't stop coming at you. Faculty members, broadly characterized, don't really think they work for any institution at all so classic management of that constituency is a constant challenge and then there is the constant fundraising, students who are looking for resort-quality accommodations at Holiday Inn prices, and you haven't even scratched the surface of the issues like free speech and public safetyand privacy and diversity, not to mention accountability. My point being it is a tough job and a good president is hard to find.

That said, shame on Suffolk University, who is getting it all wrong ("Trustees' fiscal ties roil Suffolk," Boston Globe. 11/26/08). First, they overpaid their president because he had been underpaid--to the tune of $2.8 million--so far above the level of every other college president that it warrants headlines. Then they paid him more because they didn't want him to retire. Then we learn that the very people who decided on his salary are also recipients of fairly significant contracts from Suffolk. Then we are reassured that if there was any conflict of interest the parties would, of course, have stepped aside.

This is bad on so many levels.

First, appearances of impropriety can be more damaging than any actual impropriety. So even if there is no abuse of power in the relationships between the trustees and their own firms and the services they provide to Suffolk, it looks really bad. It is the not ethical behavior that is discussed in Suffolk's own law and business classes, I'd bet. The trustees argue that they are giving Suffolk a deal on services that it would otherwise be unable to purchase. Some deal: $366,0o0 for advertising.

Here's what you do if can't afford a fancy downtown advertising agency to the tune of $366,o0o per year: you don't hire one. I can count on all my fingers and toes institutions of higher ed who don't have that kind of money to spend on promotion and who, therefore, don't. If George Regan wants to offer a real deal to his alma mater there is tried and true way to do this: it is called pro bono.

Second, it is absolutely incomprehensible for the Board of Suffolk to argue that David Sargent is the only man alive who can be president of Suffolk. Suffolk seemingly can afford to hire a good president and the Boston area is a pretty good location for an ambitious academic who wants to run a university. I'm not talking about there having been a failed search and asking Sargent to stick around while they look for another guy. I'm talking about a Board so in cahoots with the President that they can't imagine another leader. What does this man do that some of our greatest presidents didn't do? Does he have special powers we should all know about?

Third, all the Trustees had to do was create an Emeritus position for the guy and feed him money and they would have avoided the whole mess. But because they weren't smart and weren't paying attention to the macroenvironment--to the fact that institutions of higher education are being scrutinized-- they got caught. Caught with cronyism and caught with not acting in the interest of the public good and caught with not acting any better than common corporate lowlifes.

And they are defending their behavior in the press instead of saying: if we were wrong, we apologize and we will look to reform our policies immediately. Which is really my only point.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Blah, Blah, Blah and other Travesties

They took a shot, the development folks at Framingham State. They decided to inject a little irony into their usual fundraising letter. So they inserted blah blah blah blah where words usually go in a letter to a group of younger alumni. Have to say, not the first institution to do this. But it didn't go over very well. Made the newspapers even.

Turns out that the VP of College Advancement didn't bother to check with the the school's communications department. If the advancement staff wasn't counseled away from using the blahs completed, I'm sure they would have be counseled on not using them 137 times in one letter. This letter was sent to alumni who had yet to donate. So maybe it was not the best group with whom to share the inside joke that fundraising letters can get a little tedious. Or maybe serious times and serious requests need to stay serious to get the attention they require.

I'm all for taking a creative risk and there will always be people who don't like what you do. That said, when it rises to the level of news you have a problem. And if you have an office of communications, involve its staff . They just might spare you some embarrassment and get you the results you need.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Buzz at MIT, and not the good kind

Yvonne Abraham, a columnist in the Boston Globe, reported last week that there may be a student or two who are truly failing to grasp the basics of corporate responsibility and building brand equity. Ordinarily, this wouldn't rise to the level of news. But, in this case, the reporter tells us that last December the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Club (LGBT) sent out an invitation to the whole school for an end-of-semester celebration. This is hardly the stuff of controversy on a college campus. But someone felt that the invitation was a de facto advertisement--as if the LGBT were actually selling something--and a promotion of ideas that made him/her "sick." There was more--about how people in Russia are encouraged to beat up gays because they insult nature. In closing, this Sloan student threatened his/her fellow classmates with physical violence should he/she be contacted by the LGBT again.

School procedures ensued. Campus police determined there was no actual physical threat. No one was expelled or suspended for hate language. "But," writes Abraham, "many students, gay and straight, were angry at the apparently light punishment and said so publicly."

