At Private Colleges' Meeting, Advice on Niche Strategies, Branding, and Leadership

February 01, 2011

In the crowded field of private colleges, only those that differentiate themselves with signature programs and unique marketing strategies can hope to thrive in a challenging economy, several panelists stressed here on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Echoing themes espoused by many college presidents in recent years, conference presenters suggested the institutions that will emerge stronger from the recession will have done so by building upon clearly articulated identities. That means setting a finite number of realistic goals, cutting programs that don't serve those goals, and—candidly—deciding whether a college's vision can increase revenues, said Robert A. Sevier, senior vice president for strategy at Stamats Inc., a higher-education marketing company.

In his session, "Six Strategic Responses in a Time of Challenge and Opportunity," Mr. Sevier argued that the economic crisis had given university leaders greater flexibility to articulate institutional visions, in part by doing away with nonviable programs. Citing Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, Mr. Sevier said, "This is a great time to do things you could never get away with 10 years ago."

Beyond developing a coherent vision, Mr. Sevier urged college leaders to seek new revenue through grants and contracts, while taking a hard look at improving retention rates and preserving tuition dollars.

In another session, "Image Is Everything," a branding consultant urged conference attendees to better define their institutions by developing more coherent and consistent messages. Too often, individual academic units create recruitment and marketing materials that fail to tie into established institution-wide themes, said Elizabeth Scarborough, chief executive officer of SimpsonScarborough.

"If an institution is going to manage its image, somebody's got to be in charge of pulling it together," she said.

By way of example, Ms. Scarborough noted that different departments are prone to creating "bastardized" logos that differ in appearance from an institution's established emblem. A well-branded company like Target "would never" alter the color of its signature red trademark, but "we do that daily on our campuses," she said.

At a session on leadership, Roger H. Hull, a former president of Beloit College and Union College (N.Y.), offered practical tips for college presidents on small things they could to increase their success in the job. Mr. Hull, who now runs a foundation for youth in Schenectady, N.Y., is the author of Lead or Leave: A Primer for College Presidents and Board Members.

Among other things, he said:

  • Don't rent the fanciest cars or stay in luxury hotels when you're on university business. Your donors will see "you're not having them give money to keep you in a certain lifestyle." Mr. Hull said he rented compact cars and paid the difference when he chose fancier accommodations over a midrange hotel. His motto, he said, was "Live for the job, not on the job." (That idea should also apply to the president's home, he said. Any changes he wanted to make at the president's house, he paid for himself.)
  • Accept that the college president's post comes with intense scrutiny, and embrace it. "Love the fishbowl," said Mr. Hull, who spent a total of 24 years as the president of the two colleges. And make sure your spouse is on the same page. Mr. Hull said his wife didn't feel the same way about the scrutiny that the position entailed, and that ultimately cost him his marriage.
  • Have an open-door policy, but go outside the office if people don't visit you. "Manage by wandering around," he said.
  • If you can stay for only part of an event, come at the end of it rather than leave early. Coming late signals you had another commitment, while leaving early says you're not interested.
  • Answer everyone's e-mail and other messages, and defuse conflicts early. If you hear of dissent in a faculty meeting, go to the office of the unhappy faculty member and talk over the issue, before it becomes a bigger problem.
  • Take your vacations. In addition to giving you time to unwind from the stresses of the job, vacations let you know how well your staff does in your absence. "It's a great way to see how people function, without looking over their shoulder," Mr. Hull said.