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In my opinion

Marketing can corrupt universities


The director of communications at Lakehead University recently wrote, in this column, that it is time that academics realize that we live in a marketplace and thus have to “brand” our universities to sell our “products” to potential “buyers” – the students. She told us how, in much less time than expected, she transformed the image of her institution into a “can-do university” where one finds “top-notch research” (using typical buzzwords that sound good and never have more than two syllables).

In contrast with this optimistic view of marketing, I see a different, darker face of marketing when it’s applied to universities.

When I pay close attention to product advertisements in newspapers, on TV and now in cinemas, I’m always struck by how the carefully chosen language and images stay just at the border of lies and misrepresentation. No doubt an army of lawyers went over the text and images to make sure nobody could object to their content despite the obvious fact that their effective message often clearly suggests what they say they do not want to suggest.

For example, carmakers now target very young drivers (aged 18-25) as potential clients. Their ads show cars moving faster than any speed limit. But no problem: very small print shown for about 10 seconds during the clip clearly says that one should not attempt to do the same since what the viewer sees was done with expert drivers in special circumstances.

The problem with applying cars-and-beers marketing techniques to universities is that universities are supposed to represent the search for truth, whereas car and beer sellers just want to make money. And “business ethics” is not the same as ethics in a university context, given the unique moral mission of the latter.

Marketing can be a slippery slope for universities that like to advertise that they are “first” in something. They try to find a ranking in which they’re among the top. Many examples exist of universities using the well-known Maclean’s university ranking and saying that they know it is not really scientific but that they’re nonetheless pleased to be at its top. That is clearly opportunistic if not completely cynical. Any rational, honest institution would opt out of rankings whose only objective function is to sell more copies of the magazine.

A more interesting example is University X, which found a ranking it liked but probably did not want to say its exact position in it. So, the local marketing expert chose the following sentence: “University X is among the first five universities in Canada in…” (I omit the variable to keep the institution anonymous as it is irrelevant to my analysis).

Since university X is “among the first five” why not simply mention its rank? Is it first? No, as it would have been proud to say “university X is first…” Probably not second, for the same reason. This leaves ranks 3, 4 and 5. I suggest that X probably ranked 4th or 5th and the reasoning was: we would like to be “first” so let us put the word “first” in the sentence as the reader may remember only that word! Let us say our university was “among the five first…” There is no law against this, though it plays on the limit of intellectual honesty in the way many sellers of used cars and other products do. I think that this kind of behaviour slowly corrupts universities by promoting cynicism.

Other popular rankings among many university administrators for a couple of years now are the Shanghai and THES rankings of the “best” universities in the world. Although academic experts in evaluation from many countries have shown often that these rankings have no scientific value, many universities use them to sell their “quality.” In another real example, University B, which seems to take these rankings seriously even though the ranks change each year in a manner inconsistent with the nature of university activities, was proud to announce that this year it ranked 20th. But it didn’t mention that the year before in the very same ranking it was ranked 12th. Either the ranking means something, and 20th position represents a dramatic drop in quality that should be followed urgently by a major reform, or the ranking is bogus and 20th is not better than 90th and marketing should not be based on these numbers. High-ranking administrators have told me, “Yves, you’re right about these rankings but we must use simple messages.”

It is not impossible to honestly promote universities by presenting really important findings related to their basic missions (teaching and research) – prizes won by professors and students from peers and recognized experts. However, this task is difficult if these promotional plans are left in the hands of people who have been trained to see, in a visit to Ontario Universities’ Fair, “the frenzy of both the ‘sellers’ and the ‘buyers’.” I see in the same event curious and excited future university students discussing with professors and other students the different programs they’re interested in, nervously trying to make an enlightened choice among them.

The future of universities could depend on how we decide to “see” what they are really doing.

Yves Gingras is a history professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at Université du Québec à Montréal.

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  1. J. Lee / January 13, 2009 at 14:23

    While Professor Gingras made many well-argued, sincere, and noble points, I find that those points are nice to ponder in an academic setting but likely disastrous if implemented in the real world. Also, I doubt that the desire to present an institution in the most positive light will corrupt an insititution unless the marketers outright lie. (And I think it is safe to concede that does happen from time to time.)

