What’s So Bad About Marketing?

The need to sell higher education and the liberal arts is real, and there should be no shame in that, argue Leonard Cassuto and Robin L. Cautin.

September 18, 2018

When Daniel Osofsky was about 10 years old, he told his parents that he wanted to go to an engineering school. His mother said, “Oh, you’ll like the liberal arts.” As it turned out, she was right. Today Daniel is a rising junior at a small liberal arts college, and his parents are very happy with his choice -- which they no doubt helped to influence along the way.

It’s getting harder to find parents like Daniel’s these days. More and more parents want to steer their children away from the liberal arts, especially the humanities. They believe that a liberal arts major will hurt their children’s chances of getting a good job after college. Lots of prospective students already believe that themselves.

How can we sell the liberal arts to today’s vocationally minded college students? Many liberal arts faculty members bristle at the question. They assume that the benefits of higher education are not only self-evident, but that to have to sell them would be undignified -- perhaps even an anathema to the values of liberal education. Anything that reeks of business or business-speak can arouse suspicion.

But why should it? We want, or at least expect, many of our students to go into business. We want them to become successful and to see a connection between their success and their liberal arts education. Humanists cheered when the investor Bill Miller gave $75 million to the Johns Hopkins University philosophy department earlier this year. And we especially appreciated it when Miller declared that philosophy “has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I’ve made in investing.”

The fact is that academics also need to market themselves -- and we do. Graduate students have to sell themselves to prospective employers, whether inside or outside the academy. And professors have to get their work out there so that it finds its audience. Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of the current crossover hit The Making of Jane Austen, recently exhorted academic authors to use social media to reach the public. She calls this “hustling, not hucksterism.”

Given that students and professors have to market themselves, we should be less surprised or offended that their institutions do, too. Such marketing is actually an important part of the history of American higher education. David Labaree reminds us in his recent A Perfect Mess that colleges and universities have long competed in local markets. Higher education institutions were founded at a rapid rate in the United States during the 19th century, and by 1880, the nation had five times as many as in all of Europe put together. But those colleges were small. Only 26 institutions in the whole country had more than 200 students, so they had to hustle to put bodies in the seats.

And they’ve kept hustling to this day. American colleges and universities have been selling themselves for centuries. We don’t have to like or enjoy this fact. Most educators (including us) believe that it would be better if the government and people of the United States saw higher education as a public good, not a consumer good. That’s a vision that we need to work for.

In the meantime, however, we have to acknowledge that the marketing of higher education is part of the American past and present. The need to sell is real, and there should be no shame in that.

That said, selling shouldn’t mean selling out. We have to make a distinction between selling a college or university at any cost and selling the liberal arts.

We’re seeing a lot of selling out these days. Public universities around the country are gutting their liberal arts curricula and focusing on trade education so they can sell it better to legislators and prospective students.

Commentators such as Christopher Newfield have written compellingly about the curricular movement from thought and reflection to mindless vocationalism. We share the outrage at this casual flattening of our intellectual traditions. How are we to advocate effectively for the liberal arts when vocationalism is taking so much of the oxygen on campus?

The answer is not to turn our backs on the whole idea of self-marketing. Belletrism (“we’re proud to be useless”) and antipragmatism (“everything must change, and we’ll just sit here until it does”) don’t help our cause.

As Laurence Veysey and other scholars have pointed out, utility has been a part of the discussion of the mission of American higher education from its inception. We can hardly expect that to change any time soon. It’s not selling out to acknowledge this fact, for utility doesn’t necessarily equate to dumbed-down curriculum.

Moreover, prospective students and their families think largely in terms of utility, so it behooves us to meet them where they are. That is, we have to speak their language, so they might learn to speak ours. We also might consider changing our attitude. “Isn't there something upper-crust elitist and deadening in refusing to offer ourselves and our institutions in an outgoing manner?” asked Robert Weisbuch, president of Drew University, a decade ago. Indeed.

We can try to persuade our would-be students that the liberal arts are a worthwhile choice because they allow students to explore their intellectual passions. But if that’s not enough, then we should persuade them on the basis of utility in a rapidly changing marketplace, in which being adaptable, creative, incisive and communicative sets one apart. And persuade them we must.