Whatever happened at the Sloan School, rightly or wrongly, the issue morphed out of one focused on hate speech and student affairs and, not coincidently perhaps for a management school, into the subject of brand equity. This is a phrase that college administrators have, for some time now, held as the Holy Grail. Can't get enough of that brand equity...which is the value the public think your institution holds, whether it is based on fact or fiction. The whole obsession with rankings in US News and World Report is about the fight for brand equity.

So what do these fledging marketing mogels make of this situation? On May 5, Abraham reports, the School is still dealing with the fallout from the events of the previous December. But they are not trying to uncover their hidden homophobia or learning to live together when it is not Diversity Day. No, the fuss becomes about brand equity. And this is not a director of communications or a vice president of marketing sitting in the Dean's office and discussing it either, behavior that rarely becomes fodder for the press. No. A Sloan student takes offense that the incident was reported at all. The victims of a hate crime--in seeking redress--are accused of 'causing damage to the school brand."

Fortunately, the dialogue that ensued seemed to grasp that public debate can help brand equity. But there has been a real failure to successfully communicate corporate responsibility, Abrahams suggests, when students believe that how things look is more important that doing the right thing and fixing how things are.

It is not the students responsibility to create brand equity. The fact that they, as a group, help define brand equity by the quality of their accomplishments is not the point. It is not their job. It is their job, as students of management at a prestigious institution, to get the big picture and the bigger picture still. Maybe the offending student was let off too easily with an apology. Maybe we don't know the whole story. Doesn't matter. A public forum to discuss the incident was held and would be considered common practice in higher education for dealing with such a toxic and explosive situation. Such an incident has the kind of legs that would interest the media, so it became public. The only way it could negatively and powerfully effect Sloan is if the School's administration were lax in its dealing with the event or if it fails now to explain that positive brand equity is build on values, candor, transparency, and respect.

Friday, May 2, 2008

And, in a Related Story

Not so much a news flash as a reiteration of what we already know: "Many Mass. graduates unprepared in college" Subhead: Thousands need remedial classes, are dropout risks.

To my point, students who are not ready for college do not thrive there. Thus they are at risk of dropping out. They can't sit side-by-side their peers at colleges and universities across the country whose students are not plagued by the same demons and have moved past the lessons not only of high school but of middle school and elementary school. I just want to make sure that Ms. Lipman, in her zeal, is clear on this. 

The question begged— is college the place for remedial courses in "the most basic math and English" —is fraught with emotion. And not a communications issue at its heart. Colleges and universities have done a good job of marketing themselves but that is not why people go: they go because a college education means greater earning power. 

Taking On A God of Fiction

I LOVE the novelist Ellie Lipman and read everything she writes. Which is why it particularly pains me to have to take issue with her. But I am very grateful that she doesn't rule the admissions universe because, while some of what she says is true, her conclusions are faulty. 

To wit, I applaud her resounding support for the safety school (Boston Globe 3/24/08). She says that students will enjoy the same success and happiness whether they get into the super-fab school of their dreams or not. Generally, yes, this is so. Then she says, after ten years or so people will stop asking where you went to school. If this were true, we would be able to eliminate where we went to school from our resumes and just indicate our degrees and dates. We say where we went not only because now employers want to make sure we really went there but because it may matter. You never know how much. It is true it may not matter to one employer but it may matter a great deal to another. In fact, some employers care so much they request transcripts. Alumni connections in the professional world matter and it is true—whether we like it or not—that students who were high achievers in high school generally continue to do so. Happiness is another story. But it is naive to say it won't matter or it doesn't matter. It just isn't everything. And for the students who was shut out of the Ivy League and whose safety was a perfectly acceptable top-tier institution or even for the student who is going to his or her state school because that is what makes financial success I say, Bravo and you'll be fine. Because good students can do well and take advantage of resources anywhere they go. Bravo and Bravo. 

But Lipman goes a step further in her reform and here is where the slip-up is. 

Put the students' names in a hat and pick. Send 'em all off to schools. Because every kid has something special to contribute and it would be an end to today's nerve-wracking, over-the-top admissions experience. And to this I have to say, Whoa! Because while it has immediate, emotional appeal to the anti-snobs and anti-elitists it really makes no sense. 