    According to the American Marketing Association, “marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” In that sense, a marketer’s job in a university setting is to communicate why “University X” offers value for prospective students. After all, everyone still has to pay tuition. Professors all draw paychecks from the value that they deliver to enrolled students (and their research too).

    I do not doubt for a second that if most prospective students find value in a university’s really important findings and/or their missions, marketers would adjust their messages instantly to reflect exactly that. However, students (especially if they’re in high school) are looking for the university to help them grow, figure out their place in the society, and launch their career. (The emphasis will likely be on the career part.) So messages touting important findings by a university will likely get tuned out in our over-communicated society, and at worst, it would do prospective students a disservice because marketers are not getting relevant information (with respect to decision-making) in a timely fashion.

    If marketers do not practice smart marketing for Canadian universities, I am afraid that they will find themselves getting their lunch eaten by Apollo Group soon, which launched Meritus University in Canada in about six months ago. (Apollo Group also operates the controversial but finanically successful University of Phoenix in the United States.)

  2. Yves Gingras / January 19, 2009 at 05:45

    It is ironic that J. Lee mentions U. of Phoenix. Here is what one can read about that organization keen on marketing in Academica’s Top Ten (summarized from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    “uPhoenix sued over loan payback policy: In a lawsuit against the University of Phoenix and its parent company, Apollo Group Inc., 3 former students at the for-profit institution accuse it of paying off the federal loans of students who have withdrawn from the school, then seeking to collect owed tuition fees directly from those students. The suing students allege uPhoenix is trying to strengthen its default rating through this practice. The university says its refund policies are compliant with federal student-aid rules, based on a review by the US Department of Education.”

    This rather seems to confirm that markeitng CAN corrupt universities… But maybe one could argue uPhoenix is NOT a true university…

  3. Stephanie Barker / January 26, 2009 at 10:13

    A bad marketing campaign is just that, bad, no matter its client. Brand is not just a logo or a slogan, it’s an organizational principle – it refers to institutional values and promises made to stakeholders (clients, employees, peers, alumni, etc.). What’s disheartening is that some ill-advised university managers seem to loose track of one of the core principles of academia – critical thinking – and under-sell their insitutions by settling for marketing campaigns that don’t do what they’re supposed to: prompt action by celebrating the brand. It’s not surprising to see a bland beer brand positionned by a tasteless marketing campaign because the expectations of stakeholders are such; it’s a little more surprising to see a university positionned by a ranking that most stakeholders couldn’t explain anyway. In the long run, I’m not sure how this even makes business sense.

  4. J. Lee / February 11, 2009 at 12:39

    Prof. Gingras, I mentioned Apollo Group and its ventures simply because they have been extremely successful on one measure and (unfortunately) managed to put many “academic first” institutions in the US in financial trouble. I’m no fan of University of Phoenix “organizational” practices, and I find it quite unfair for you to cite that as how “marketing” can corrupt a university. (Truth to be told, even some Canadian universities have terrible “organizational” practices. One only has to look at the York University strike to see how there is yet another institution that has failed to serve its students properly. Perhaps York is “corrupted” by marketing?)

    Let’s keep the debate to “marketing communication” practices. The point that I was trying to make is that smart marketing needs to be utilized to help students to make an informed decision. The fact that a university that doesn’t care all that much about academics was able to utilize smart marketing (and online education delivery) to build itself into the largest university in the US should tell people something important, and there is a lesson to be learned there. I also happen to think that the refusal to take operations like University of Phoenix seriously is a mistake. (Now we can have a debate of whether you want to equate financial success and popularity with corruption, but we’ll save that for another time.)

    Let’s consider universities at the other end of the spectrum, the Ivies of the world, such as Harvard University. It has a great (perhaps #1) academic reputation, and it most definitely is a branding empire and practices smart marketing. The school’s name appears on well-known properties such as Harvard Business Review and Harvard Health Letter. Harvard-emblazoned merchandise is licensed for sale worldwide. The Harvard Trademark Program (which deals with licensing and trademark) employs six people all by itself! (Perhaps Harvard is “corrupted” too?)