Universities have “always cared about their reputations”, and academics have “always cared about people’s opinions of their research”, says Tania Rhodes-Taylor, vice-principal (external relations) at the University of Sydney.
“You wouldn’t have a system where research is peer-reviewed if you didn’t care what your peers thought,” she says.
However, dramatic changes in the scale of higher education in the past 10 to 15 years – including the growth in the share of young people attending university in many countries and governments’ rising expectations about the impact that research should make – mean that effective communication about the work that universities do is more vital than ever, she adds.
The climate in which universities operate has shifted, too, altered by movements such as #MeToo and Extinction Rebellion, the rise of populism in many parts of the world and the prominence of social media, increasing the likelihood that universities will find themselves swept up in controversies.
At the same time, a rising number of universities in the UK, the US and Australia now have a marketing and communications expert on their senior leadership team – a move suggesting that reputation management has climbed to the top of the agenda for many higher education institutions.
Rachel Sandison is one such example: she became the first member of the University of Glasgow’s external relations team to join its senior leadership earlier this year.
“Marketing is strategy, and I do think senior leaders within institutions are now recognising that marketing and communications activity underpins the successful delivery of institutional key performance indicators. As a result, external relations practitioners are more in demand than ever before and more frequently have a much deserved (and needed) seat at the top table,” says Sandison, who is now vice-principal of external relations at Glasgow.
She adds that although she is “still perhaps a rarity within the sector, I’m buoyed by the fact that I’m not the first vice-principal in this sphere, and I’m confident that I won’t be the last…This is exciting both for the profession and the sector as a whole.”
Sandison believes that “reputation has always been a significant driver of university success, but it has definitely grown in importance as competition sector-wide has intensified for global talent”.
“More emphasis than perhaps ever before is being placed on brand, distinctiveness and quality in support of reputation management,” she says.
“Metricising the impact of activity remains challenging, but I love the fact that it means universities are recognising the importance of building relationships with our stakeholders to better understand their needs and, as a result, are becoming more adept at storytelling. Insight and digital innovation are driving exciting new initiatives and creating conversations with audiences in a way that wasn’t possible a number of years ago.”
Steve Moore, senior vice-president and chief marketing/communications officer at the University of Arizona, agrees that “reputation, or brand management, has been of increasing importance in higher education for some time”.
In the US, the title of “chief marketing officer” was previously used only in private companies, but it began to be employed in universities about 10 years ago and “today the title is commonplace in higher education”, he says.
“Universities are becoming more aware of the value of their brand, attitudinally and commercially. As in private industry, the value will be a driver in terms of recruitment, fundraising and sponsored research,” he adds.
Joe Gow, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says reputation management is “vitally important…particularly in an era where people have access to so much information”.
Although a university cannot “build a reputation…overnight” – “my institution is 110 years old and that brand has been building that entire time” – its prestige can change “in a negative way in a heartbeat”, Gow says.
“Unfortunately the way social media are today…tends to [favour] a more sceptical, negative mindset. And so when bad things happen, there’s a mechanism to communicate those quickly and broadly.”
The US university sector has certainly not been short of scandals in recent months. US government investigators have charged dozens of parents, sports coaches, testing officials and private admissions counsellors after it emerged that parents had paid millions of dollars in bribes to win their children admission to elite universities through falsified sports and academic credentials.
Meanwhile, several institutions have drawn criticism for their responses to complaints of sexual assault – not least Michigan State University, whose president and subsequent interim president both resigned over the handling of the scandal involving former gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, who was convicted of several counts of sexual assault of minors.
However, Gow says a distinction should be made between research conducted at universities and incidents involving specific members of staff.
“Some very bad things have happened at institutions of higher education yet they don’t involve the entire institution,” he says.
For example, while Pennsylvania State University, where Gow studied, might never “fully get past” the scandal involving retired football coach Jerry Sandusky (pictured below), who was convicted of rape and child sexual abuse, “one would like to think that people are still respecting the academic quality of what happens at my alma mater”.
