These are trying times for institutional reputations in almost every sector around the world.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer calls it a global “implosion of trust”, citing the largest ever drop in trust in governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations and media institutions. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2016 shows confidence in US institutions at near-record lows. Organisations once seen as pillars of civil society are viewed sceptically. Trust is in crisis.
It might be comforting for those of us in higher education to convince ourselves that this precipitous slide in trust applies only to organisations outside our sector. Indeed, as has been widely reported, governments, the media and big business are among those with the lowest levels of trust.
But this goes beyond the usual suspects. The Gallup poll shows a dip in confidence in non-profits, religious organisations and other groups historically immune from such fluctuations. At the same time – and perhaps not coincidentally – there has been an increase in mistrust of expertise. We live, some would argue, in a post-factual world where truth is subjective.
This is a challenging position for universities. Our purpose is the exploration of new facts, discoveries and knowledge that can help drive progress. It is also a challenge to the communicators who shape how these universities are viewed in a changing world. How do we engage with a global community that has become more likely to feel that organisations are serving narrow self-interests rather than the wider public good?
Our response at Harvard University is not to double down on a communications tool. No one media story, no video, no amount of social media followers can fully address this problem. Our approach must be to focus on the single most important factor that has shaped Harvard’s reputation since its founding in 1636 – our people.
Harvard faculty, students and alumni are the best argument that we can make for our teaching and research mission, for the positive impact that higher education has on the world, and for a deep and lasting commitment to strengthening society and improving the lives of others.
Harvard faculty, beyond their laboratories and classrooms, are extending the reach of knowledge and exploration to millions around the world through the university’s online platform HarvardX, with courses ranging from computer science to the Ancient Greek hero. Researchers at Harvard Medical School, who are on the path to developing therapies and cures, are tracking a protein that might be at the root of Alzheimer’s disease. And a broad cohort of Harvard experts are pioneering cross-disciplinary approaches in engineering, medicine, chemistry, public health, public policy and the arts to confront climate change at a time when the need to identify solutions to this most consequential of challenges has never been more urgent.
Across Harvard, students are not only advancing their own knowledge but contributing in myriad ways to communities around the world. For some, this takes the form of public service close to home, or in villages and towns overseas. For others, it is a dedication to breakthroughs and entrepreneurship, vividly expressed at the Harvard Innovation Labs where students are working on projects such as the use of synthetic biology to create environmentally friendly processes for the production of palm oil, or low-cost, accurate and easy-to-use human papilloma virus (HPV) diagnostic tools to enhance the early detection of cervical cancer.
Our alumni, too, embody a commitment to engagement in the world: whether they are one of the five US Supreme Court justices who attended Harvard or Shaunte Butler, a first-generation college graduate who attended Harvard on financial aid, volunteered as an undergraduate in a local nursing home, graduated in 2014 and is now in her first year at Yale Medical School, and recently returned to her Miami high school to encourage students to see the potential and possibilities of a college education.
Stories such as these could be told dozens of times over at universities across the world. And this is where public affairs and communications functions can play a key role. Yes, facts matter. But we must be more effective at illuminating them with people.
Harvard’s generous financial aid programme, for instance, helps almost 60 per cent of the students in our undergraduate college. That’s an impressive statistic. But when you hear the inspirational story of Butler and see the impact of her path-breaking example in the lives and livelihoods of young people in Miami’s Liberty City, the reality of financial aid takes on a new meaning. It demonstrates the fundamental connection between policies and people.
This is what we can communicate. This is our way to illuminate and uncover what universities do, and a way to bring along those who would be sceptical of what may seem like large, distant organisations.
At a time when institutions of learning and education have a crucial role to play – in economic development, in finding cures, in providing educational experiences that create meaning and purpose for individuals – there’s no app or platform, no statistic or no single tool that can shape reputation alone. The most compelling and effective way to solidify and maintain trust must be to make real the effects of our institution through the people who embody the very best of our mission.
Paul Andrew is vice-president for public affairs and communications, Harvard University