TITLE: Marketing a New Academic Program AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 20, 2006 12:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My department is doing something new, at least for departments here at UNI: marketing our new programs. The modern university is tricked out with a full-featured marketing and public relations department, much like a commercial firm's own marketing division. I am guessing that universities have long had people who do this sort of thing, if only informally, but over time these offices have evolved into something more. In a cultural and political environment where dollars and (good) students are increasingly scarce resources, universities have begun to market themselves actively. This has typically happened at the institution level, "selling the university" to potential students, to potential donors, and legislative bodies. Sometimes, this marketing extended to major new initiatives, such as an interdisciplinary graduate program or a new push to offer programs by distance education. But individual departments have, as near as I can tell, mostly ridden the coattails of university-wide promotion. But my department has two new majors, bioinformatics and "networking and system administration", that we would like to promote. One of the goals faculty expressed to me when I became department head was to promote these programs and build up their enrollments and financial support. Department-wide enrollment is down quite a bit over the last few years, as it is at most schools, and these programs are seen as opportunities to reverse the trend by reaching new audiences. By promoting the new majors, we would also increase the visibility of our department -- and the visibility of computer science more generally as an academic discipline. In times of tight resources, this seems almost essential. And, because we are not a "research-intensive" university, or a private college with an elite reputation, we sometimes have to try harder to let people know about us. (How different that is from when I was an undergraduate student of computer science during the first half of the '80s, or even from the mid-'90s, when almost any school with a CS program or something like it was busting at the seams with students!) I suppose that we could do the same old things that departments always do when they create new programs, but I think it will be difficult or impossible to broaden our base of potential students with just word of mouth, a new brochure, and a good web site. And considering that the CS faculty and I are not experts at marketing or public relations, we probably would not get fair value for our efforts doing amateurish things on our own. New!  Crest toothpaste So, our new bioinformatics professor and I met with one of the principals in University Marketing and Public Relations to talk about how we could do better. In response to our conversation, he and his colleagues developed a full-blown marketing plan, like they would for rolling out a new car or brand of toothpaste. They helped us distinguish between features, which tend to be things that we like about our program, and benefits, which are the things that people in the target market -- whether students, parents, alumni, or industry -- care about. They've designed some new promotional materials and helped us to identify ways to reach our target markets, via e-mail, press releases, outreach events, media liaisons, and so on. Some of the things that they propose are things that we can do for ourselves; others are things that they can do. Some are things that they do for free, like write and issue press releases, and others they do for a fee, like design and print materials. As a department, we are left to decide where best to spend our efforts and our scarce discretionary dollars. For a new department head, it's a challenge, but one that I hope the faculty can help me meet. Marketing? PR? That sounds awfully unacademic... Some faculty ask, "Are we selling something?" The reality is, yes, we are selling something. Students choose to come to UNI, or not. They choose to major in our department, or not. I am approaching this endeavor in the most idealistic sense of marketing. Students cannot come here to major in bioinformatics if they don't know that the program exists, or what bioinformatics is, or why this would be a good career or academic choice. Their parents, high school counselors, and science teachers cannot suggest our program, or recommend that students consider careers in computational science, if they don't know about them. Iowa's biotechnology companies won't come to recruit our students if they don't know we exist; nor can they help us educate students with their intellectual and financial resources. Public information is an essential good in a free market, even an intellectual marketplace. This is especially true for computer science in an era when the popular press feeds folks a steady diet of stories about off-shoring, outsourcing, lay-offs, and the dot-com bust. How can students know that this is the best time ever to be a CS student if we don't share the thrill? Ron Popeil -- Salesman of the Century These days, the idea of marketing higher education brings to many people's minds the tactics of for-profit institutions. The worst of these schools mislead potential students, but most just play on the fears and insecurities of unhappy people. That is not the sort of marketing a school like UNI does, and not the sort of thing we want to do. We will not distort information to attract students or focus on style over substance. Computer science is an academic discipline. We are about ideas -- marvelous, exciting, dynamic ideas! We can't tell students and parents that a major in bioinformatics is easy, a soft road to a risk-free career. It won't "exciting" every moment. Misleading claims of this sort don't do the students, our department, or our university any good. It also doesn't advance the state of our discipline, or improve the world. We can be honest about the challenges of majoring in computer science or bioinformatics while being honest about the good features (er, benefits), too. The key is to get the ideas out there so people can make well-informed decisions. I don't mind students not choosing to major in CS because it doesn't interest them or fit their goals. But I hate the idea of missing out on students who would enjoy computer science and be good at it because of ignorance or bad information. If you ever see me hawking our programs on a late-night infomercial, you'll know that I've gone over to the dark other side. But I think we can do this right and do something of value for everyone involved. At least we are trying to make something happen, rather than stand at the whim of the prevailing trends. I'm hopeful that we can doing something really good. The university's PR folks and administration are excited, too. They haven't done this sort of thing for a new program before, so we are a test case. They like to see departments taking charge of their fates, and in an era of budget cuts and stiff competition with other schools for the best students they see this as a potential avenue to broaden the reach of the university. Oh, on our department's web site... I know that it is not very good. It has always been designed, implemented, maintained in house by CS professors, and the folks who have volunteered their time to do it have generally been focused more on content than presentation. We are in the process of designing a brand new site from scratch. I've asked one of our grad students with considerable design experience to help me create the new site. My goal for now is simple and effective. I think we are well on our way, which the rest of the world will get to see soon. -----