By Tony Proudfoot
This piece is excerpted from “Let Go to Let It Grow” from Jan./Feb. Currents.
Educational institutions are not businesses, though they have business problems. We can learn much from the corporate sector, but have we relied on its example for too long?
The purpose of a business is to make money. Higher education’s purpose is to advance the frontiers of knowledge, prepare the next generation to lead and succeed, and serve our countries, states, and communities as economic partners. While institutions should be responsive to the needs of society, what sells is not our only consideration.
For example, enrollment in the humanities has declined 8.7 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A trend like that would have shareholders of a public company screaming to cut an unprofitable product line. But in the academy, we believe in the enduring value of English, literature, and history, regardless of their perceived value in the current marketplace. Rather than ask, “How do we cut these programs?,” we ask, “How can we help them succeed?” Unlike the private sector, we don’t simply give society what it wants; we also provide what it requires to survive and thrive.
Universities are unique in nature. They have shared governance. They ideally have a lifelong relationship with their stakeholders. The quality and talent of an institution’s faculty help determine its strength. Is any other sector completely dependent upon the effort and abilities of its customers? Universities can offer a world-class education, but students can’t attain it unless they do their part and become partners in the educational process.
As institutions face disruptive economic and technological forces, the value of higher education is being questioned like never before. Our sector needs new perspectives to create and communicate its value in compelling ways.
When branding first entered the higher education sector a couple of decades ago, it made sense to lean on private-sector models. But as this work is increasingly embraced and necessary in higher education, we should ask ourselves: Do we need to create our own model? One that affirms and emboldens our values? I believe it’s time to consider these questions.
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Tony Proudfoot is associate vice president of marketing communications and brand management at the University of Arizona.
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