TITLE: Marketing a New Academic Program
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 20, 2006 12:25 PM
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
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.
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?
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.