Want Faculty Buy-In on Marketing? Start Here.

How to bridge the gap between marketing objectives and faculty expectations.

By: John Milliken
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In large and complex organizations, the actions of various departments do not always mesh perfectly, even though everyone is pursuing the same goals. Universities are no exception.

Administrators, along with those in the marketing and admissions departments, are acutely aware of market pressures and have their attention on the university’s ongoing financial viability. Faculty members, on the other hand, are focused on teaching and scholarship. There doesn’t have to be a conflict here, but there definitely is potential for it. What can marketing professionals do to help ensure that instructors understand, accept and support strategies and campaigns to market the university effectively?

I queried faculty members, administrators and marketing personnel to glean some of their insights about what it takes to strengthen collaboration at your institution.

RELATED: 3 Ethical Questions to Guide Your Marketing

One key, the people I spoke with said, is listening. Try to understand the faculty members’ perspective. Cultivate empathy. Get to know their challenges and concerns. Higher ed is in a time of unusual change that brings additional stress to all involved. But, in some ways, the faculty feels this most acutely. How so?

Knowing Faculty Pain Points

The current situation for universities may be very different from the environment that existed just a few years ago. Newer faculty members may be toiling under conditions they did not expect or foresee when they accepted the job. At the same time, more experienced faculty members are experiencing a drastic departure from what they experienced early in their careers.

They Feel Pressured Like Never Before

Paul Gratton, associate dean for Adult and Graduate Studies and assistant professor of business at Montreat College, said academics historically have been sheltered from market forces and from accountability for results. In the past, a tenured faculty member had the freedom to teach as they thought best, largely unhindered by questions about what was popular or what would sell. That was before today’s fierce competition.

Most institutions no longer can afford to shield the faculty from market forces. As budgets tighten, administrators must raise the hard question: Which faculty activities and course offerings support a sustainable business model for the college?

For the faculty, then, this new need to justify their existence in economic terms is quite an adjustment. And it is a situation for which they usually are not well equipped. Ken Stoltzfus, vice president of academic affairs at Friends University, suggests that the way faculty members are trained can even be seen as antithetical to a marketing mindset. They spent years delving into a specialized topic of interest to few, often driven by the simple desire to understand — quite apart from any question of everyday usefulness or broader appeal. 

“As a faculty member, I saw marketing as this annoying thing that intruded on the work I was trying to do,” Stoltzfus said. “It felt like micromanagement and administrative overreach.” — Ken Stoltzfus, Friends University

Moreover, Gratton said, being an expert in a particular field doesn’t mean you are an expert in the market for that field. An English professor, for instance, may be a phenomenal faculty member, but may not be aware of changes in the job market for English majors or may not know how to shape the program to be more attractive to prospective students.

So, the faculty can feel and understand this need to help market their programs, but, at the same time, feel utterly unequipped to do so.

The romantic picture of a life of scholarship, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, has long been sustained by forms of scholarly training, backed by generous budgets. Questions about utility seemed irrelevant. This isolation from the business side of academia may even have been one of the things that attracted certain faculty members to the field.

So, for many, the end of that era causes a painful dislocation. They are thrust into the midst of a competitive landscape for which neither their training nor their expectations have prepared them. To help you relate their situation, imagine if you, as a marketing professional, needed to begin to take a hand in planning courses and curricula.

They Are Worried About Academic Integrity

As you listen to the faculty, you also will hear concerns about how being sensitive to market demands threatens the integrity of the education the institution provides. I have been a faculty member in philosophy. Part of me wants to say that at least one course in philosophy is an essential part of what it means to be educated.

“We have to maintain the integrity of what we’re doing as an institution. This isn’t a diploma mill.” — Paul Gratton, Montreat College

But what if marketing research reveals that our undergraduate program will be more attractive to students if we drop the philosophy requirement? Or if we keep it, but switch from reading Plato and Kant to discussing such philosophical themes as we can find in “South Park” or “Breaking Bad?” As Tricia Van Dyk, assistant professor of philosophy at LCC International University in Lithuania, emphasized, professors typically want to give students what is truly of value, rather than simply trying to give them what they want.

