Branding Education

WalSmart U 4-RCBI’m heading back to class today, seeing all the college banners snapping in the January wind, and it’s got me thinking about teaching—and branding. This post started, in fact, in a discussion with Lydia Field Snow about branding at Northeastern Illinois University. One of the first things corporations do when they emerge into the world or take each other over like amoebas absorbing their food is brand or rebrand themselves. In corporate jargon, they do this because, as the NEIU marketeers explain,

A brand establishes a first (and lasting) impression of a product, service or institution. [Their emphasis.] Think of any successful clothing label, automotive company or higher education institution. They all have a unique, distinguishable mark and a set of attributes that differentiates them from competitors.

Brands often evoke an emotional response and an affinity with consumers. When you see a particular logo, you may think of safety (Volvo), innovation (Apple) or quality healthcare (Mayo Clinic). A brand is conveyed through consistent visual, written and physical practices which means consistent logos, messages and delivery of services or products.

NEIU, it seems, has swallowed the full dose of corporate KoolAid. They even have an Identity Guidelines page, just like every corporation I’ve ever worked for. Another marketeer, Deborah Maue over at Inside Higher Ed, defines it this way, pitting brand against reputation: “A higher ed institution’s brand is usually related to typical educational results [my emphasis] such as alumni successes, graduation rates or career preparation. Reputation can be influenced by many things, including the experience of its students while on campus.”


The cash cow brand

So how does branding (and, wow, I cannot get that picture of sizzling hot iron out of my head when I write that) work with a university, which produces no products and offers no services? Wait, you say, isn’t education a service? Well, corporate Badmins think it is. It’s like health care, which is also often defined as a service but is instead a suite of actions designed to reach an ultimate goal of health. Health is a relative term, though. There are degrees of health, and research is showing treatment to be quite an individualized undertaking, including everything from mental or physical therapy to surgery to customized pharmaceuticals or just learning to eat well and exercise. Like education, healthcare depends upon individual expert practitioners backed by a support infrastructure (including some really cool technology). Trouble starts when non-experts (like insurance company clerks) start making medical decisions based on profit and loss. When you start thinking of healthcare in terms of a service delivered for profit, you get a lot of sick, dying, or dead people, and a lot of extraneous, unnecessary expenses. There’s a developing conception of healthcare being holistic, too, not in the New Age sense, but in the sense that it involves not just the whole person,, but the larger social conditions people inhabit and experience, like poverty, stress, discrimination. You can hardly call maintaining and improving the health of human beings a service or a product in this light. It becomes, instead, a large-scale social and political undertaking of the utmost importance, involving all of society and a vast array of methods and actions. It is innovative (like Apple), hopefully safe (like Volvo), and hopefully high quality when provided by groups of physicians and a support infrastructure as well-funded as the Mayo Clinic. It’s not any single “thing” or “process” that can be easily memed or summed up in a slogan though.

Sounds a lot like education, doesn’t it?

WU branding-MM

Expensive banners: Crucial internal marketing tool. Students might forget why they’re here, otherwise.

I’ve been thinking about how to best describe education from the inside for a long time, and haven’t been able to find even an adequate analogy. It’s different things on different days, from different vantage points, in different departments, at different levels, at different points in one’s life. The best I can come up with is the idiom currently used to describe the socio-economic situation and problems of the poor: The Struggle. Like healthcare, there is no product, though some people in business view students that way. There’s not even an endpoint of “being educated” any more than there’s a true perfect endpoint of “being healthy.” There is a huge difference between just “knowing stuff” or “having skills” and “being educated,” in fact. Wisdom is wound up in there somewhere, as is application, experience, and common sense, analytical ability, and even self-knowledge. We’ve long eschewed “talent” in our quest for equality, but it has some part to play, as do levels of privilege accorded to different races and genders. The new bywords in education are “grit” and “resilience,” but I’m not sure they actually mean anything.

If we define healthcare as I did, as “a suite of actions designed to reach an ultimate goal of health,” and it’s the closest cousin to education, I propose that education is “a suite of actions and methods (pedagogy) designed to help those involved reach an improved and improving state of intelligent, informed adulthood and continue learning throughout their lives.” How do we do that? We engage in healthcare by using tests, technology, and intelligent, informed deductions (that someone taught us and that were gleaned along the way). We engage in education the same way. The tests and technology are tools we use to shape the raw ability of humans to comprehend ideas and concepts into a functional intelligence that analyzes, continues to learn, and devises new ideas and solutions—and maybe creates and enjoys art along the way as well. Notice there is no specific directive about what’s to be done with that developed intelligence—not “get a job in the corporate world,” or “become an artist,” or even “go on to medical school”—any more than insurance companies can tell doctors what’s the best treatment or best specific outcome for their patients.

