Thinking anthropologically about faculty, brand and marketing

Anthropologists can drive people crazy (I’ll be telling you more about why an anthropologist is working at RHB soon!). People will ask us a question they imagine has a straightforward answer, and then we respond, “Well, it depends…” We respond that way because it’s true. It does depend.

For my first Insight, I’m tackling something light—revisiting the issue of how to thoughtfully integrate faculty into marketing plans, which involves diagnosing and dealing with the species of dissenters that inhabit your campus. Fun and easy, right?

I am coming to this as someone who has had term faculty appointments at four campuses—campuses that had very different student populations, aspirations and opportunities.  I learned to adapt my teaching to each context and loved them all for different reasons. I was also a student tele-fundraiser for the university where I earned my graduate degrees. Now I am working at a marketing consulting firm. While talking about “brands” and “market position” is literally something I will do all day long, I have definitely heard the arguments other faculty use to avoid engaging marketing efforts. Some resistance is principled, and sometimes it is a knee-jerk response to being asked to do something they don’t want to do.

One of the first tidbits I learned during fund-raising training is the 20-60-20 rule (the specific percentages in this formula may differ on your campus). Twenty percent of potential donors are an immediate “yes,” 20% are an immediate “no,” and the middle 60% are looking for a reason to say yes. Trouble is, you have to provide several reasons until one hits. You need as many of that 60% on board as possible, because they have the potential to become some of your most solid boosters. They just need the right invitation.

We are well aware that many people are uncomfortable ever using the word “brand,” so that’s one immediate hurdle you have to get over. They also don’t want to use the word “marketing.” Some of the discomfort around those terms is tied to the idea that higher education is a realm whose value derives from the space it makes for intellectual experimentation and personal transformation rather than something like vocational training. Some of the discomfort is also because people don’t actually know what these words mean. This isn’t that strange—we all use words whose meanings are actually kind of fuzzy to us.

The first task is to clarify what you mean by these words, so that even if people continue to feel disdain for those words, they still get the concepts. “Marketing” is an exchange between two parties who each have something the other wants. Sometimes in public discourse that gets reduced to a crass exchange of money for a credential of relatively equal value. Is that what you want, or are you looking for a deeper kind of exchange? You have a lot of space here to think about how to talk to faculty about what you want the exchange to entail. I bet there are intangible-but-real elements to the exchange you want, something like an awakening to the world, membership in a community or emotional attachment of some kind. These are not just window dressings. These are the kinds of things that help you imagine your brand.

“Brand” is, at the most basic level, what people think of you, sometimes in spite of what you say about yourself. It is a building block of your identity, and you do not control it. Our identities, anthropologically speaking, are built from the following: our assertions about ourselves, what others assert about us, and then the negotiations that occur when those assertions come into contact. Fundamentally, then, our identities are always subject to others’ agreement or disagreement, and they can change every time we interact with someone. On some level, faculty who are suspicious or resistant to being brought into marketing efforts are responding to the dynamic nature of identity, consciously or not. They are reckoning with the fact that the position that provides their professional identity can change. As public discourses about higher ed challenge its value on a variety of fronts, faculty are already reckoning with the idea that their identities are under threat.

Here at RHB, we talk about the concept of “Coherence,” achieving alignment and consistency in your understanding of yourself and your market position. Creating and maintaining positive brand association requires coherence. Coherence is a goal in your marketing and communications materials, but also in the way you integrate members of the campus community into your efforts. You can’t have coherence without faculty input.

My goal here is to help you make it easier for faculty to see the necessity of their participation. To get you talking with your cabinets about these ideas, I am going to prompt you with some questions. Then I’ll give some advice about how to bring faculty into the discussion, even though we all know there is going to be some pushback. See how easily you can answer these questions:

  1. How would your teaching faculty describe their actual jobs and their students?
  2. How does that differ from what faculty do at peer institutions?
  3. Why did faculty take jobs at your institution?
  4. How many faculty are term hires, for what reasons?
  5. Are you beholden to collective bargaining agreements with faculty unions?
  6. What do you mean by marketing, and what do faculty think you mean?
  7. Which faculty should participate?
  8. For which purposes/campaigns?
  9. For how long?
  10. Toward what result?

Faculty can be notoriously resistant to change, especially if it involves taking on new duties. The phrase “loyal opposition” may apply. There are several reasons for this. We’ve talked about this before, digging really deeply into the literature on this dynamic. Let’s just go over the high points here. Depending on the history of shared governance at your campus, there may be a distrust of administrative dicta or overtures. Faculty are also wary about job creep, especially for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Graduate training and the obligations of tenure-track positions teach faculty to focus primarily on the research components of their jobs. The institutions that employ them rely on them for that focus. Campuses benefit greatly by the reputations of their faculty and the fruits of their productivity in terms of publicity and grant money overhead. 

This is not to say that there is not some great, innovative teaching happening. Teaching is a definitional activity for how many faculty construct their professional identities. I’ve not actually met very many faculty members who did not enjoy teaching and find it personally enriching. “Diverse” faculty in particular may feel especially compelled to teach at the top of their game, all the time, because they are aware of both the need to help diverse students along and the harsher evaluations they may receive compared to their white, male counterparts (see here as an example).

