Universities used to be led and managed by people who understood the academic enterprise. Teachers, scholars, servants to individual students, people who with grade-book in hand looked into the eyes of freshmen, taught class, listened to the struggles of students trying to determine a course of action for life that would ultimately be fulfilling and rewarding, and otherwise knew the enterprise from the inside and out.
With increasing frequency this is no longer the case.
Leaders from other walks of life — commonly public service and elected officials — now lead universities. In some cases this is positive, in other cases it is a travesty. I have seen universities demeaned by incompetence, ignorance, and tomfoolery that wouldn’t pass muster in any business, corporation or other kind of organization. Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego is collapsing under debt, has misrepresented employment opportunities to potential students, and may fold. The free market works, but the roadside is littered with detritus of disappointed people who believed what the consultants, through the lips of leaders and managers, told prospective students.
With increasing frequency obfuscated insight to lead a university comes from outsiders who may know marketing, advertising, and branding inside out but have little appreciation for university purpose.
According to Ry Rivard, of Inside Higher Ed at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling the fine art of digitally analyzing prospective students and encouraging them to attend a university, at times on a wing and a prayer, almost exclusively on borrowed resources, to study in fields with little or no job prospects, was lauded.
And some of these outfits could be shysters. They may misrepresent, presumably for corporate gain through multi-year multi- million-dollar contracts, their successes. I know of one university were millions of dollars were expended and during the course of a multi-year arrangement the total enrollment decreased by over 2,000 students, yet the company’s website spins this story into a major accomplishment. That’s marketing I guess. Lipman Hearne’s website is questionable truth in advertising. I scoured it to find leadership that understood higher education through firsthand experience, but could not find a single executive who ever held a faculty position, or even taught a university course. I may have overlooked something.
Universities are hesitant to complain because they shelled out scarce resources for significant promises that resulted in little of value save a new logo and some glossy publications. According to Houston Baptist University enrollment management leader James Steen they quit sending out slick four-color brochures. Did not work he said. The internet data mining was more effective. For what or whom I ask?
Rivard, in his Inside Higher Ed piece, highlighted NRCCUA a leading marketing service for finding and recruiting freshmen by focusing on lists of likely-to-enroll students and boasts seductive results. The NRCCUA website catalogs nine executives, not a single one of whom has any university experience other than all seem to have graduated from one. This is the equivalent of having brain surgery performed by an individual because he’s been to the doctor’s office.
Noel-Levitz is another high profile enrollment consultant and a review of in-house leadership reveals a similar lack of university experience in its leadership.
Honestly, I cannot be sure why universities engage marketing companies, but my guess is that institutions that already focus on quality may hire consultants as a means of enhancement, not survival. It is evident in far too many cases universities that desperately seek to grow enrollment and turn to marketing companies have lost their way. And, will likely lose enrollment. Many examples exist.
Enrollment growth is sustained by academic excellence and effectiveness. Marketeers do little to affect either.
It is especially frustrating that families who have students considering a particular university are being guided by marketing research and processes that dig into Internet accounts: Facebook, Google, Bing, Firefox, Twitter, and a multitude of others using fancy mathematical algorithms to determine, from behind-the-scenes, covert, digital investigation, what a student might be interested in without ever asking the student what it is he or she wants to study and why. Such answers can best be found from first-hand, face-to-face on campus, interaction through discussions with sincere faculty, advisors, and leadership who hold a student’s best interest at heart. I am not sure that marketeers do.
I am a fan of Adam Smith. I believe marketeers serve themselves better than anyone else in the process. In a nutshell, “the butcher does what’s good for the butcher.” Smith is correct. It holds at universities too, but universities increasingly are giving it away, through trust in and payment to consultants whose interests are different.
It is not the consultants who are to blame. They are trying to make a buck, and evidently they can turn a few.
Pogo knew who the enemy was.