These concerns extend beyond matters of content to questions of delivery. When the pandemic forced the institution where I worked to move to 100-percent online classes, I had many conversations with faculty members worried that they could not replicate the classroom experience on a screen. But the pandemic only accelerated a trend toward online education that was building in response to the demands of the marketplace.

RELATED: The “Nearly” Impossible Job of College President

Understanding all this helps those involved in marketing better grasp the challenges the faculty faces and what faculty members need from you. Let them know you are empathetic. Merely acknowledging the challenges and concerns faculty face can go a long way toward establishing trust.

Cultivating Collaboration

Once you understand the faculty’s thinking and feelings on this topic, it is time to cultivate relationships and encourage collaboration.

Help Them Tell Their Story

Recognizing the challenges in obtaining faculty buy-in, marketing professionals need to be ready to articulate specific reasons that marketing is important and be able to address the concerns that many faculty have.

“As a faculty member, I saw marketing as this annoying thing that intruded on the work I was trying to do,” Stoltzfus said. “It felt like micromanagement and administrative overreach.”

RELATED: The Great Resignation Hits Higher Ed

Now that he works as an administrator, he thinks of marketing “as a way of telling our story and inviting people into it.” Faculty members already feel like they are doing something important and worthwhile. Sometimes, they need help seeing that marketing is really just about letting potential students know about what the faculty is doing.

Don’t hesitate to state it directly; “You’re doing great things here. Help us tell the world about it!”

Create Collaborations

Kevin Kuchera, vice president and chief enrollment officer at Eastern Michigan University, said his organization made a point of bringing faculty into conversations about marketing, treating them as partners in formulating plans and solving problems. He emphasized the importance of being responsive in these discussions. “Obviously, budgets are limited, and we can’t do everything,” he said. “But if a faculty member approaches us for help with marketing, we always make an attempt to offer assistance.” 

RELATED: Increasing the Number and Diversity of College Graduates

He told me of one successful example of collaboration in which some graduate faculty members wanted the university to adopt a common application, which allows students to apply easily to programs at several universities. They realized this could raise the visibility of their program with students who otherwise may not have discovered it. The admissions department allocated the resources to make this happen.

Kuchera also said it is very important to “work with the willing.” Some faculty members will appreciate the changing circumstances and be excited about trying something new. Find those people and support them. Trying to force changes on those who aren’t yet ready to make them usually is counterproductive. 

Assure Them of Academic Integrity

But what about the faculty’s concerns about allowing the marketplace to dictate what and how they teach?

Gratton acknowledged this concern as a legitimate one.

“We have to maintain the integrity of what we’re doing as an institution,” he said. “This isn’t a diploma mill.”

But there are ways to reframe faculty offerings without undermining the integrity of the discipline. Gratton provided this example: At Montreat, the major in outdoor education shifted to a major in outdoor recreation. Much of the content of the major remained the same, though the packaging shifted in response to the shift in the market demands. Being sensitive to the marketplace doesn’t require the faculty to bend to all current trends or fads. Sometimes a tweak is in order, rather than a major overhaul.

Paying close attention to the market for higher education is necessary, even unavoidable. As the market changes, higher ed must change. Adjustments aren’t always easy. Nor are they always welcome. The university is best equipped to navigate them when everyone is pulling in the same direction, not acting with cross purposes.

For marketers, understanding where the faculty is coming from, inviting faculty members  into the process as collaborators and being ready to talk honestly about faculty concerns, will go a long way toward ensuring a buy-in to the institution’s marketing strategy and campaigns.

John Milliken

John Milliken

Holding degrees in philosophy and theology, John has served as a professor and a minister. He is currently a freelance writer who lives with his family in North Carolina.

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