Leader: Precious and yet so fragile

Universities are global brands built on reputation. As the LSE shows, a good name built over years can be blackened in days

March 10, 2011

Sir Howard Davies, John Galliano and Charlie Sheen have found themselves in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons over the past week or so. Sir Howard, director of the London School of Economics, resigned from his post; designer Mr Galliano and actor Mr Sheen were sacked. But Charlie's notorious behaviour worked wonders for him: he notched up the most Twitter followers ever gained in a 24-hour period and a sponsorship deal that could net him $1 million (£618,000) a year.

For both Sir Howard and Mr Galliano, it was all about reputation, but not necessarily their own. The LSE and Christian Dior, Mr Galliano's employer, are big brands with an international image to protect. Strangely for the ironically named Mr Sheen, getting sacked from his television series Two and a Half Men seemed only to enhance his reputation with the US public. Everybody loves a bad boy.

Except, of course, when he's a tyrant. The LSE has already paid a huge price on the world stage for its links with Libyan dictator Mu'ammer Gaddafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, although its global standing as rated by academics remains high, for now. The first Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, unveiled this week, places the LSE at 37th, way above its World University Rankings position (86th). But being known as the training ground for a dictatorship's future elite isn't a great selling point.

Sir Howard did, however, do something unusual nowadays: he stepped down in the interests of the institution. He took full responsibility for the decision to accept both a donation from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation in 2009 and the UK government's invitation to become its economic envoy to Libya.

"I am responsible for the school's reputation, and that has suffered," he said.

A good call, as Pat Freeland-Small, a former executive at Foster's Group, might say. Mr Freeland-Small, now the chief marketing officer at the University of Melbourne, says in our cover story that reputation drives university brands. They might not advertise in conventional ways, but institutions such as the LSE, like it or not, are global brands.

If you don't believe it, ask foreign students. The LSE is unusual in that it has more international students than any other UK university (68 per cent of its overall body). Thus it is less reliant on the state, which was always seen as a good thing...until now, of course.

A university brand is typically built up over decades or even centuries, and reputation is its foundation stone. But reputation is fragile: unless nurtured it can prove ephemeral and can be undermined by events. University College London had a close call when one of its graduates, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former president of its Islamic Society, was accused of trying to blow up a US passenger jet on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb concealed in his underpants. Reputation management saved the day, but events could easily have taken a different turn had an explosion occurred.

But the LSE was overtaken by events. Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, makes the point succinctly: "If Gaddafi had resigned on day one instead of turning his guns on his people, I wonder whether (the LSE's relationship with Libya) would have been seen as such a monstrous error of judgement."

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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