The Perils of Pollyanna

Communications in a polarized and politicized academic environment.

October 24, 2019

“It’s going to be a great year!”

It’s an all-too-common phrase included in nearly every university president’s welcome email or convocation speech, in social posts and tweets, on the lips of every professor each fall. But the 2019-20 academic year in America is one of enhanced discord, division and distrust. Operating with blinders on to the realities around us is truly fraught with peril.

We are in an era of unprecedented skepticism in academia. For years higher education represented a universally perceived beacon of opportunity; Americans are now drastically split on whether colleges have a negative or positive impact on society. As little as four years ago, majorities of registered voters in both Republican and Democratic Parties (53 percent and 67 percent, respectively) believed higher education was a positive force in our country. Fast-forward to 2019, and now 59 percent of registered Republicans believe colleges have a negative impact. Conversely, only 18 percent of Democrats share the same negative opinion.

As surveyed by Pew Research in July 2019, no other institution -- including churches, banks, big businesses, unions and even the news media -- has experienced a more rapid and precipitous erosion in public perception.

A national narrative driven by scandal is no doubt a key factor. But conversation around those macro trends such as equity in the admissions process, faculty bias and diminishing ROI, which tap directly into our political schisms, are truly causing higher education to become a polarized and politicized American issue alongside immigration, health care and the environment.

This shift and split in perception has major implications for how institutions communicate. Most of us who work in and around higher education point to the “good of the mission” as one of the key reasons we joined the field. We educate tomorrow’s leaders. We do groundbreaking research. We create stronger and more diverse communities.

All true! But now, when a significant portion of the American public does not trust academic leaders’ intentions or even believe in the academic mission, there is real peril in taking a singularly Pollyanna point of view.

So, as this academic year moves forward in earnest, what should universities do to navigate this new reality, and how can communications help?

Mind the Authenticity Gap

Expectations of what organizations should do and how they should behave have rapidly changed. We see this in the for-profit sector with the new Business Roundtable Statement of Purpose. Higher education is no exception; in fact, it’s held to even higher standards. While the belief in the greater good has always guided the mission, do the actions of administrators and experiences they create always align? If the answer is no, this authenticity gap can create a damaging disconnect between the desired brand position and the realities of reputation (i.e., what others believe to be true). To start the process of bridging this gap, leaders should thoroughly take stock of how current narratives and experiences match up with the expectations of its core audiences, including current students and recent alumni, faculty and staff, funding sources and state legislatures.

Climb Down From the Ivory Tower

While eroding trust is not an issue that communications alone can address, universities should continue to focus on transparency and engagement and fight that cloistered, ivory tower perception. How best to do that? Remember that your reputation is more than your rankings and focus on building goodwill as much as prestige. Collegiate crises of the past year -- from the national admissions scandal to the continued fallout at Michigan State -- have further eroded public trust in part because those involved behaved from an above-the-fray or protectionist stance, completely out of touch with real-world expectations.

Show It’s Not All Great

Look long and hard at the content you’re creating, especially on social. Does it mostly consist of “Hey, look at us! We’re great!” stories and overused clickbait like sunsets? (So many sunsets!) Perhaps you also noticed that, while maybe your likes trended up, meaningful comments are going down. It’s because this type of content strategy is wholly inauthentic, and audiences, especially those currently on campus, can see right through it. Instead, try diving deep enough into your institutions’ unique culture and experience -- and the people who shape and share it daily. Show stories of struggle and triumph, unique perspectives and different voices, late nights and long hours. Be more authentic and multidimensional. And ease up on the sunsets for a while.

Be Prepared

Last but certainly not least, follow the Boy Scouts’ motto and be prepared. Every campus is a dynamic environment, with a potential emergency or reputational issue lurking at every Greek house and athletic field, hiding in any research grant or faculty syllabus. Use the first few months of this academic year to take stock of the crisis plan. Is it too big and unwieldy for anyone to really use? Have you practiced it recently in a digital environment where scenarios unfold at the speed of a tweet? If not, make this your first priority -- even above that next innovative research story or new marketing campaign. In today’s world, it’s just too risky to focus only on the good news.

Brendan Streich is a senior vice president and leader in the higher education practice at FleishmanHillard, a global communications firm.

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