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A Good Wife's Tale

Pop culture references about higher ed provide necessary insight on where we, as an industry, are vulnerable and the topics we need to address.

November 5, 2015
 

I’m a fan of CBS’s The Good Wife. (The front desk staff at Miami University’s Marcum Hotel and Conference Center got me hooked on it.) I appreciate how witty and smart the show is and I love that it occasionally features storylines that are higher education-based, providing a fantastic window into how higher education is perceived by the general public.

For example, last season Alicia Florrick, the show’s protagonist and a Chicago-based lawyer, assisted a sexual assault survivor during a campus conduct hearing. Over the course of an hour, the show highlighted a fictitious campus’s questionable processes and policies that sounded quite similar to critiques of actual institutions’ practices. Consider the writers as having shared a CliffsNotes version of a number of media stories and Department of Education settlements.

This week, Mrs. Florrick assisted a student who was facing issues associated with her student loans from a for-profit institution. I won’t recap all of the issues outlined in the episode, because Inside Higher Ed’s Ashley Smith did a great job on Tuesday of sharing the plot points.

Shows like The Good Wife provide us with important insight into how the public views higher education and where we are most vulnerable to critique. Although the episode focused on a less-than-savory for-profit, a number of the lines from the episode struck me as worthwhile for all of higher education to listen to and carefully consider when drafting our next communications. My favorites include:

“Our client bought an education from you and it hasn’t done what you said it would.” This line could easily be uttered by a frustrated parent when describing their child’s experience and job prospects after graduating from any type of institution. Marketing and communications staffers on campus are asked to sell the institution and we understand that everything we say must be rooted in truth. The contributors to this blog often describe how to position a program or degree and ways in which to tell stories and advocate for authenticity. Institutions should never overpromise on experiences or outcomes. We must deliver on the promises we make when we recruit our students and be true to our word during their campus and alumni experiences.

“How could my client have received an adequate education if __________?” (Fill in this blank to reference common and unnecessary digs on faculty and our academic offerings.)We must backstop our faculty, courses and programs if they are under attack. Too often we allow these critiques of our industry to pass without defending who we are and what we provide to our students. If we don’t discuss our quality, we allow the unchallenged statements to be perceived as fact. And if we don’t defend other institutions when they are attacked without merit, then it is ridiculous to complain about increased attacks on the academy and our own institutions.

University president: “X percent of graduates find employment within a year of graduation.”

Mrs. Florrick: “What employment?”

University president: “What do you mean?”

The storyline focused on the quality of jobs graduates received from the fictitious institution, which we all are addressing with varying degrees of success. Institutions must also talk about placement rates in ways that families understand and without using higher-level math. If anyone is concerned that discussing actual placement rates is a vulnerability for a campus, then I would counter that not having transparent language, references and rates is a greater liability for the institution and the short- and long-term value of its degrees.

“Traditionally, higher education is a product marketed only to the elite…. If we didn’t do it, these students would never get into another institution.” I’ve actually heard variations of this line used by administrators at a number of institutions. We must stop describing institutions as saviors and our students as victims. Some students do need additional guidance, but this line belittles them and their experiences and lessens our ability to discuss our expertise and the value we provide. With that one statement ,we devalue all we are trying to defend.

Shows, news articles and blogs beyond The Good Wife are giving us strong clues about how academia is being viewed and valued. It is wise to pay attention to the good and the bad that is all around us and plan to address these critiques well before Mrs. Florrick points out the many ways in which we are lacking. After all, she’s the hero of the show, packs a hell of a punch, has a readymade audience and gets an hour to make her case. At most, we have a moment to regain our credibility. 

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