Suspicion of marketing reflects a false dichotomy between business and the liberal arts in American higher education. Business, the standard narrative goes, has a vocational focus. It centers on specific skills -- that is, training -- for a particular job. By contrast, the liberal arts are often described in terms of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and (in slightly more practical terms) as imparting a perspective -- philosophical, historical, social and economic -- on the world that is broadly useful.

But if academics have to sell themselves and their work, then business is a partner of the liberal arts. And the liberal arts -- mainly by way of human connections, ethical principles and other applied concepts -- are an important, nay, an essential, part of business. That is, after all, why we believe that it’s important to give business students a liberal education.

Thus, to cast the liberal arts and business as opposed to each other is both untrue and misguided. Such a polarized and narrow view -- of both sides -- does a disservice to all stakeholders. In American universities, these pursuits live together. If we turn it into an “us versus them,” both sides are diminished.

The Rhetorical Chasm

So what’s the right way for a college to market itself today? Let’s not overthink this one. There’s nothing wrong with sharing with people what an institution is about, what it values, what it aims to accomplish. If we sell with those values in mind, we’ll talk less about dormitory menus than about majors and programs.

We’ll also find ourselves talking about students’ prospective careers -- and why not? Most, if not all, business schools have standardized components of their curriculum in which they advise their students professionally. This is far less common in schools of arts and sciences. Although many liberal arts faculty members are delighted to speak with their students about their career plans, they give practical advice in a much more informal, oftentimes piecemeal, way. We don’t devalue the liberal arts when we discuss students’ careers with them, or advise them about professional matters (how to talk about your studies in a job interview, for example). In fact, in many ways, liberal education relates directly to the workplace.

These facts belie the rhetorical chasm between the liberal arts and business. It’s a chasm that the liberal arts have fallen into, face-first -- even though the liberal arts are market useful by every statistical measure. Numerous surveys show that employers value liberally trained college graduates.

But too many college students and their parents don’t believe that the liberal arts are useful. That’s a failure of marketing, and popular culture has turned it into a meme. (If you have a stomach for snarky contempt, search Google Images for “useless liberal arts.”) When it comes to defending the embattled liberal arts, faculty members are often talking to themselves.

And while we lament that prospective students and their families turn away from the liberal arts, many of us in academe resent the implication that it’s our duty to disabuse the public of their misconceptions. That isn’t an easy task, as that particular horse left the barn long ago. But it’s our task, and we need to own it.

How can we regain control of this story? We could try to brand the liberal arts. We need to emphasize what we know to be true: that professional training and the liberal arts are compatible. And, moreover, that they inform one another.

What might this look like? Well, it obviously depends on the institution and its public. But let’s consider the example of Catholic universities. Both of us work at Catholic universities, and so are familiar with them from the inside out.

The missions of Catholic colleges and universities vary in their particulars, but they emphasize the humanities. Humanistic learning accesses the rich Catholic intellectual tradition that explores essential questions related to the human condition, such as what it means to live a meaningful, purposeful life, as well as social teachings that provide impetus for social justice and the common good. At Sacred Heart University, for example, all students take a two-semester core seminar that enacts a 2,000-year-old dialogue among various thinkers, artists and authors (such as Augustine, Dante, Darwin) on a range of such fundamental topics.

Exploring the humanities with students in this way gives the Sacred Heart degree a distinctive character -- its brand, you might say. Catholic universities have to focus on the liberal arts, especially the humanities, if they want to be considered Catholic. In doing so, they affirm their identities while conferring benefits to their students -- benefits that have been avowed by employers, who confirm again and again the value of the skills that liberal arts majors bring to the workplace.

The objective facts support the worth of the liberal arts. Yet not all stakeholders trust that a liberal arts degree is worth the investment. Liberal arts faculty members must own this challenge as their own. And from a pragmatic perspective, that makes most sense: those who prize the liberal arts most should be most persuasive in selling their value.

So why not make virtue of necessity and sell the liberal arts proudly? If Catholic universities have to focus on liberal education to maintain their own identities, they should place it front and center. Come to think of it, maybe we all should.

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Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University and the author of The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. Robin L. Cautin is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

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