The continuing fallout from December’s congressional hearing with the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania has underscored larger perception and communications issues facing institutions of higher education today.
Balancing the needs of a complex ecosystem of stakeholders – students, faculty, alumni, employees, donors and legislators, often with competing interests and ideologies – has never been more fraught. Last year, according to Gallup, Americans’ confidence in higher education fell to 36% across all major subgroups, attributed in part to rising costs of higher education and the growing political divide. College enrollment has continued to decline, as reported by Fortune. Higher education is having an identity crisis.
Once heralded as a place of measured debate, the university has lost sight of its essential function within such a fractured operating environment. Various bad-faith arguments around Critical Race Theory and “woke” buzzwords have made it harder for higher education institutions – and the companies that provide important products and services to those institutions – to stay true to their north star. They exist to educate through an open dialogue.
Consider the fact that the word “university” comes from the Latin “universitas,” meaning “the whole.” By definition, the whole must include different perspectives and points of view. Higher education institutions should remember this as part of their mission: to open minds, learn from experts, construct sound arguments, and celebrate thinking in new ways.
Two professors at Dartmouth from the Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies programs, Susannah Heschel and Tarek El-Ariss, demonstrated how this can be done by setting up forums to educate students and the public about the Israel-Hamas conflict. Through these structured forums with faculty – hosted in auditoriums and online – they intentionally held the space for public dialogue so students could raise questions and learn about the conflict’s historical, cultural and religious roots. This initiative achieved what so many universities have struggled to do in the wake of divisive global events.
Within our bifurcated society, the place we should be able to bring various perspectives together is the institution of higher education. Colleges and universities not only need to own this but leverage it as an asset. Communications and marketing teams should use the very mission of their institution to promote themselves and remind constituents of the essential purpose they serve.
This is also true of education companies who should adhere to their brand purpose and positioning, always with an eye towards the students and educators they serve.
There is no question that the current environment is challenging for higher education institutions. But communicating with clarity and purpose with the institution’s mission at the core of all communications can help balance today’s complexities and enhance your reputation.