Colleges and Universities: Getting the Message Right

It seems increasingly likely that one of the "make or break" points in American higher education will be how well individual institutions craft their message.

It's a complex issue. There are many constituencies, all of whom carry an expectation about what makes a college or university special. These expectations are often at odds with one another.

Further, these tie to deep emotional impressions that are grounded typically by viewpoints formed through the kinds of friends, interests and academic experiences that shaped their environment, whether forged and maintained by faculty, staff, students, alumni or donors.

That's why it is so important to link college and university efforts to define a message to an institution's strategic plan. A president often faces a debilitating series of skirmishes about "vision" if there is no clear consensus on a framework for discussing the future of the university.

The vision, expressed by the strategic plan, will define the message. Ultimately, the future of the university will depend on how the message gets delivered. Provosts, deans and talented faculty contribute within the scope of their own responsibilities. But, constituents ultimately want to hear from the president. Surrogates need not apply. Ed McMahon could never be Johnny Carson because Ed didn't own the brand.

Similarly, you cannot simply turn to a higher education "image" shop to launch comprehensive fundraising campaigns, and let these image masters define your vision. The college or university brand is organic and evolving. The best brand makers demonstrate that you are whom you say and say what you mean.

How, then, do you get the message right?

It begins by establishing clear lines of authority. The president is the chief spokesperson for the university.

Presidents cannot delegate the "vision thing" to others. They must keep the message simple, doable, realistic and aspirational. Presidents must be prepared for criticism from the "status quo" crowd -- often mid-level staff -- about how they are making promises that they cannot keep. The strategic plan has actionable items where presidents can look for early wins.

Their critics will complain about process while accepting the new buildings, reduced course loads, program enhancements and improving academic and student quality. When they can't fight the outcome, the naysayers will dispute the process. There cannot realistically be anything like "too much change" if an organization is thinking ambitiously.

Presidents should anticipate a few mistakes or miscalculations along the way. It's best to own these mistakes, including some made by the inherited senior team. That said it's important to make and remake a team without trustee interference and with full trustee support.

The board of trustees has a critical role to play. It must accept the vision, pass the strategic plan, fund it, guide fundraising goals, and weigh in on the defining points that govern the university's "sense of self." But trustees cannot confuse the message based upon narrow self-interest by picking "winners and losers" or self-defined priorities within the plan. They must stay on message.

Hopefully, the president already has the required support, likely earned by the consensus building that produced the institution's strategic plan. The plan should reflect the interests of multiple constituencies. Its goals reflect good research and careful financial analysis. Fundraising must not drive strategy nor should the whims of major donors.

Good presidents must protect the integrity of the strategic plan and thereby the messaging that shapes the public outlook of it.

There is a point, however, when presidents must ask and answer the question: "Who are we?" It's not enough to raise the question when the broader world is watching. The institution might end up defined by its competition.

And that's part of the problem facing colleges and universities today. To put it in the words of one successful, strategy-oriented friend active in commercial real estate, "You must make a decision about your goal: Are you gumbo or chicken broth?"

Colleges and universities, especially by category, look and sound the same. Prospective applicants can judge by location, price, reputation, and financial aid package, for example, but many choose a college ultimately because of the financial deal offered or simply because they know it when they feel it.

It's a bad way to run an institution, especially a tuition -dependent one. Good academic programs that could differentiate a college and university within its peer group get lost in the inbred and senseless exercise of letting all boats rise in the marketing and communications plan, regardless of quality.

Some great research universities, like Penn State or the University of North Carolina, have reputations built in part on their athletic programs. Others, best represented by the for profit colleges, argue for convenience, accessibility, and affordability. They thrive or suffer because of it.

But for most institutions, the best strategy is to answer two questions. The first is: What is our academic program? To this end, are there points of differentiation that define excellence within it?

The second is: How does the comprehensive learning experience support academics? In doing so, what do we offer that is unique?

Those institutions that remain "chicken broth" in outlook and attitude will face mergers, acquisitions and closure but also something even more dramatic. They risk becoming irrelevant in the 21st century long before they close.