On Thursday March 28th, I participated in a panel titled “The Future of the University in Canada”, at the University of Toronto. The discussion was hosted by Drs. Emily Greenleaf and Pamela Gravestock, who organised it as a part of their undergraduate course on “The University in Canada” (which looked like something I would love to have done as an undergrad). The other participants were Dr. Ian Clark from the School of Public Policy and Governance, U of T; Dr. Harvey Weingarten, Director of HEQCO; and Dr. Suzanne Stevenson, Vice Dean of Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at U of T. Before the day of the panel, we were presented with a set of questions to respond to in our opening remarks:
- On what issue should universities focus in the next five years?
- What should their response look like?
- How would this affect undergraduate students?
I always find it very difficult to pick a single issue in the way that is often required in debates or structured discussions (see “the blog vs. the book” for another example). As I confessed to the audience, it hasn’t been my job (yet?) to take complex problems and find implementable solutions, and of course this is a kind of weakness because it means I have few ready answers. But perhaps there’s something to be said for having the opportunity to make something as complicated as possible, with the goal of finding a different kind of solution at the end of it.
In the end I decided to argue for universities to improve the way they communicate. This might sound relatively trivial in comparison to the many “crisis” issues that face universities. Currently many people see organizational communication as a kind of frill, an add-on that is deserving of attention if and when the resources are available. But it really isn’t trivial. Communication is about far more than simply sending and receiving messages that “contain” information. The context of communication, its timing, its tone, and its rhetorical effects, are all important to the way an organization works and how its members see themselves within it (as well as the way it’s understood by those “on the outside”).
Universities are already pouring money into external communication, it’s just that quite a bit of it involves marketing to audiences including alumni, donors of various kinds, governments, and potential students–in other words, groups who will bring revenue. This is partly why internal communication (between administration, staff, and students who have already enrolled) receives less attention. It’s also why there is so often a blurring of advertising and information, which makes things more difficult for students who are trying to make the best possible decisions with the information available (Norman Fairclough has written about this). Universities should be acting in the best interests of students, and communication ethics is a part of that practice.
Another, related practice that universities engage in is the ongoing construction and defence of public image, a cause in the service of marketing since it protects the organizational brand. But policing an image tends to be a reactive way of communicating about an organization or institution and what it does; the message is “stop saying what you want to say about us”, an attempt to exert control where many people are now accustomed to a higher level of interaction, informality, responsiveness–and honesty. Universities that try to control closely all aspects of communication are also environments where faculty are less likely to want to speak out on key issues, thus reducing the possibility of academics’ engagement in key public debates.
Communication is key to all relationships within the university, the interactions that happen there every day, and the teaching and learning and research that are core aspects of its mission. In an institution dedicated to knowledge and innovation, the informal contact that helps us make new connections is facilitated by physical and virtual structures (the architecture of buildings and of social and professional networks), such as classrooms and education technology systems. All these things matter as elements of the organizational environment.
The contact that universities make with those both within and beyond their metaphorical walls is even more crucial at a time when so many different “stakeholders” are projecting their expectations onto higher education. It’s something that can help explain what universities do, what they actually offer, and how that fits with what students (for example) expect and need. Changing the way universities communicate is not a “fix” for problems like lack of funding, corporatization, and competition. It doesn’t lower tuition or alleviate student debt, and it doesn’t change the proportion of tenured faculty to contract teaching hires; it cannot resolve fundamental disagreements about the nature of academic work and university governance. What it might be able to do is help build organizational trust internally and externally, which could (who knows!) lead to dealing with future problems on different terms–or at least articulating them more clearly for everyone involved.