Wisconsin-La Crosse was caught in its own controversy last year after Gow invited porn star-turned-sex educator Nina Hartley to speak on campus. The university system president claimed in a letter that the event “puts all of our funding at risk” given the potential pushback from politicians opposed to pornography.
But Gow suggests that the board’s focus on the institution’s reputation was perhaps misguided.
“Our enrolment numbers for the fall are looking very good, so that [incident] did not appear to turn anybody off. I think that students still want a place where the faculty and staff and, hopefully, the administration have full academic freedom and use that widely and in a way that advances knowledge,” he says.
“That still seems to matter at a time when more and more of the conversation is about ‘will I get the job skills I need to have a good career?’ They’re both important, and hopefully we strike the right balance.”
But broader questions about the value of universities demand not only that institutions manage their own reputation, but also that they tend the reputation of the sector as a whole.
“In these times of polarised politics and anti-expert sentiment, I think it’s incredibly important that the sector works collaboratively to promote the global impact of universities and our wider societal benefit,” says Glasgow’s Sandison.
As examples of important initiatives, she cites Universities UK’s MadeAtUni campaign, which illustrates the impact that UK universities have on the wider public and communities, and Universities Scotland and partners collaborating on #ScotlandIsNow branding to encourage tourists, businesses and students to head to Scotland. But, she says, such activities should be combined with universities “engaging at a local level with our communities and fostering meaningful relationships with civic and corporate partners”.
“I don’t believe that the aims of the sector and that of an individual institution are mutually exclusive in this regard; in fact, they’re interdependent, and universities ought to be focused on protecting and enhancing the reputation of both,” she says.
Jenny Dixon, deputy vice-chancellor of strategic engagement at the University of Auckland, says “it is not so much a case of needing to protect sector reputation versus institutional reputation that is the issue”.
“Rather, the sector is caught in a tension between the residual context of economic liberalism that has promoted inter-institutional competition on the one hand, and, on the other, the contemporary academic reality that it is often cross-institutional and even international research collaborations, for example, that bring about the best new advances in knowledge,” she says.
“Individual institutional reputations are enhanced by even greater collaborations, hence the engagement of universities in international networks and strategic partnerships with peer institutions. As this happens, so both the sector as a whole, and individual institutions within it, are better protected.”
Arizona’s Moore believes that major educational issues such as attainment that cut across many universities “can generally be addressed more effectively together”.
In his case, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona work in tandem with the office of the Arizona board of regents – the governing body of the state’s public university system.
“Our ability to impact the state’s students who will be seeking an advanced degree will have a direct impact on the economy of the state and all constituents within the state. This is just one example, but one where the stakes are very high for the state of Arizona,” Moore explains.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, the #WeAreInternational campaign has helped to counter negative media coverage and political statements about immigration in the country and to celebrate the importance of diverse international student and staff communities in universities. It was established by the University of Sheffield and its students’ union in 2013 and is now supported by more than 160 universities and organisations across the country.
“The great strength of the #WeAreInternational campaign is that it has a coalition of supporters from students to business, and is backed by institutions ranging from Oxford and Cambridge to new universities, private providers and specialist institutions right across the UK,” says Ruth Arnold, formerly director of public affairs at Sheffield and chair of the campaign’s national advisory group.
“These supporters adapt the campaign to their own needs, but the voice of students and staff and the contribution they make is at the heart of all messages, which are more credible as a result.”
Sydney’s Rhodes-Taylor agrees that the diversity of the higher education sector in many countries is one of its main strengths and says the sector as a whole must now “tell our story in such a way that people realise we are actually a hugely varied and differentiated sector and that we deliver all sorts of things”.
However, she adds that she is heartened by the fact that people working in external relations in UK and Australian universities are generally “very collegiate and very collaborative”, sharing information “all the time” and supporting each other more broadly.
“One of the things that people coming in from industry find fascinating but delightful is how willing we are to share with each other information that in an industry context would be fiercely protected…So I think we’re actually better at [working together] than we give ourselves credit for,” she says.
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