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Most people think of colleges and universities as primarily educational institutions. But a new book says that, for a long time, they have been "media institutions," focused on appealing to different audiences. The book extends this view far beyond traditional public relations operations or even new media strategies, but says that the idea of colleges as media institutions is much more ingrained than people typically see. The book is Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education (Columbia University Press). The authors are Mark Garrett Cooper, professor of film and media studies at the University of South Carolina, and John Marx, professor of English at the University of California, Davis. They responded via email to questions about their book.

Q: What first gave you the idea of looking at colleges and universities as media institutions? What is a media institution?

A: The idea came out of our frustration with repeated declarations of a crisis in the humanities. Crisis talk so often assumes that a declining audience rightfully belongs to “us” while also revealing a stubborn narrowness when it comes to defining who “us” is, exactly. With sad predictability, essays defending “the humanities” turn out to be all about the aggrieved writer’s home discipline. Nostalgia plus navel-gazing equals paralysis. We wanted another option. We craved a more capacious account of the university, one that would allow us to understand how it has grown, and how it has attracted audiences of all sorts. We quickly noticed that higher ed was competing and collaborating with other audience-seeking enterprises.

To pick just one example: in the early years of PBS precursor National Educational Television, Boston universities worked with their local station to put professors on the air. In 1957, WGBH thought Harvard’s I. A. Richards might compete for viewers with NBC’s hit Dragnet, with which the English professor shared a Thursday evening time slot. Nothing we had learned about the rise and fall of “the humanities” would help us understand such phenomena. But the idea that the university was a media institution did. A media institution succeeds by producing and consuming media (books, movies, radio, television, databases, what have you). Universities make and use all those formats, and many studies describe how. But no one has explained how central producing media is to the university’s core mission of connecting on-campus constituents (administrators, faculty, students) and off-campus ones (football fans, taxpayers, government and corporate scientists).

Q: Have colleges and universities been successful as media institutions (at least until recently)?

A: They’ve only succeeded to the extent that they do behave as media institutions. Undergraduate degrees and peer-reviewed publications have worth because people agree that they have worth. Degrees are more like the medium of paper money than they are a commodity like rice or steel. People value credentials to the extent that institutions of higher education (among other media institutions) have been effective in associating them with careers, self-fulfillment, public service and the pleasures of campus life. There’s a reason that universities in the U.S. started to think about public relations even before that term had become common parlance. In 1894, the University of Wisconsin’s legendary defense of academic freedom, its “Magna Carta,” also cannily advertised the university. “Incidentally if not inadvertently the report contains a résumé of the good work done at the university ever since the civil war,” observed the State Journal. “This handsome advertisement has been telegraphed all over the country.”

Much later, efforts like Clark Kerr’s successful 1960s rebranding of the contemporary university as a multifaceted enterprise made the need to address diverse external audiences explicit. As described in his 1963 book, The Uses of the University, Kerr’s “multiversity” had “fuzzy” edges and a tendency to reach “out to alumni, legislators, farmers, businessmen, who are all related to one or more … internal communities.” This was such an effective way of simultaneously conceptualizing the university and promoting its services that today schools like Arizona State explicitly claim its mantle.

Of course, Berkeley in the ’60s was the site of another equally important, student-led feat of redefinition, which made the campus an emblem of activism. The university's FSM 50 (Free Speech Movement at 50) website indicates the extent to which generations of protesters filling Sproul Plaza have helped Berkeley remain Berkeley. In the last two years, in fact, Chancellor Carol Christ has made Berkeley’s free speech legacy central to her efforts to get ahead of right-wing campaigns that frame higher ed as intolerant of dissent. She’s right to argue that without such an intervention and the media to disseminate it, neither Berkeley nor any other institution of higher learning is likely to get the students and support it wants and needs.

Q: While many Americans continue to revere their own alma maters or state flagships (even if sometimes for football more than intellectual contributions), the image of higher ed has taken a beating of late. Why do you think that is?

A: It’s true that Yalies talk less about football today than they did a century ago, when their team was top of the heap, but they remain fixated on wider public perception. The fallout from the Kavanaugh hearings has led to headlines featuring Yale students, faculty and grads concerned about the school’s elite reputation, which quickly bleeds over into questioning the status of meritocracy more generally. Ross Douthat had a provocative column in The New York Times about this in which he observed that many of the pundits weighing in on embattled nominee had the same kind of education that Kavanaugh had. This recognition, he argues, puts pressure on the whole “meritocratic game, which depends on a reproduction of privilege that pretends to be something else, something fair and open and all about hard work and just deserts.” Douthat’s argument strikes us as very much of the moment. Many are finding it harder to separate the merit that universities certify from inherited privilege.

This is a profound problem, because Americans have historically expected their universities to underwrite social leveling by lending opportunity to individual merit, regardless of station. Our universities have been propelled by this contradictory directive to flatten social hierarchy and reproduce it at the same time. Lately the system can seem to be failing on both counts: it struggles to make college accessible and cannot convincingly distinguish merit from preferential treatment. When we look to a near-future college-age population that will be notably smaller, poorer and less white than prior generations, the need to renew the compact seems crystal clear. There’s no single point of failure.

Taxpayer commitments, state and federal policies, disparities in K-12 preparation, and political polarization are among many factors affecting how universities conduct themselves as well as how they are perceived. Accordingly, to improve faith in the university will not be a matter of messaging merely, although that will be critical. Rather, a wide array of actors will need to recommit to the proposition that higher ed can and must identify, nurture and certify talent possessed by people not already presumed to have it.

