Advancing the Academic Mission

Creating strong faculty partnerships is key.

September 12, 2017

Is there any better response to the public’s many doubts about higher education than to stress the value of our academic mission? The start of the academic year is a good time to make sure we’re doing everything we can to promote it. It is, after all, the primary reason our institutions (and therefore our offices) exist. And since the faculty define the academic mission as teachers and scholars, our communications require a strong partnership with faculty.

Ironically, the relationship between faculty and communications offices is sometimes fraught with miscommunication and misunderstanding, which can result in inadequate representation of the faculty’s work. Some faculty may see us as spinmeisters. Others may simply wonder what’s the point of working with us, and it’s a fair question. In the typical tenure and promotions process it hardly matters much, if at all, whether faculty worked with us on website stories, fundraising and admissions materials, or any of the many other media that we help produce and manage.

So we have to make clear that worthwhile attention to faculty work foregrounds the school’s mission, besides advancing its reputation, student recruitment, and fundraising (which, by the way, all benefit faculty). By continually developing excellent coverage of the faculty’s work we serve our institutional priorities and audiences well.

Over years of working with various types of schools, from large publics and elite liberal arts colleges to community colleges, I’ve learned that a certain set of practices can help super-charge partnerships with faculty. These steps not only legitimately emphasize our academic mission, but also help faculty share in and strengthen campus communications. Here are three of my favorites.

Create a short online profile of every professor. Sound insane? It’s not if the faculty help you make it happen (at larger schools, try starting with a college, full professors, or another subset and going from there). It’s also worth partnering on this initiative with your provost or other lead academic officer. One way to simplify this team effort is as follows:

  • Build an online form that is quick to complete. It might include, for example, a box for teaching interests, research interests, and publications (or creative works), each with word limits so the result is concise.
  • Provide a few good examples of the type of writing that you’re encouraging—warm, personal, jargon-free language that everyone can understand and that shows the faculty as people and not only as scholars.
  • Build a searchable database of the profiles, and make them readily available both from a central online location as well as from relevant departments. Push the links to campus and beyond. 
  • Keep the profiles updated. Every year or two, ask professors to review their profile, and then re-populate the online content with their updates.

Besides creating in one swoop a valuable story bank (like we did at Bucknell University and Amherst College), these profiles tend to become highly visited website content, for admissions prospects and current students in particular. They also become a useful resource for the media, and for your media work.  Plus, you’ll build fresh relationships with faculty.

Write the campaign case statement with representative faculty (selected by the president or provost). I don’t mean just asking them to help identify campaign priorities, which is typical, but that they actually help you draft the case itself. Many campaign case documents are not shared with faculty until they’re done, and sometimes not at all. But every campaign in some way is designed to strengthen the academic core, even around specific disciplinary priorities.

Along the way, faculty contribute to the quality and clarity of the case’s substance and learn why the language of case statements is of a certain non-academic kind. They are learning about fundraising while we’re learning from their expertise, building relationships, and producing a better case. As the campaign evolves, don’t be surprised if these faculty become its champions among their academic colleagues and help with donor meetings too.

Pointedly celebrate new and promoted faculty. Getting a tenure-track job or being promoted to associate or full professor isn’t only a big deal for the professor; it’s also a milestone in the school’s academic life. Instead of only announcing these appointments at faculty meetings, consider this alternative plan:

  • Over the summer, build those short profiles of incoming faculty and of the professors that the board promoted in the prior academic year.
  • Have the professors approve what you’re posting, and put the profiles online as the school year begins.
  • Then, early in the fall semester, the president, provost, or dean sends emails one week after the other, celebrating in succession the new assistant professors, new associate professors, and new full professors, each time linking to the relevant profiles.
  • As these emails go public, post stories online, even on the homepage, about each set of professors and promote them via social media.

Sharing this important news can lead to several positive outcomes. We justifiably bring attention to a significant step in each professor’s academic life and to our academic programs—i.e., in the core mission. We provide vital content for the many audiences who want to know about the work of our faculty with students and as scholars. We give faculty material to share within their diverse academic communities, and develop another bank of story ideas. And we advance good relationships with faculty, including starting with a positive connection with new faculty.

There are other ideas that go beyond the day-to-day, such as providing media training to faculty or creating one-page handouts about each department for their use in hosting visitors. Bringing communications staff to scheduled department visits and reposting relevant material from faculty’s social media accounts can also have multiple benefits. These and other collaborations deepen the relationships that help make the most of the academic year.

Pete Mackey, Ph.D., is president of Mackey Strategies and co-founder of The Voices Group. He previously led communications at Amherst College, Bucknell University, and the University of South Carolina.


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