As in healthcare, there are tried and tested techniques, but education can be and often is a lot more freewheeling than healing. The instructor might be an expert, like a physician, but the processes of teaching and learning are not like prescribing a pill or undergoing a course of therapy or surgery. You’re not healing something that’s not working, or working the wrong way, or is outright broken. You’re changing it, changing the whole person. And when I say you, it’s not you-the-instructor, it’s you-the-instructor-and-the-student together. Learning, like the new model of healthcare, has always been holistic and collaborative. Socioeconomics affects learning as much as it does health.

I asked some of my colleagues to give me single-word descriptions of either teaching or education and here’s some of what they came up with: rugby, work, impossible, murky, labor, challenging, transformative. This is The Struggle all over. Every time we enter the classroom to confront ideas and concepts, it’s all those things and more. It takes work to learn, it takes work to teach. Every class is both labor and laboring to give birth to a new state of understanding for both student and instructor. Class discussions can be just exactly like a rugby scrum, as can sitting down to corral ideas into a paper (and sometimes, as one friend said, it takes an enema to get them out—thank autocorrect for that one). Some days it seems impossible, and it is, but it happens anyway without anyone knowing quite how. That’s the transformative moment, when both instructor and student become someone new. It’s also, as another friend points out, enigmatic. Often our thoughts are murky and it takes a long time to clarify them in our own minds, let alone our students’ minds. Every class is a new challenge. Every new subject is a challenge. Every paper is a challenge. Every reading is a challenge. Every discussion is a challenge. Another of my colleagues calls it thankless; it can be years before students understand why we asked them do the projects we assigned them or read the books we asked them to, and what they learned from it. Another colleague, who works in K-12, offered gardening as her word, and I think that’s absolutely apt too. We are cultivating ideas, thoughts, creativity, and character in our students and in our own research, weeding out fallacy and murky thinking.

How do you brand that? You can’t even call it a defined process, let alone a product or a service.

What you can brand is everything else. Like healthcare, education depends on an infrastructure to support it: one that includes at least some basic technology now, like computer access in classrooms and reliable campus-wide wi-fi (though truthfully, good teaching of concepts requires not much more than chalk and piece of slate). More and more, that infrastructure is coming to include luxury dorms, Olympic quality gyms, semi-professional sports teams, recreational climbing walls, and starchitect buildings, as well as an administration that outnumbers the faculty. None of these are really necessary, but they create a visible image that the university can brand: We have a president we pay a seven figure salary who used to be a state senator or Captain of Industry! We have a student union designed by Morphosis! We have a champion basketball/­football/­hockey/­bowling team! We are the University of Cool Stuff!

And for that, President Captain of Industry needs a marketing department to sell his school to prospective students who are being trained to see education as a commodity. (That used to be called Recruitment.) Now there are “internal clients” for the marketing department, too, and they must observe the rules of brand usage at all times, lest the University of Cool Stuff brand be watered down or applied incorrectly. God forbid the library should use the logo or tag line on a banner in the wrong way or with the wrong colors. Catastrophe! We might be mistaken for Some Other University!

How does all this marketing further the mission of an educational institution? How does this help students learn? How does this make sure they come out of the University of Cool Stuff with knowledge and tools to help them live productive, enlightened lives? It doesn’t. There’s nothing in any brand connected with what actually goes on in classrooms. Branding perpetuates itself, and the corporate culture it springs from. It bloats administration and takes money from faculty salaries. The money spent on glossy brochures and logo design is far better spent on hiring and supporting excellent teachers. At least one university agrees. Imagine if 75% of your doctors nationwide were poorly paid and only had 4-month contracts with the local hospital? How much faith would you put in that system? How good do you think it would be? (Ask nurses about this; they’re becoming the contingents of medicine.)

But what about the competition, the marketeers wail. They will steal all our students!

This is where the corporate model slams headfirst into the ridiculous climbing wall. Universities and colleges are not competing with other universities or colleges unless you see students as cash cows supporting your overspending on outlandish buildings and spa facilities to build the personal reputations of upper administration. All that glossy marketing crap has taught students to value the physical plant over what the faculty offer them. What kind of work your college’s scholars and teachers do should be the selling points, though most administration seem to feel “those books and articles don’t do anything for a university’s bottomline” as evidenced by lack of support for adjunct research. The student-faculty ratio. Class size. Personal attention. Mentoring. Internship opportunities. Activities that build skills and character. How do you sum that up in a word or a tag line, except with meaningless nouns like “excellence,” or “quality”?

The truth is, one college or university is much like another within their own tiers, unless you consider the intellectual differences that set them apart: the faculty research projects, the world-renowned scholars, the endowed chairs, the special scholarship programs, the award-winning teachers. And this is where a preponderance of unsupported adjuncts dooms your college. When 75% of your faculty is faceless and disposable, unsupported for research or professional development, nothing sets you apart.

Brand that.

–Lee Kottner


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