Carleton has the Right Dream, Now it Must Provide the Evidence

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Carleton University wants a new image. Although it sees itself as “an extraordinarily fine scholarly community, striving continually for excellence in a vast canvas of intellectual endeavors from particle physics to classical poetics,” insiders have kept this insight largely to themselves. It finally seems to realize that allowing the school to be known only for a handful of programs, while letting its organizational brand remain under-developed, has been a mistake.

So a new strategic plan has assembled some appropriately-strong aspirational statements about repositioning the school. Carleton can now articulate what it wants to be: a local university, a national university “responsive to the needs of our country,” and a global institution. These are laudable, but achieving these goals, and holding each in balance, will be more challenging than the act of dreaming.

Schools pursue various forms of branding to enable them to be seen as well-differentiated, though many expect logos and merchandising to do the heavy lifting of communicating values. Recently, an alumni-led identity committee at Cornell, frustrated that the school seemed to be losing its Ivy League associations, persuaded university administrators to dump a new logo and revert to a simplified version of its old traditional symbol. The committee’s next step was to persuade school stores to stock vintage-style merchandise emphasizing Cornell’s Ivy League status. Why? Because “we didn’t have cool hats, we didn’t have cool hoodies” and “Nobody was wearing our stuff.” Merchandise may allow alumni to wax nostalgic, but it’s false to assume a recognizable logo means the public intuitively grasps the school’s intellectual achievements.

This committee has missed the point about what created the cherished brand in the first place. Schools need to respect history’s contribution to identity, but riding the coat-tails of tradition risks making the university look like it has passed its best-before date if its stories aren’t kept fresh. Building the right brand the right way requires ongoing proof so potential supporters know the brand is up-to-date.

At a time when there seems to be great parity among colleges and universities, you would think more schools would be busy crafting and communicating the stories of their unique research. But a July 2007 report by education think tank Ithaka, entitled “University Publishing in a Digital Age,” reveals most universities don’t have a publishing strategy properly integrated with their core activities and missions. University administrators, the report found, are surprisingly uninformed about publishing’s connection to their core mission and don’t treat publishing as an important, mission-centric endeavor – ironic considering each built his or her own academic careers on publishing. A new vision, claims Ithaka, is needed for an updated system of scholarly communication that will create the intellectual products of the future and extend awareness of the its intellectual ambition.

If Carleton expects its faculty members to be the “designers and custodians of the future” who will extend “the benefits of learning and knowledge to the furthest possible limits,” the school must do more than state this mission and communicate “points of pride” through everyday marketing collateral: it has to provide hard evidence that engages and challenges peoples’ thinking. Unfortunately, Carleton no longer has the in-house capabilities required to produce the necessary evidence. If it wants to be an intellectual leader, it will have to reestablish a more sophisticated version of the old Carleton University Press.

A good university press isn’t exclusively about scholarly publications that enhance Carleton’s image among academic circles. It is also about general-interest publishing that helps the school reach-out to a dramatically wider audience of readers, and about reaching out to people where they gather online. Publishing, in its many potential forms, is crucial to keeping the research and teaching missions of top schools appear relevant, dynamic, and, above all, defensible; about showing Carleton to be a trend-setter, not a follower. Scholarly publishing should be central to Carleton’s communication plan, but it hasn’t made the short list of proposed activities.

Perhaps someone complained about the expense. If so, they should be reminded that publishing’s costs are a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of the proposed new building along the Rideau. Or they should consider Wharton business professor George Day’s admonition that organizations wanting to reduce “customer” acquisition costs should replace their expense-driven mindsets with an investment mindset. Given that organizations are rewarded when they are seen to be fulfilling their missions, producing a compelling new strategy for scholarly communications is likely to lead to new sources of income and fuller brands.

Harvard Business School recognized a long time ago that there was a broad audience wanting access to its expertise, but only so many seats it could fill. Publishing became an extension of its educational mission. The HBS label is on more than 7500 products, offering wide public and professional access through magazines, books, case study publishing, videos, interactive web sites, and newsletters, each product reinforcing the school’s reputation for high intellectual standards.

These products generate a lot of money (in 2004, publishing generated about $93 million in revenue for the school) but its publishing ventures are motivated by other factors. HBS wants to be known as key provider in the marketplace of ideas: its mission is to take the most important ideas on the most important issues facing leaders and communicate them. Publishing ensures the HBS brand is always defensible: high quality, relevant, dynamic. The school has nurtured this identity so successfully, and backs-up its claims to intellectual leadership so effectively, that HBS is forever top of mind as business’s thought leader. Consequently, Harvard has no problem attracting the best and brightest students and faculty, or deep-pocketed donors.

The importance of original, compelling content cannot be overstated. In their 2001 book The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck wrote that “people with something to say, or a unique and creative way of saying it, are your organization’s best hope of getting attention.” Roger Martin, Dean of U of T’s Rotman School of Business has taken this message to heart. Not only has he acknowledged that “for purposes of brand building at institutions of higher learning, proprietary content on topics of public interest is more powerful than advertising,” he has recently taken the additional step of establishing a new joint imprint with University of Toronto Press. Although the Rotman School has been developing a global reputation for thought leadership in the years since Martin’s tenure began, Martin believes “this new partnership with UTP will allow us to further our reputation for offering the very latest in business thinking.”

Rotman seems to know intellectual property rights have become more important as other sources of competitive advantage become less important. Evidence of unique knowledge helps people understand the organization has valued assets; is a tool to help schools evolve beyond a local presence and reach targets in a fragmented marketplace, wherever they live; and, ultimately, helps them meet their financial goals. Isn’t that what Carleton’s strategic plan is all about?

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