There are very, very gifted students out there who are working too hard to get into a small number of schools and perhaps that system is flawed. But they are truly exceptional in a classroom and if you've seen them in action you know that they need high-level challenges to thrive. These kids are learning languages at a clip and don't need or want a lot of sleep and they play musical instruments and captain teams and sew their own clothes and save the world BECAUSE THEY CAN! They are in special classes in high school because they need to be (we call them honors or advanced placement). Students who are very bright but didn't work very hard in high school aren't rewarded. Students who worked hard but don't score that well are rewarded. Student who are not so bright—but talented, good people in their own right—need to be somewhere else where they will be comfortable and where they can achieve at their level. And there are lots of levels. But it would be no fairer to send the average student to Harvard than to send an Ivy League candidate to No Name State College, in the name of equality or anti-elitism or to solve the problems that such a stressful college admissions process has caused. Bright kids need no apology. Average kids don't have to feel like idiots. Admissions staff really believe in finding the right match between their school and the prospective students. That there are more qualified students than can be accepted each year into the first-year classes of the Ivy League and other selective schools is an embarrassment of riches but no reason to throw the C students in chemistry into the mix just because the A students can learn something from them. Those kinds of lessons have to be learned, it is true. Lipman is right. But that is not what you are paying for nor. If parenting hasn't done it, then perhaps a nuanced life will.  

On the same day that Lipman suggested a lottery for the first 1,000 who apply (which, by the way, would probably work just fine at the top-tier schools  and is a somewhat different idea for creating a college campus that looks just like high school) we learned about Commonwealth College, which is the honors college attached to UMASS-Amherst. This College has been thriving since it was founded more than a decade ago as way to lure high-achieving high school students to UMass. All I can say is that is a great model for state colleges and universities that must meet the challenge of offering a top-tier education to its residents at affordable prices.

The Name Game

There are issues that trouble communications people and marketing people that seem ridiculous to other people. I know this because I am a communications person and things have troubled me that any number of people on campus—faculty, student affairs personnel, alumni, faculty—have considering unimportant. Among these things are names. That right: names of things like buildings and schools and departments and offices. To be clear, I am talking about nomenclature and either the lack of it or the parallelism of it. 

Parallelism is at the heart of Alex Beam's complaint about the Kennedy School (old nomenclature) trying to align itself with the other professional schools of Harvard that are known, colloquially as the Business School and the Law School and on paper as HBS and HLS. The Kennedy School (KSG), apparently tired of being confused with the Kennedy Center and the Kennedy Library, decided to opt for parallelism (which would make communicators happy) and become HKS. It is not completely parallel, of course—that would require it to be HGS. But nobody could stand the Harvard Government School, even if it was just initials. Still, HKS does as Beam puts it, locate the school within the sphere of the other schools. For a university struggling to pull together, even as each tub is on its own bottom, such a move is symbolically important. All changes in nomenclature are awkward at the beginning. They feel funny on the mouth but, after several years pass and new students come along who don't know it any other way arrive, it begins to feel less strange. That is why branding and re-branding works. Because we are capable of moving on. And if a school at Harvard is trying to do that well, we should applaud it. Beam harkens back to the last branding effort at the Kennedy School (see, I'm not there yet) in 1981 as if to say, "This is happening too soon, people, they are frittering away over there, branding and re-branding." Not really. Twenty-five years is a pretty good run on a brand and let's get real. They aren't really re-branding. They are just changing nomenclature.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tulane Makes Marketing Clear

Tulane University has a proved a very, very, very important marketing principle. There was a story on the front page of the Globe today, about how New Englanders have helped to aid in its renaissance. There were many moments during Hurricane Katrina and immediately in its aftermath that the administrators of the University must have wondered what would become of their school. Would students from across the nation ever come back to New Orleans? What had previously been a huge selling point—access to the culture of a great Southern town—seemed perhaps all but lost.

But that is not what happened. Tulane is not only thriving; it is turning away applicants in droves. Why? Because young men and women, captivated by the opportunity to make a difference in a place that needed them desperately, have shown up. Some came first as part of high school and religious groups and got to know the city; some wanted to be in a place where they could contribute. So they came and found solid academics, Southern hospitality, and way to feel good about themselves.

No high-priced consultants needed, no fancy viewbooks, no extreme measures. Why? Because when you have what people want, they come. They are pulled, not pushed. Tulane did not have wheedle or convince to struggle with its message because the message was clear and real. Any school that figures out pull and not push will also have no problems with marketing or messages. I'm not saying its easy. I'm just saying it works.