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A street with people walking and a domed building on the horizon

A view of the Wisconsin state capitol from UW-Madison’s campus. The university’s new marketing proposal aims to repair its difficult relationship with Republican lawmakers.

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has a plan to fix its public image problem and claw back declining state funding at the same time: launch a new advertising campaign.

In a Request for Proposal soliciting pitches from marketing partners, the university laid out its dual goals of combating negative public opinion and convincing lawmakers that it is a nonpartisan institution worthy of both state investment and public trust.

“There is a general, national narrative around higher ed that characterizes universities as elitist and too difficult to get into, too expensive … and too radical/leftist,” the university wrote in its RFP, posted publicly on February 27. “We find these national sentiments are shared by many Wisconsinites about UW-Madison.”

The university’s primary goal, according to the RFP, is to ensure a “positive state budget” next cycle; the secondary goal is “a change in some of the metrics we track in our market research,” such as higher ed’s politicization and the increasing doubt in the value of a college degree. The RFP explicitly states that enrollment is not a success metric for the campaign.

While the cost of the effort won’t be finalized until the university approves a contract with an ad agency, the campaign could cost up to $1 million, according to the RFP—more than double the university’s usual media budget.

Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison’s director of media relations, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that it “would be premature to say what the marketing strategy would be” before securing a partner. She also said that the university’s approach is nothing new; as in prior marketing campaigns, this one relies on public polling and market research to shape its focus.

But public polling on the purpose of higher education is increasingly bleak: survey after survey shows Americans are more skeptical than ever of the value of a college degree, and many associate higher ed with free speech issues and elitism, connections reinforced by many lawmakers and media outlets.

Higher ed has also come under increased scrutiny from state and national politicians, which can have a corrosive effect on public funding—especially in states with Republican-controlled legislatures. While state funding in Wisconsin has been stagnant for years, the last budget cycle saw multimillion dollar cuts to the Universities of Wisconsin system, including $7 million in cuts for Madison.

Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said UW-Madison’s new marketing mission is best understood in that context.;

“Lawmakers respond to public perception, so building public confidence is crucial for sustained support in the legislature,” said Harnisch, who is a Madison alum. “[Marketing] isn’t the only tool in the toolbox, but it is an essential one.”

Easing Political Tensions

According to an old UW-Madison joke, if one stands at the top of the campus’ Bascom Hill and looks toward the state capitol building a mile down the road, a poignant visual metaphor emerges: the two are off-center, unaligned, philosophically as much as physically.

That lack of alignment has been particularly pronounced in the past year, as the entire Universities of Wisconsin system became embroiled in a battle with the state legislature over diversity, equity and inclusion spending.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fired the first shots last June when he promised to hold funding for the entire system hostage unless the legislature and Democratic Governor Tony Evers approved $32 million in cuts to DEI expenditures. That stalemate dragged on until December, when system leaders made a backroom deal to approve the DEI cuts at the board level in order to secure funding—which the system board first rejected, then accepted after public backlash.

Madison, the system’s flagship, felt the consequences of that prolonged battle. In addition to the $7 million budget reduction, the campus nearly lost a much-anticipated $374 million engineering building, until it was negotiated back into the deal in December.

It’s still a sore spot for the system’s government relations; just last week, state lawmakers fired two UW regents who voted to reject the deal. Harnisch said he believes there’s still room for positive collaboration, but acknowledged that the bitterness left from the conflict may be too much for a marketing campaign to smooth over.

Still, the stakes of winning back more state funding are higher than ever in Wisconsin. Last week the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee announced it would shutter its branch campus in Waukesha, the fifth such campus closure in the system over the past two years.

While Madison is not in any danger of financial exigency—it weathered the $7 million shortfall without any program cuts or layoffs—Harnisch said the university is more likely to be affected by broad public image problems as a flag-bearer for the larger system.

“Flagship campuses get a lot more attention, and a lot more scrutiny, and when challenges arise, it certainly hurts their standing, both with the legislature and in the public eye,” he said.

Fixing Higher Ed’s Image Problem

Normally, advocating for more state support is a private negotiation, pursued by lobbyists over coffee or dinner with lawmakers.

Teresa Valerio Parrot, founder and principal of the higher education consulting firm TVP Communications, said that there is wisdom in Madison’s direct-to-consumer play—especially as attacks on higher ed become more entrenched in Republican lawmakers’ playbooks.

“This strategy makes public what has always been viewed as more of a private lobbying effort,” she said. “[UW-Madison] recognizes that elected officials try to reflect the opinions and priorities of their voters, and so they want to make a direct appeal to the public. I think that’s much smarter.”

As higher ed becomes increasingly politicized, Valerio Parrot hopes more prominent institutions, public and private, will take up the mantle in the coming years.

“Higher education pundits have been asking, who is going to be the first institution to step forward and tackle some of these bigger industry reputation issues that we have across the country?” she said. “I want to give credit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for saying, ‘we're going to start to chip away at this in our own backyard’ … It could have broader positive consequences for the whole industry.”

Harnisch predicted that Madison’s marketing strategy will become more common as colleges work to combat not only political messaging but also growing skepticism over the value of a college degree—two public image problems that are inextricably bound together.

“Wisconsin is just a microcosm of a national trend,” Harnisch said. “Higher Ed needs to start pushing back. Frankly, I don’t think they have another choice.”

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