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When it comes to communicating their value to the public, universities have not been shy. They have hired staff, redirected precious time and resources, and even taken out magazine ads and billboards to toot their horns and tout their feats in important markets. But is their message being heard?

A university’s message, properly crafted, is its brand, although some on campus still resist a term that they associate more readily with cereal and shampoo commercials. But a brand is what separates one university from thousands of others, elevating it above competition and distinguishing it in a crowded field of institutions with similar goals.

It’s amazing how few universities take seriously the need to get even this first step right—identifying, owning and living their brand rather than the simpler and far less authentic purchasing and pushing their brand.

Instead of starting with a self-assessment, something academics pursue compulsively on most matters, articulating a university’s value must start with an honest, inclusive, carefully executed series of listening sessions with those outside the university. This includes those with a vested interest in the university’s mission and success, as well as those who may simply view themselves as co-located. Only then can the internal parties get to work in a serious and reflective assessment.

But the process cannot stop with the initial assessment and goal setting. The university must make such dialogue an ongoing priority. This is especially true for public universities—whether rural or urban, R-1 doctoral universities, or regional comprehensive institutions.

Most nonacademics do not care about research volume, or a university’s number of national prize-winning faculty, or the recognitions bestowed by national higher education organizations.

With the exception of prospective students and their parents, they may not care how many majors or study abroad opportunities exist. And they almost certainly do not care which rec center has the highest climbing wall or which dining halls serve the most haute cuisine.

In fact, a university must be tone-deaf, if not arrogant, to make these factors the focus of external communication. Such preoccupations are a sad result of the rankings obsession pervading higher education.

The average community member and their representatives and leaders want to know if their local university is accessible and affordable; if it offers degree programs that can lead to meaningful employment; if it provides support structures and mechanisms to ensure student success; if it creates programming of value to the community; if it brings affordable arts and athletics offerings to the community; if it can meet the needs of students with varying degree objectives, schedules and timelines; and if it invests in community and infrastructure improvements. These are real things that make real differences in the lives of real people.

With that in mind, universities must listen to their external communities in order to craft relevant messages. We must get far better and far more intentional when talking about our value and even what we do as universities.

We often fall back on “teaching, research and service” or similar summaries of our mission. That works for some but not all audiences. At the very least, our elevator pitch needs some polish today. Why? Because we have lost the public’s trust, confidence and, in some cases, interest.

In two surveys of U.S. residents, conducted by two of us (Gavazzi and Gee) both before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, participants expressed varied opinions on higher education topics, as one would expect from any diverse sample of American citizens. But alarmingly, many said they simply did not have enough information about what public universities are doing to render an opinion regarding their effectiveness.

That finding represents a symptom of a much bigger problem for public universities. Higher education leaders will swear until they are blue in the face that they are pumping out reams of critical information regarding the value and impact of their teaching, research and community engagement efforts.

Why then do those communications seem not to have reached such significant portions of the public at large?

Another component of the Gavazzi and Gee study offered insight into the public’s perceptions of how universities spend taxpayer money. More specifically, survey respondents were asked to consider how—in an ideal world—every $100 of taxpayer money provided to public universities should be spent in terms of teaching, research and community outreach programs and services. Participants were told that their answers must add up to $100 and they were told to assume that non-taxpayer monies already covered basic operating costs and other expenses (student housing, dining services, recreation, etc.).

On average, participants in the entire sample reported that they would spend the greatest amount of money on teaching ($46.10), with the remainder of the funds to be split relatively equally between research ($28.20) and community outreach programs and services ($25.70).

Here’s the astounding part: a complete lack of partisanship drove how citizens allocated taxpayer money for teaching, research and community-based service activities. That is to say, Republicans, Democrats and independents; liberals and conservatives; and voters and nonvoters alike all put the most money toward teaching, while directing relatively equal amounts of funding toward research and community engagement.

In fact, this consensus among citizens about funding allocations, regardless of their political leanings, may be the most noteworthy finding of this entire study. Why? Simply put, it is so very difficult to find any topic or concern that individuals on the right, left and middle of the political spectrum agree upon these days. One survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that Americans of different political stripes agree that things are going to get worse in terms of the polarization between our two major parties, even as they profoundly disagree about the means to solving today’s problems. “The Big Sort,” which continues unabated across our nation, makes these nonpartisan findings about higher education funding extraordinary.

Even more remarkable, these percentages—roughly 50/25/25 for teaching, research and engagement, respectively—are likely to largely match with priorities of university leaders, those individuals responsible for making resource allocation decisions for their institution and for lobbying for support from their legislatures.

This finding by Gavazzi and Gee is a powerful tool for public university leaders to rely upon when lobbying for state support. Legislators respond to the wishes of their constituents. And Gavazzi and Gee just did the polling for them.

When fielding appropriation requests and pleas for increased support, lawmakers increasingly expect hyperspecific rationales for why the support is being requested, how specifically the funds would be used and what outcomes can be (all but) promised and by when.

Now, we can demonstrate that public support for investment in public higher education is likely to be strongest when the state’s investment falls into the 50/25/25 split. This helps build confidence, trust and perceived value compared with a broad-brush message about increases (or maintenance or reductions) to public university funding. It also enables the university and the legislature to parse requests and allocations more strategically, perhaps over multiple years and even multiple administrations, and with a clearer connection between funding and outcomes.

If we commit to evolving our institutions to meet the public’s changing needs, we can rebuild public confidence and trust. We can make our messaging relevant. We can matter. And universities can return to being both the public square for civil discourse and the essential partner for a community’s vitality and growth.

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