The Answer Isn’t Always “Global” and/or “Leadership”

This may sound a bit like a rant. But it’s not. It’s more an admonition to all of us in higher education to more thoughtfully monitor our actions and efforts.

I will admit that after nearly 40 years, one can begin to gain a smidgen of perspective (or is it cynicism?) about patterns of behavior and bad habits that become engrained in the culture of higher education. One of the patterns of practice I’ve kept track of is the sometimes irresponsible mimicry that colleges and universities demonstrate.

I’ve heard colleges and universities described as lemmings; they seem to all follow one another even if it means diving to their deaths. But this fateful metaphor is flawed. Lemmings were unjustly represented as mindless, mass-suicide wielding rodents in the Disney film “White Wilderness” in 1958. The filmmakers told an emotional story, but it wasn’t the truth. Lemmings don’t do that. And they’re not even native to Alberta, Canada, where the filming took place. There’s not a suicidal thought in them.

While I was investigating this myth, however, I came across this important gem on Snopes:

“These deaths are neither acts of ‘suicide’ nor the result of compulsive unreasoning behavior. However, they’re accidental deaths resulting from lemmings’ venturing into unfamiliar territories, being crowded and pushed over dangerous ledges, or venturing into the water in a quest to reach new territory.”

In an effort to “reach new territory” in revenue (tuition or gifts), I’ve observed colleges and universities grasping at ways to stand out in the market. I’ve lived through a variety of “new territories”: core curriculums, off-campus study, internships, study abroad, service-learning, community engagement, and several others. You are familiar with these. Nearly every college and university has incorporated one or more of them into their profile to the point that most students expect these to be part of any higher ed experience.

Most often these “new” program additions stem from an institution that has introduced a program with success and presented their story at a conference. Since higher ed loves conferences, news of success spreads quickly. Before you return home from the conference, you are finding ways to implement the new program on your campus. Within a year, most colleges and universities are “distinguishing” themselves in the market with the very same programs or offerings.

Look-alike efforts make a clear and differentiated market position difficult to claim. Extensive mimicry makes it impossible to find a meaningful niche. And it can indeed lead to an “accidental death.”

The latest in the litany of “new territories” for colleges and universities seems to be “signature experiences” or a “branded curriculum” or “distinctive programs.” We believe your signature experience can be one of the best opportunities before you, but only if it’s coherent with your institution.

Distinctive experiences can create your niche.

Mary Marcy, President of Dominican University in California, recently published an excellent white paper on five viable models to sustain institutions in the midst of challenges to survival. Her assessment of the pros and cons of each model includes this important value of the “distinctive program model”:

“One strength of the model is its potential to create a clear market niche for the institution. Defining a campus through a shared educational vision brings the value proposition of small colleges and universities to the fore—their commitment to student learning and their ability to develop an exceptional learning experience in an intimate environment. A market niche provides clarity in defining the campus; strengthens and focuses enrollment; and distinguishes the institution in a crowded marketplace.”

Marcy is, of course, absolutely correct. Adoption of a distinctive program—one that truly sets you apart among peers and competitors—may offer you a more clear and stronger market position. Key to success in adopting a distinctive program, however, is making it distinctive.

The solution to distinctive programming we’ve heard too often of late is some measure of curriculum change focusing on global and/or leadership. Granted, we take this a little personally and I’ll be the first to admit that our work at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia ranks among those in which we take great pride. Creating Summit with the faculty and administration at Agnes Scott was a delightful endeavor. Our hats are off to them for the way in which they embraced marketing research and risked change. Their efforts have clearly paid solid dividends. Summit leverages both “global” and “leadership” in meaningful ways for students and faculty alike. And recently, Summit was identified in The Chronicle of Higher Education as “perhaps the best-known signature experience” by Lawrence Biemiller.