When you ask faculty to participate in marketing efforts, what they may hear is that you are asking them to pay more attention to the last leg of the tripod of their contractual duties—service. Service is a strange category in that it can be difficult to pin down what counts as good or enough. Faculty are supposed to do some, but not too much.  Some faculty do much more unrecognized service because of their membership in particular diverse groups. If marketing is framed as service, this prompts immediate questions about whether it will replace other departmental or college-level obligations, how to tell if the job is done, and whether certain faculty will be held back in their careers by doing this. For instance, I can hear junior faculty arguing—reasonably—about not wanting to be held accountable for application, inquiry, or enrollment numbers when they compile tenure dossiers. So concerns about these kinds of duties are two-fold: on the one hand, concern over the practical aspects of how this would work, and on the other hand, concern about having to confront that their professional identity now has to include “marketing” when they have not chosen that as their discipline.

Go back to those questions you answered and see if you have identified both interesting possibilities and potential challenges. If you have a large number of term faculty or are subject to collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), you will have to account for those things in a careful way. Do you have a number of term faculty who are professionals who offer occasional special opportunities with practical applications? Those are great opportunities for testimonials by those faculty and their students. If you have a lot of term faculty for budgetary reasons and no path to long-term contracts for them, perhaps they should not be called on here. With regard to CBAs, this can be an opportunity to come to clarification about what kinds of expectations might be acceptable depending on faculty rank. Having taught as a member of two unions, I am on the side of clarification.

You should revisit the sales versus marketing distinction we’ve talked about before and clarify with faculty where their strengths lie and what they are capable of doing on the most basic level. Even if they give star-quality lectures, they may still be incredibly shy or just not great in social situations (and, yes, I was that shy person outside the lecture hall). For some faculty, calling prospective students and families might be a non-starter, but they would be willing to give an on-camera elevator pitch about why they love teaching and doing research at your campus that can be shared on social media. Some faculty have set pieces that are fun and easy to present at college fairs. Other faculty might have spent a lot of time developing a classroom experience open to students of diverse abilities and backgrounds that would make a great stop on a campus tour. The goal is to come up with a variety of ideas that provide some flexibility.

Flexibility allows you to take advantage of what already exists. Faculty market all the time – during lectures, major advisement, and oversight of individual research projects. Your current students are a captive audience, and one that has a tremendous amount of power. They talk to their families, community members, and the rest of the world through social media. Faculty who help students feel that they belong—who are contributing to retention—are some of your best assets for pulling in new students and increasing positive brand associations. A great idea is to feature faculty and current students in conversation about their classroom or research experiences, perhaps as part of a campus visit panel.

A suggestion we’ve made before is to engage faculty in committee work with your marketing staff oriented toward long-term brand promotion. There are ways to do that in order to decrease the burden of the work. Make participation easy by having faculty pull together grant applications with Broader Impact sections, positive peer teaching evaluations, and their teaching, research and diversity statements that were part of their job applications or dossiers for tenure and promotion. Ask them to pull out content that talks about how they’ve made a professional home in the specific context of your campus. This content can be used to make lists of themes or follow-up questions marketing staff can use to prepare for in-person meetings. This can reduce the number of actual meetings necessary while expanding the amount of usable content and keeping faculty from dropping out of the process.

You’ve got some ideas about what to do and who to engage. Now comes the really fun part, where you make the big ask.

We’ve written before about the types of dissenters you can encounter on campus. We listed five types, as well as some advice for dealing with them. Our advice accounts for the fact that some individual tokens of each type just might be members of the 60% who are waiting for that just-right invitation.

So, who are these dissenters? We’re talking about those who are:

  • threatened,
  • stuck,
  • afraid,
  • trained,
  • or grumpy.

When you consider that these folks are literally employed to create and analyze arguments in their scholarly papers, it’s no real surprise that getting things done can be a contentious process. Campuses are inhabited by humans, so you get to see all the beautiful and ugly parts of human nature (maybe during a single meeting). The point is to not get too caught up watching flashy territorial displays, but to find ways to move the focus to collaborative efforts which can be more subtle.

This requires forethought of the kind I suggested with that long list of questions about your faculty. You’ve thought about who your faculty are on a deep level and what their concerns are. Now you need to think about how to either head off dissent or respond in a productive way. Our first suggestion is to be transparent about what the problem is that you are trying to solve and about the process you are using to diagnose and prescribe treatment. You want to avoid the accusation that you are suggesting a solution in want of a problem. Distill the situation down as much as you can to the real bedrock issues that have to be addressed. Are you talking about increasing enrollment across the campus, or within particular colleges or the graduate and professional school? Do you need a complete rebranding? Do your colors and logo feel tired or invoke the wrong associations? What will happen if you don’t do this work? What resources are you willing to commit to this project? What is the nature of the exchange you are engaging in with faculty here?

Again, we all know you can expect some defensive posturing. Using simple, transparent language is the best offense. One way you respond is by directly calling out the dissenter and asking what they think you are missing. Another idea is to engage early and often. Ask what reputational or brand-related challenges faculty might think already exist. When you tell faculty what you are proposing, tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. It’s the same technique you used to write scholarly papers.

Another strategy is to directly ask dissenters to participate, which is how you start figuring out who is among the amenable 60% and who is never going to go along. Be prepared to ask more than once and change your selling point each time. Be clear about what this individual could contribute that others could not. Be flexible about what “participation” means and if rewards are possible. Be willing to talk about how you’ll mutually decide something is not working and what you will do then.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you and faculty generally have the same goal: to help students make the most of their experiences. That may be the single most important element of your marketing plan. When the work gets contentious, that may mean you have hit bedrock identity issues. Keeping in mind that this is pretty deep stuff may open you up to empathetic responses that may not remove dissent entirely, but can soften up the ground for new approaches.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.