TITLE: Market-Driven Academia AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 31, 2006 1:07 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In this era of rising costs, heightened competition, and falling public support for education, universities are becoming more and more driven by public relations. I encountered a perfect example at a meeting this morning. One of the offices on campus was demoing a beta version of a new on-line tool that will help the university interact with students and community colleges. They plan to go 'live' with with the tool later this summer. Right now, they are introducing the tool to faculty on campus, both to get feedback to improve the program but also to build awareness of the tool among potential stakeholders. Further, before going live, these folks plan to visit community colleges around the state to teach them about the tool, to build awareness among another key group of stakeholders. Then they'll present the tool to students here at the university and elsewhere. One of their reasons for the concerted effort to spread the word so broadly was very pragmatic: After university public relations sends out press releases on this new tool, they expect the press to immediately ask community college folks what they think of about the tool's effect on them and their students. And the university wants these folks to be able to respond to press queries in an informed -- and, hopefully, positive -- way. Good words in the press make for good public relations. The fact that the university is making an effort to educate potential users and stakeholders is not unusual; I'd expect the same for any new tool. What struck me was the deliberate effort to move the education stage so early in the process, as a part of the PR initiative. And the campaign of enlightenment won't be limited to people directly affected by the tool and its use; the university also plans to demo the tool to key legislators in the state and in the districts served by the community colleges. University/community college relations are a hot political issue these days, and the university wants fair attention given to its efforts to meet the desires of the folks who hold the purse strings, and the folks who elect those folks. The PR campaign goes farther than just educating stakeholders. The unit responsible for this tool is already working on trademarking the name and logo of the software, to solidify their use in PR and to prevent unscrupulous competitors from swooping in after the launch and stealing intellectual property. (That flowery prose is mine, not the universities.) I can't say that I blame the university for working so hard to shape its image before the legislature and the public at large. Perception is important. With so many entities competing for state appropriations, the university needs to sell itself better. Some might say that public agencies aren't competing, but they are. Within any given political culture, public funding is limited, so choices have to be made. So long as the university doesn't subvert its purpose, or do things it wouldn't otherwise do for the sake of publicity, playing the PR game seems an unavoidable reality these days. Bioinformatics poster I've already about my department's effort to market a new program in bioinformatics. I view our efforts as a reasonable attempt to make information available to the people who need it in order to make informed choices about careers and educational opportunities. We will be moving forward this summer to let more students and teachers know about our program. For now, you can see a couple of pieces of literature developed by the university's PR department to help us, an 11"x17" poster (right) and an 8-1/2"x8-1/2" bifold brochure (PDF). -----