It's Special Because No Other College Does It

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 19, 2013

We marketers and fund raisers in higher education struggle to differentiate our institutions at a time when collegiate missions and academic programs continue their long drift toward sameness. We cast about for unique features that will stand out to prospective students and donors, so we promote advantages like well-regarded departments, personal attention from faculty, high-end facilities, and undergraduate research.

Few of us pause to ponder the distinctive value of a cardboard boat race.

Thousands flock to campuses each year to witness or participate in signature events. By this I mean unusual, popular, longtime, annual gatherings open to the public. Signature events come in endless varieties. They can be cultural, educational, athletic, recreational, spiritual, community-oriented, service-oriented, or just really goofy. A true signature event is remarkable in some way that's uniquely connected to the host institution.

I was working at Gustavus Adolphus College when a market-research firm discovered that a signature event was one of our top brand assets. The college's Nobel Conference draws more than 5,000 people to hear Nobel laureates and other luminaries discuss timely science topics. In keeping with its Lutheran tradition, the college includes not only scientific but also ethical and theological experts in the conference. It's an only-at-Gustavus type of event.

That's the thing about signature events: In one way or another, they constitute what the business scholar Jay Barney has described as competitive assets that are valuable, rare, imperfectly imitable, and nonsubstitutable.

Consider, for example, Carnegie Mellon University's Sweepstakes, also known as Buggy, in which students design and race nonmotorized go-carts. The clever and colorful event, born in 1920, highlights the university's engineering excellence in a spirit of fun. It's a wildly popular, one-of-a-kind event, lovingly refined over generations. A competitor institution could not replicate it. I'd venture that Carnegie Mellon itself would find it difficult to replace Buggy with another activity and enjoy the same results.

There are some needs that only a signature event can address. At Virginia Tech, an annual Day of Remembrance commemorates the mass shooting of April 2007. The event has expanded to include a Run in Remembrance, a community picnic, and a "32 for 32" service project. At the first such commemoration—a hastily arranged vigil—20,000 candles lit up a dark night in 2007. Someone spontaneously called out "Let's go!" Even in their grief, others yelled back, "Hokies!" The Day of Remembrance, as it continues to evolve, reaffirms Virginia Tech's values, sense of community, and Hokie spirit.

Bonding through signature events takes many forms, as I once observed from the nosebleed seats at an Ohio State-Michigan football game. The Buckeyes-Wolverines rivalry, which began in 1897, rouses more than 100,000 spectators to scream and party for days. A juggernaut among signature events, the big game coordinates expensive, high-stakes efforts in logistics, security, marketing, media relations, and halftime entertainment—not to mention the football. For an entire weekend, it overtakes the city of Ann Arbor.

Another event blocking traffic is the Krispy Kreme Challenge, a fun run organized by North Carolina State University students to benefit the North Carolina Children's Hospital. Last year I joined more than 7,000 other runners, many in very silly costumes. A surprisingly large number took the "challenge"—to run 2.5 miles, consume a dozen glazed doughnuts, and then run 2.5 miles back to the Memorial Belltower on the campus. As we rounded a corner toward the finish, spectators cheered, "We're not Duke! We don't puke!"

The 1979 film Breaking Away is a classic college movie right up there with Love Story and Horse Feathers. It focuses on an outstanding signature event—Indiana University's Little 500 bike race. Student teams race to raise money for scholarships. Established in 1951 by "Howdy" Wilcox, whose father won the 1919 Indy 500, the race is a great fit for an institution steeped in tradition. Sitting in the bleachers with 22,000 other people, I got goose bumps as people sang along to "Back Home Again in Indiana."

At Cornish College of the Arts, where I now work, we began an event last year called Our Creative Society. We convene artists, thought leaders, and the public to explore imagination and innovation at unexpected intersections. The event fits with our unfolding institutional story. A hundred years ago, our founder, Nellie Cornish, broke barriers among artistic disciplines, and between the arts and public life. Her zeal for risk and newness has drawn the likes of Martha Graham, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham to our community, and continues to challenge students to push limits. That's what makes Our Creative Society a signature event. It puts an exclamation point on who we are.

All that being said, higher-education leaders sometimes have their doubts. Often it's the chief financial officer who initiates the awkward annual ritual of questioning a fiercely beloved signature-event tradition. That's because virtually all of them lose money.

Some events permitted on or near campuses also entail a degree of safety and/or reputational risk, especially those that are instigated or run by students and can get out of hand. Campus officials have a right to ask, Why?

A better question might be, How? Campuses with successful signature events manage liability but don't stifle fun. They empower and gently guide student leaders. They involve alumni, parents, and neighbors. They are interculturally competent. They encourage deft collaboration in complex planning and logistics. They evaluate their events and adapt them to changing times. Their presidents and trustees often attend; some even participate.

Few signature events by themselves attract top students or big donations, but most contribute indirectly to those ends. More important, they bind people to one another and to colleges through peak experiences. It's a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon. As Einstein is supposed to have said, "Not everything that counts can be counted."

Long live the doughnut run!

Gwendolyn Freed is vice president for institutional advancement at Cornish College of the Arts. Her dissertation topic in 2012 at the University of Minnesota was signature events.