Just because “global” and “leadership” themes worked successfully for Agnes Scott doesn’t mean it’s a ticket to revenue for everyone. If every school adopts those themes as distinctive, they will not be distinctive for long or for anyone. At Agnes Scott, this was a success. But the College’s decision to adopt this new position came about as a result of well-considered research and self-assessment. This was not the result of chasing a trend in the higher ed market or an attempt to blatantly model what had proven successful for other colleges.

Thinking differently.

Great minds don’t necessarily think alike. Walter Lippman, the American writer, commentator and journalist credited with coining the word “stereotype”, built a case for the value of differences and friction in The Stakes of Diplomacy, published in 1915. In his argument for engaging dialog and even conflict, he wrote: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”  The creative thinking guru Roger Von Oech “borrowed” that thought with his challenge to creatives: “When everyone thinks alike, no one is doing very much thinking.”

What’s the possibility that there’s not sufficient thinking in higher ed when it comes to finding points of differentiation that bring success? The irony of that notion notwithstanding, it may be time for those of us charged with the marketing of colleges and universities to be less eager to follow the success of others and more committed to discovering the best, creative and coherent versions of ourselves.

So where will you hunt for your own distinctive program? It will be found in the expertise you bring to the market. It will be found among faculty members who have distinguished themselves in specific academic fields and professional associations. Hints will be hidden among outstanding academic programs that attract undergraduate and graduate students and faculty to your campus. They’ll be uncovered in the specialized student success programs you have created at your school. They will be found among the mores and traditions that separate you from others. They can be seized in the one-of-a-kind experiences you offer students and alumni.

When endeavoring to find a distinctive program that will be coherent with your institution, you must ask the right questions. Some would suggest that, rather than beginning by looking inward, testing a list of potential scenarios with the external market will yield an appealing strategy. Yet external audiences often are drawn to the familiar, not the distinctive. They can tell you what sounds good to them, but may not be good for them—or for you. Leaning too heavily on external perspective may lead you to make choices and adopt strategies inconsistent with your mission, expertise, capability or, perhaps worse, believability.

To uncover the possibilities for distinction that can shape your signature (“no two alike”!) experience, RHB employs a research strategy we call the Three Satellites, referring to the Theory of Triangulation to locate, in our work, our clients’ true stories and, specifically, their true place in the market.

  • In the first satellite, we seek answers to “what is true about this college or university?” We use a variety of discovery methods to answer that question by unearthing the experiences that define an institution.
  • In the second satellite, we are reviewing what our clients say is true about them, intending to identify both opportunities and divergence from the true story.
  • In the third satellite, we want to know what those outside the college or university know and believe to be true about the college or university.

Discovering what is true and what is trustworthy allows our clients to create signature experiences that reflect that truth. In the case of Agnes Scott, Summit was successful because it was already in the DNA of the College. Yes, the faculty worked diligently to create, augment and reshape their offerings. Yet, Summit grew to fruition because it already satisfied who they were and what they valued. As Inside Higher Ed recently reported from a conversation with Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott:

“Agnes Scott calls its program SUMMIT. But a carbon copy wouldn’t work at another college with another identity The trick is to find the blend of programs that fits with an institution’s identity while making it stand out. The phrase I use is ‘mission aligned and market relevant. The answer is not the same for every school.”

We describe the value of elasticity as a virtue of truth-telling, but not in the sense of “stretching the truth.” Rather, your story should always snap back into shape even when it’s been stretched to cover the breadth and outer reaches of your offerings. Institutions of higher education are, by nature, complex and multi-faceted. Your story must expand to be inclusive of that scope. Still, your story should always reflect the mission, values and vision of the institution.

If you try to tape on a signature experience that does not align with who you are, your story will not be elastic. In fact, it will likely stretch you to the point of breaking.  You will have difficulty in convincing your audiences—internal and external—that your institution can deliver your new program with authenticity, relevance or quality. And like the lemmings in the Disney film, in your quest to find new territory, you may fall victim to overcrowding.




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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.