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Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with hundreds of colleges and universities. They fall somewhere on a continuum between what has begun to feel like two polar opposite cultures. The difference between the two poles is palpable after just a couple of hours listening to the campus buzz. And the disposition and cultural demeanor of the two kinds of communities couldn’t be more dissimilar.

Both kinds of institutions have been able to make a go of it over the years. But my sense from out here in the field is that given how the world has changed, higher ed is clearly and precariously perched at a tipping point.

On one end…

Pole A schools have an informed and confident sense of self. Members of the campus community generally trust and respect their leaders. There’s a shared sense of an inspired institutional vision among their most important constituent groups, both on and beyond campus. Shared strategic priorities, market research, and a reverence for mission and heritage are considered in tandem when making nearly every decision across the campus.

At Pole A schools, the pursuit of a common good inspires everyone—from students to senior leaders—to hold themselves accountable to meet, if not exceed, performance standards. In terms of student recruitment, these institutions know exactly what kinds of students they are prepared to serve best, and they know how and where to find them.

Weary academic programs for which the market shows declining demand are respectfully put to rest. New programs are launched only if market demand is apparent. In terms of alumni relations and advancement, they’re regularly in touch with their base in relevant and resonant ways, offering graduates and friends many audience- and interest-appropriate opportunities for them to stay active in the life of the school.

On the other end…

There’s Pole Z institutions, whose strategic approach can be summarized as “Ready, Fire, Aim!”

Pole Z schools lack an informed and confident sense of self. Members of the campus community are somewhat suspicious if not dismissive toward their leaders. There’s a conspicuous absence of a real institutional vision, with the default being something akin to, “Let’s just try to get better and hope for the best.” Most decisions across the campus are made independently, more often than in not in some sort of an information or power vacuum, and typically reflecting the turf-centric, siloed nature of the campus culture. At Pole Z schools, a “Me First” attitude prevails, with too many community members—from students to seasoned leaders—keeping their heads down and getting the task at hand behind them. In terms of student recruitment, they believe, creating more academic programs or giving faculty favorites more clever names, offer the best hope of turning around declining enrollments. In terms of alumni relations and advancement, they focus on refreshing the annual fund appeal every couple of years or attempting a capital campaign once a decade. They often hear, “You only ever contact me for money!” from their base.

Tipping Point

If there’s a silver lining anywhere in the multi-challenging ecosystem within which colleges and universities must function today, it’s the sense of urgency Pole Z schools must heed to take a harder-than-ever look at their realities. We’re reading about it every week: institutional survival is at stake.

A college president recently brought all of this into sharp focus when he reminded me that our collaboration had catapulted his campus miles away from the “Ready, Fire, Aim” operating mode. With the completion of a four-year initiative that began with market research to uncover the prevailing winds of perception and opportunity and ended with a jaw-dropping all-campus assimilation of a compelling and relevant brand foundation that now inspires and guides strategic planning, academic programming, student recruitment, alumni relations and advancement—and even campus dining services—the campus community has swung confidently toward Pole A. The energy there today is palpably positive, and return-on-investment metrics are icing on the cake.

Higher education is surrounded by high-performing, purpose-driven consumer brands. Fortunately, increasing numbers of college and university leaders have recognized they have much to learn from role model brands, all of whom enjoy the confidence of a centering idea that has the profundity to inspire and motivate. To guide every decision and drive everything that happens on a campus. The opportunity cost of functioning without that clear and compelling brand has never been greater.

What’s your school’s centering idea? How widely is it embraced across your larger campus community? Is it compelling to the prospective stakeholder audiences who matter most to you?

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.​

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