Faculty dash to brush up up their image

February 2, 1996

At tiny Lesley College, in the shadow of Harvard University, an anthropologist has been lecturing his audience about the impact of eye contact and body language - and how to dress for television interviews. His audience is not the students but the faculty and staff.

"The president of the college has said to the faculty, whenever you can get on a radio or television show to do so, to increase the college's visibility, but she also wants them to be good," said instructor, Sebastian Lockwood, who specialises in non-literate cultures.

"Many academics tend to talk in a somewhat flat way and they do not understand how to use language that is succinct and has punch."

Colleges and universities are turning to sophisticated public relations to reverse recent negative publicity about research and athletic scandals, and to attract new students at a time of spiralling tuition.

People ranging from university presidents to junior faculty are going back to class for tips on brightening their image.

At its annual convention, which starts on February 7, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities plans a seminar on handling the media.

The moral high ground of universities and colleges sank beneath the weight of revelations that one prestigious private university used government grants to pay for parties and a yacht, another overcharged taxpayers for computer services and yet another falsified financial documents to give athletes scholarships.

And there is growing public anger over the increasing cost of tuition, which rose at double the rate of inflation in the past ten years.

"There is a declining confidence in all institutions in the country - churches, hospitals, government and higher education," said association president David Warren.

"What you have to do is say to a sceptical public, 'What we do is important'."

Never has that been quite as critical as this year, when universities, already feeling stung by cuts in money for defence research are fending off attempts by frugal legislators to slash more funding.

"They have to fight for their appropriations and they have to fight for students, and they never had to do that before," said D. Stanley Carpenter, director of the Association for the Study of Higher Education at Texas A&M University.

"There is this whole notion that we've lost the confidence of the public and we've lost the confidence of the legislators so, yes, these schools are absolutely trying to burnish their image."

Higher education also has relinquished some of its mystique because a larger proportion of high school graduates go on to college than matriculated 30 years ago, Mr Carpenter said.

Parents and students are asking what they're getting for their money, "and a lot of colleges are saying, 'Well, you're getting truth and beauty,"' Mr Lockwood said. "But they want to know exactly what that money will get them out there in the real world."

Media consultants charge anything from about $2,000 for a four-hour session to $6,600 for a full day.

"A lot of institutions don't have their own staff or the resources to provide the presence they would like to have. It's helpful for them to work with an outside company that has contacts," said Michael Stoner, vice president of the New York City firm College Connections.

"Some institutions believe that, because they have a good reputation, that all this goodwill will aggregate to their name and they don't have to be pro-active about doing good public relations - and they're wrong," said Mr. Stoner. "Times have changed."

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