The director of communications at Lakehead University recently wrote, in this column, that it is time that academics realize that we live in a marketplace and thus have to “brand” our universities to sell our “products” to potential “buyers” – the students. She told us how, in much less time than expected, she transformed the image of her institution into a “can-do university” where one finds “top-notch research” (using typical buzzwords that sound good and never have more than two syllables).
In contrast with this optimistic view of marketing, I see a different, darker face of marketing when it’s applied to universities.
When I pay close attention to product advertisements in newspapers, on TV and now in cinemas, I’m always struck by how the carefully chosen language and images stay just at the border of lies and misrepresentation. No doubt an army of lawyers went over the text and images to make sure nobody could object to their content despite the obvious fact that their effective message often clearly suggests what they say they do not want to suggest.
For example, carmakers now target very young drivers (aged 18-25) as potential clients. Their ads show cars moving faster than any speed limit. But no problem: very small print shown for about 10 seconds during the clip clearly says that one should not attempt to do the same since what the viewer sees was done with expert drivers in special circumstances.
The problem with applying cars-and-beers marketing techniques to universities is that universities are supposed to represent the search for truth, whereas car and beer sellers just want to make money. And “business ethics” is not the same as ethics in a university context, given the unique moral mission of the latter.
Marketing can be a slippery slope for universities that like to advertise that they are “first” in something. They try to find a ranking in which they’re among the top. Many examples exist of universities using the well-known Maclean’s university ranking and saying that they know it is not really scientific but that they’re nonetheless pleased to be at its top. That is clearly opportunistic if not completely cynical. Any rational, honest institution would opt out of rankings whose only objective function is to sell more copies of the magazine.
A more interesting example is University X, which found a ranking it liked but probably did not want to say its exact position in it. So, the local marketing expert chose the following sentence: “University X is among the first five universities in Canada in…” (I omit the variable to keep the institution anonymous as it is irrelevant to my analysis).
Since university X is “among the first five” why not simply mention its rank? Is it first? No, as it would have been proud to say “university X is first…” Probably not second, for the same reason. This leaves ranks 3, 4 and 5. I suggest that X probably ranked 4th or 5th and the reasoning was: we would like to be “first” so let us put the word “first” in the sentence as the reader may remember only that word! Let us say our university was “among the five first…” There is no law against this, though it plays on the limit of intellectual honesty in the way many sellers of used cars and other products do. I think that this kind of behaviour slowly corrupts universities by promoting cynicism.
Other popular rankings among many university administrators for a couple of years now are the Shanghai and THES rankings of the “best” universities in the world. Although academic experts in evaluation from many countries have shown often that these rankings have no scientific value, many universities use them to sell their “quality.” In another real example, University B, which seems to take these rankings seriously even though the ranks change each year in a manner inconsistent with the nature of university activities, was proud to announce that this year it ranked 20th. But it didn’t mention that the year before in the very same ranking it was ranked 12th. Either the ranking means something, and 20th position represents a dramatic drop in quality that should be followed urgently by a major reform, or the ranking is bogus and 20th is not better than 90th and marketing should not be based on these numbers. High-ranking administrators have told me, “Yves, you’re right about these rankings but we must use simple messages.”
It is not impossible to honestly promote universities by presenting really important findings related to their basic missions (teaching and research) – prizes won by professors and students from peers and recognized experts. However, this task is difficult if these promotional plans are left in the hands of people who have been trained to see, in a visit to Ontario Universities’ Fair, “the frenzy of both the ‘sellers’ and the ‘buyers’.” I see in the same event curious and excited future university students discussing with professors and other students the different programs they’re interested in, nervously trying to make an enlightened choice among them.
The future of universities could depend on how we decide to “see” what they are really doing.
Yves Gingras is a history professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at Université du Québec à Montréal.