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From the President: Branding and the Corporate University

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

The use of branding in the corporate university has become commonplace in recent years. A practice that originated in the corporate world, branding is necessary for success for businesses that must compete with one another. Administrators increasingly view branding as an important way to attract students in an environment where individual institutions of higher education are seen as competing with one another.

These administrators offer the usual arguments regarding competition in the context of rising tuition, increasing student debt, expanding online education, and growing acceptance of college credits earned in high school. Absent from these discussions is any recognition of the fact that as a society, we have been disinvesting in public higher education for more than forty years. We have been transforming higher education from a public good into a commodity.

A 2008 article in University Business, “50 Best Branding Ideas,” begins by acknowledging that “some administrators—and even more faculty—might argue that branding an educational institution takes away from its academic mission.” After watching administrators spend millions on marketing consultants, most faculty believe that branding takes resources away from the academic mission. At the same time, less and less money is being spent on instruction as institutions replace tenured and tenure-track faculty with faculty working on contingent appointments.

Public colleges and universities seek to increase revenue by continually raising tuition and increasing enrollment. These sources of revenue have offset some of the cuts in state and federal support for higher education. What is the best way to continue to attract new students in an environment where going to college effectively requires students to take out mortgages and faculty are forced to work in conditions that have led to a decline in the quality of education?

Indeed, it is not surprising that competition for increasingly scarce resources has actually led to a decline in the quality of education. Neoliberal reformers have argued for years that competition is the way to improve quality. But competition can improve quality only when customers know what they are buying.

Students and parents are not customers; they are clients. Most do not know how to judge the quality of what they are buying. This is why shared governance and peer review for publicly funded research are so important: they are crucial for quality control in higher education.

In the absence of information about quality, people often use price as a proxy. Think about medical care as an analogy. Patients typically have no way of rationally evaluating the quality of a hospital. If a hospital advertises, “Come to us, we do surgery for less,” most people will assume there is something wrong. They would rather go to the “best hospital.” In the absence of a viable means of evaluating the care provided, consumers equate price with quality. According to this logic, fellow consumers—other patients—would pay more for something only if it were better.

The same is true in higher education. Again, most students and parents cannot reliably evaluate the quality of education institutions provide, so they take price as a proxy. The most prestigious institutions—the ones perceived as offering the highest quality education— are those that charge the highest tuition, offer all sorts of amenities, and rely on marketing to promote their brand. Couple increased competition—specifically, increasing expenditures on branding—with declining state support, and you have a recipe for declining quality.

Education is not a commodity. It is a public good, meant to serve the interests of society as a whole and not simply to train compliant workers for corporations that serve the 1 percent.

Spending millions on branding is against the public interest. Colleges and universities instead need adequate funding to hire faculty who can participate in true shared governance and in peer review of publicly funded research. These mechanisms will ensure that institutions can provide a high-quality education to students and engage in research aimed at solving the pressing problems we face as a society, such as climate change, discrimination, and economic inequality.

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