Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oh Brandeis, My Brandeis

There is an art museum on the campus of Brandeis University, as there is on some, maybe even many, other campuses. The Rose Art Museum is a rightfully called a "hidden gem" as it houses some fine art works and gets very little foot traffic. Brandeis itself gets very little foot traffic, situated as it is in a suburb of Boston, conveniently located off two major highways but, frankly, not on the way to anywhere else. You have to be going there. Within the art world, the Museum enjoys a fine reputation and the collection of art that is significant and substantial. So it is very, very sad that the Trustees decided to sell it off. That people have poured their hearts, their hard work, their donated dollars into this enterprise over the years and that art tends to get pushed to the back of the bus when cuts come to education only makes this situation sadder. But it fails completely to make the selling of the collection or the closing of the museum tragic. You would think from the press that someone had been actually executed instead of laid off.

And, given the daily gushing of layoffs and closings and funding lost due to shattered investments, why the decision of the Brandeis trustees warrants the lead headline, above the fold, across the top columns on the front page of the Boston Globe is beyond me. ("Ailing Brandeis will shut museum, sell treasured art," January 26, 2009) Not to mention the 103 related stories nationwide.

We can discuss the relative merits of the decision but, as is increasingly the case, they end up not being the point. What I love about this is that there is no better case for demonstrating how critical constituent communications are to ensuring the successful delivery of difficult news. Not that Brandeis gets it: despite its shiny and relatively new signage and its finally getting a grip on its publications and getting a VP of Communications this PR debacle reflects the complete failure of the senior leadership to take into account that in higher education governance is shared and that their power is depends on, to coin a phrase, "the kindness of others." And especially the donations, of others.

So, you may well decide that a Museum has run its course and that it is not seminal to the educational mission. You may conclude that if you sell its collection and close its operation you can avoid letting go tenured faculty or closing a school and can continue to provide the level of financial aid currently required. But at your own peril do you act unilaterally. You simply must talk to the donors who provided the art, who named the wings; you must talk to the outside agencies who will see it as betrayal; you must let your internal constituencies--students and faculty-- in on your decision-making process early enough so they don't feel blindsided: they will feel like they deserve to know so tell them. Alumni (hi, nice to meet you) deserve to get the email a few days before the alert comes into their email from, instead of literally two minutes later, as mine did.

Was there a leak? Did it hit the press before the communications plan was implemented? Maybe. But I don't think so. Here's why. Because the communications coming from college and university presidents since the market crashed and crashed again came early and often. Between my husband and me we get alumni communications from five universities; we have many colleagues across higher education. The letters were, to varying degrees, direct and informative; increasingly specific in some cases. The letter--letters-- from Brandeis never came; when it finally did, several weeks ago, it was singular in its lack of clarity. Did Brandeis need my help now more than ever or were they really tuition dependent and so escaping the brunt of operational losses? Did the Madoff mess not affect the monies that the Shapiros and others could provide? How was that possible? And then, this news broke and broke hard. So, yeah, it turns out Brandeis did not dodge the bullets, not at all. Rather, it simply has not been communicating to its constituencies and then, when the time came to act, its leadership had not "set the table' for the harsh realities of the decisions they were making; they had garnered no support, no understanding, no empathy: just top-down, corporate betrayal.

Brandeis is not a high-ranking university because it has a museum: there isn't a single solitary academic ranking that includes "has art museum" as a criterion. I have never even seen an admissions viewbook claim that an academic program is enhanced by the students' access to the institution's own art gallery and I've seen hundreds of them. I'm not saying a museum isn't cool. Just that having or not having one is not seminal. And Brandeis won't be a "second-class" institution because it doesn't have one either.

But the damage would be irreparable if the institution were to declare financial exigency and seek to let go tenured faculty or if current students seeking financial aid due to changed circumstances were turned away. Don't think for a moment that these were not the choices on the table. I take President Reinharz at his word: there was no better choice.

But: Communications matter, President Reinharz. They mattered when you took thestudents' art down from the walls; they mattered when President Jimmy Carter came to speak; they matter. I wish you could hear that from someone.