For the Chancellor of a New Online Campus, Every Workday Is About Branding

WGU Indiana

Allison C. Barber
August 29, 2010

For Allison C. Barber, being chancellor of Indiana's newest university doesn't involve living in an institution-owned house, mingling with students on the quad, or working out of a large administration building. Her job, she says, is as much about building a brand as it is about academics.

The institution she leads, WGU Indiana, exists online, run out of several cubicles in an office building in Indianapolis. Its mission is to meet the learning needs of adults in a state that ranks 44th in the nation in the share of people older than 25 with postsecondary educations.

Indiana's governor, Mitchell E. Daniels, a Republican, proposed the effort after he joined the Board of Trustees of Western Governors University this year. WGU Indiana is the first state-specific subsidiary of Western Governors, a private, nonprofit institution established in 1997 by 19 governors to provide an inexpensive, flexible college opportunity for underserved groups.

When he signed the executive order creating WGU Indiana on June 11, the governor said the institution "meets a very urgent and specific need" by offering an alternative "for adults who want to pursue a college degree with all the other demands in their lives."

Ms. Barber, 46, faces an upward climb. Of the 20,000 students enrolled in Western Governors nationally, fewer than 300 were from Indiana.

But she thinks the new institution can meet the state's needs, along with those of students, by providing training in sought-after skills. Western Governors offers more than 50 accredited undergraduate and master's degree programs in four areas: business, education, information technology, and health care. Because it is competency-based, students don't have to spend time learning things they already know, Ms. Barber said, allowing for a quicker path to a degree. The average time it takes a student to graduate with a bachelor's degree is 30 to 35 months, and tuition is about $6,000 per year. Students also work online with mentors to help manage their time and course work, she said.

With the academic system already in place, Ms. Barber said, she can focus on her role as a "brand ambassador." Since starting her job in June, she has spent most of her time out of the office, traveling the state. One day she was in Indianapolis at Ivy Tech, Indiana's only community college, celebrating a partnership that allows students with associate degrees to transfer credits and receive reduced tuition at WGU Indiana. Another day she exhibited materials about the institution at an air show in Gary, where the unemployment rate is nearing 13 percent.

A mother who dropped by said her son needed to go to college. "By the end of our conversation, after she heard about WGU Indiana, she applied, as well as her son," Ms. Barber said.

Even though Ms. Barber won't be running into students on a campus, she says she'll interact with them through blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and will play the ceremonial chancellor role, for instance, during a graduation at the end of next year, which will include an in-person ceremony that will be streamed live for those who can't make it.

Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors, said Ms. Barber's strengths in communicating, teaching, and building relationships made her the ideal candidate for the job. After earning a master's degree in elementary education from Indiana University at Bloomington and teaching school for several years, she moved to Washington to work for the Red Cross and then the Defense Department, where she oversaw worldwide communication with members of the military. She has also run her own communications firm and taught public relations and corporate communications as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

She's tapping all those skills at WGU Indiana as she determines how to sell the university to different people.

"She has such a great passion and enthusiasm for education," Mr. Mendenhall said. "But she also has a background in essentially building a brand."

"Right now, we basically market over the Internet, and students find us," Mr. Mendenhall said. If Western Governors' new state focus succeeds in Indiana, the model could spread to other states, he said. "This is a powerful way to be a resource and really be integrated into the state system without impacting the state budget."

Not long into her job, Ms. Barber was already seeing the fruits of her labor. She received a couple of hundred applications in the first month.

"The biggest challenge for me is really being able to pinpoint the right markets to go after right away," she said. "Where do you throw the stone into the pond so it has a ripple effect and hits all the right audiences?

"At the end of the day," she said, "I want everybody in Indiana to know of WGU."