For a strong reputation, universities should face uncomfortable truths

To promote reputation, Rachel Sandison, deputy v-c of external engagement at the University of Glasgow, says universities should face uncomfortable truths

November 15, 2022
Rachel Sandison, Glasgow University

To coincide with the launch of the Reputation Rankings we have published a series of comment pieces on reputation and higher education. View the ranking results here.

Branding and higher education are often seen as awkward acquaintances. Historically, the world of academia has either been suspicious or dismissive of marketing’s influence within the ivory tower, where the idea of having “customers” is anathema.

However, speak of reputation, and most, if not all, colleagues will understand the important role that reputation plays in the fortunes of their organisation. At a basic level, reputation is the perception of an organisation’s past actions that informs the expectation of its future prospects. It drives financial security, reduces risk, and enhances competitiveness, conferring tangible benefits, including the ability to recruit and retain talent.

And, whether we like it or not, world university rankings heavily influence how we are perceived by our stakeholders, including our academic peers and prospective students. In part, this will be driven by quantitative measures – the facts and stats that are readily available across institutional collateral and league tables – but perception to an even greater extent is based on personal experience.

Research by the World 100 Network, of which the University of Glasgow is a member, highlights a number of factors that influence reputation in the eyes of international academics. Consistent surveying has shown that peer-to-peer engagement strongly correlates to positive sentiment, as does participation in hosted conferences and events. This is unsurprising, as marketers have long understood that the most authentic and impactful form of marketing is word of mouth.

As a result, we at the University of Glasgow have chosen to take a holistic approach to reputation management, embedding it into the core of our institutional mission. The importance of enhancing reputation for Glasgow can be noted by its presence within our strategic plan, World Changers Together; World Changing Glasgow 2025, where a reputation-based KPI has been established and is intended to be owned by the whole organisation. However, perhaps more uniquely, Glasgow has dedicated one of four pillars of our new International Strategy, Global Glasgow 2025, to reputation.

Sitting on a par with fellow pillars Global Relationships, Global Research and Global Recruitment, the Global Reputation pillar supports our bold institutional objectives with the aim “to be at the forefront of people’s minds when considering the world’s best universities and to be recognised as the World-Changing University”.

This approach recognises that reputation management must be a collaborative endeavour with reputation, recruitment, research and relationships, our four guiding Rs, inherently interconnected. In fact, everything we deliver is underpinned by cultivating relationships, both within the university and externally across the higher education sector, and with our local communities and through our international networks and bilateral partnerships.

In practice, this has meant developing frameworks that support partnerships to flourish, including investment into priority projects across research, learning and teaching, and mobility. It also means ensuring that as a sector we act collectively to influence governments to support policies and campaigns that effectively showcase the strengths and impact of higher education globally.

Much like a stock variable, an institution’s present reputation is not independent of its reputation in the past, which means that making decisions that are value-led are paramount. A university that extols particular virtues but fails to act accordingly will face befitting judgement.

At Glasgow, we are proud to be a university that takes bold, value-led action. An example of this can be seen in our sector-leading response to reparative justice, which importantly was informed by our partner, the University of the West Indies.

Despite our historic commitment to abolition, academic research compelled the university to confront the fact that as an institution, we gained significant financial benefits from bequests and donations that had their roots in the slave trade in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. This uncomfortable truth could have been conveniently ignored by the institution, but instead, the university openly published this research alongside a full programme of reparative justice and therefore led by example in the knowledge that not to do so would counter our institutional commitment to upholding honesty, integrity and fairness.

From a marketing and communications perspective, reputation management has meant articulating and amplifying the World-Changing Glasgow story through the implementation of a cohesive content strategy and effective channel management. This has led to the development of a communications framework to share our pioneering research under the auspices of the Glasgow Research Beacons – research areas where we can evidence world-leading and world-changing impact – and showcasing our societal impact through the lens of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

We have also taken time to continually reflect on who our audiences are, and how best to communicate with them. The outcome of active listening has been the creation of Connect, our international partners’ e-newsletter, and our World-Changing Glasgow Conversation series. These bring together a panel of experts from our colleague and alumni community to share their expertise and experience on topical issues, such as the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. Most importantly, however, these initiatives are delivered in partnership with our academic community.

Successful reputation management undoubtedly starts from the inside. In fact, organisational culture and reputation are intrinsically linked. Ensuring that our community is engaged and understands the university’s mission, values and ambitions is a priority. Our own communities of colleagues are our strongest advocates and can credibly share and socialise our stories. Therefore, our external engagement plans must dovetail synergistically with our internal ones. Encouraging collegiality, celebrating success, investing in staff engagement activities and recruiting colleagues based on our values all underpins institutional reputation and supports positive outcomes.

Although there is no silver bullet to reputation management, what we have learnt is that partnership is pivotal. Reputation is an asset that can be at once owned by an organisation and transferred to its stakeholders and therefore cannot exist within a vacuum. It is not merely telling good stories, but having good stories to tell. And the best way to maintain and enhance reputation? Perhaps, simply, by understanding your mission and values and living by them, or, as Dolly Parton once said, “Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.”

Rachel Sandison is deputy vice-chancellor of external engagement at the University of Glasgow.

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