Q: How have the culture wars changed the media landscape for higher education?

A: We call our chapter about this “Bad English.” It seemed bizarre to us that 1980s partisans on all sides agreed to cast the English department as the villain. National Endowment for the Humanities head William Bennett and his ilk chastised literature scholars for failing to teach Western classics. Leftist English profs lambasted their departments for clinging to the canon. Cranky scientists attacked the discipline for spreading the relativist theory menace. Meanwhile, largely out of public view, English became objectively less prominent as a component of the undergraduate experience. It was not alone. A steady proliferation of new majors in new fields meant a declining share of students for each one.

On the pages of national newspapers, the struggle to shape student minds through English ranked with other wedge issues, like the controversy over so-called welfare queens. On campuses, the idea that massive numbers of students could be swayed by means of the English curriculum looked increasingly preposterous. At many colleges, students would find it possible to avoid the discipline altogether. This dynamic of polarization on the one hand and fragmentation on the other continues to characterize new battles in the seemingly endless culture war. Even as certain issues create high energy us-them distinctions, a more fundamental fragmentation into niche audiences is altering social life. It’s not just that left and right have always already agreed to disagree ferociously about “culture.” It’s that physicists, historians and sociologists who happen to share concerns will find it a challenge to find a common audience that might act on those concerns.

Q: How has the era of new media changed the landscape for higher education?

A: Not nearly as much as most people think. Endless repetition of the tall tale in which today’s “new media” promise (or threaten) to disrupt staid lecture halls only encourages misrecognition of our past and present. For at least a century, universities in the U.S. have leaped to exploit new media to engage audiences at a distance and innovate in the classroom. Universities were early adopters of radio, film and television. And let’s not forget the affordances of the U.S. Postal Service, which helped make correspondence courses big business for land-grant universities and private for-profits alike in the late 19th century. Concern with how best to use new media is a perennial theme in the history of higher ed, as is the hyperbole that accompanies appraisals of its hazards and potentialities.

Which is to say that the internet changes some things, but hardly everything. Most interestingly, digital-media audiences provide a limitless array of data points and can be disaggregated and reaggregated in infinite combinations, while the masses addressed by movies, radio and television “talked back” mainly in information-poor forms like ticket sales and Nielsen surveys. Accordingly, digital crowds and digital classrooms seem collectively “smarter.” They also revise expectations about responsiveness, trustworthiness and privacy. But there’s no assessing these kinds of differences without a more attentive media history than the one in which the internet ends the long 19th century of print and marks the start of a new epoch.

It is important to note another constant: the university’s adoption of new media formats inevitably expands its division of labor and often requires extramural partnerships, as new types of experts are almost always necessary to make new media effective. Much of the apprehension (and enthusiasm) around “new media” comes from a perception that established patterns of work and authority may change. We do better to confront that issue head-on, to talk about the kinds of work involved and who orchestrates it, than we do to imagine that new media present an inherent threat to the status quo.

Q: If you could advise colleges' presidents or marketing strategists on how to improve their images and that of higher ed, what are two or three things you would suggest?

A: Well, obviously, they should buy the book! It will confirm that presidents are right to foreground collaboration when it comes to marketing their schools and promoting higher education in general. We offer a slew of historical examples: the Tuskegee Institute’s often overlooked international programs; the University of Chicago’s partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica Films; the hydra-headed midcentury study of mass communications in which diverse scholarly, governmental and political interests converged; the implementation of “STEM” as a category linking K-12 math and science to a broad array of university disciplines; and many others.

The book also underscores the importance of attending to the medium as much as the message. In our last chapter, we observe with some concern the extent to which Twitter now dominates approaches to crisis management. The platform did dramatically change the scale and speed of messaging. But obviously there are messages that cannot be sent or received in this form, and tweeting is hardly only way to create or manage a crisis. We compare Missouri’s #ConcernedStudent1950 Twitter campaign with a 14-page letter signed by some 700 Oberlin College students, which ramified through the national press in 2016. The Twitter campaign had greater reach than the Oberlin story and certainly had more dramatic consequences for its institution’s president. But the letter -- with the slower, more deliberative institutional response it provoked -- arguably had more durable consequences for diversity and inclusion at Oberlin.

Finally, your question touches on a new idea we’ve been playing around with: universities may have underappreciated the Netflix business model. That model, for those not paying attention, goes well beyond the video on demand approach that we see adapted in MOOCs, with their broadcast-era emphasis on “massive” scale. As Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos explains to the academic editors of Distribution Revolution, his aim is not to put butts in seats but to ensure that people “love” everything they watch. “We are trying to match tastes,” he says, “and tastes are really specific -- even in your own household. So imagine trying to do it across the whole country. We have to have a lot of titles to produce the content our customers want.”

Netflix invested in taste-based algorithms to predict what viewers will like but might not think to pick themselves. At the same time, it vastly expanded the scope and variety of program content available. Greater specificity about what viewers might love required a larger array of options from which to choose, with correspondingly smaller audiences for many individual programs. Obviously, marketing programs of study is not the same thing as marketing television programs. Still, there are lessons to be had in the shift away from emphasis on the audience size for any specific program. By charting the long-term tendency of higher education to offer ever-wider options for students, our book explains why the Netflix approach would be more applicable than, for instance, Governor Jerry Brown’s promotion of a fast-casual “limited menu” model.

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