You Can Only Tell a Story That Already Exists

Erin and Teresa welcome Higher Voltage’s Kevin Tyler to discuss institutional culture and climate as they explore the pivotal role of two-way communications in creating a sense of belonging.

50 minutes
By: Trusted Voices

In this crossover episode of the Trusted Voices Podcast and Higher Voltage, hosts Erin Hennessy, Teresa Valerio Parrot and Kevin Tyler engage in a thought-provoking conversation about the dynamic concept of culture in higher education. The trio delves into the crucial role of diversity in shaping campus culture, emphasizing the importance of adapting to evolving student expectations and fostering two-way communication for a more inclusive educational environment.

Read the full transcript here

Erin Hennessy:

Hello and welcome to the Trusted Voices Podcast. I’m Erin Hennessy alongside Teresa Valerio Parrot and in each episode, we discuss the latest news and biggest issues facing higher ed leaders through a communications lens. For these conversations, we’ll be joined by a guest who will share their own experiences and perspectives. 

Hello and welcome to the second crossover episode of Higher Voltage and the Trusted Voices Podcast. I’m Erin Hennessy, alongside my usual companion, Teresa Valerio Parrot, and the host of Higher Voltage, Kevin Tyler. And we’re together today because we wanted to have a conversation as we close out the semester and the calendar year about the concept of culture in higher education.

And Teresa and I are absolutely thrilled to have Kevin with us to talk about this because he’s brought to both of our attention, but to the attention of a lot of our colleagues in higher education, a fantastic book by Marcus Collins called For the Culture, which will inform a lot of our chat today. But Kevin, I wanted to ask you, since you’re our special guest and we’re nothing if not good hostesses, to sort of set the frame for our conversation today and give us some of your initial high-level thoughts about what we’re doing right in higher ed and what we aren’t in terms of culture.

Kevin Tyler:

First of all, before I get into all that, it’s so great to be with you today again, Teresa and Erin, two of my favorite people, not just in this space, but in the world. I’m happy to be with you today on this episode, our second crossover episode. This idea of culture, I think, is an intriguing one to me after meeting Marcus Collins, who wrote the book that Erin referenced in the introduction, in understanding his perspective on the influence of culture on marketing, regardless of the industry that we are marketing in. There is an evolution that is occurring in what people are connected to and are attracted to in the way that things are messaged. And it doesn’t come from what a brand thinks people want to hear. It comes from understanding who the audiences are and communicating in a way that is intentional and strategic. And one of the most important things I think I’ve taken away from listening to Dr. Collins speak twice now is that so often in marketing, we are confusing information with intimacy. And that idea, I think, really encapsulates how we have approached marketing in decades past just by having the demographics of who we think this age bracket is and what they’re into and communicating in that way as opposed to who they are as individuals and what they are bringing to a campus, to a store, to whatever it is that you’re marketing. This shift will require a heavier lift on the part of marketers to not just rely on the information that we have always used to get to some of the same kinds of results that we’ve always seen.

It will require a bit more intention, a bit more strategy, a bit more understanding, a bit more reading to really understand the audiences and how to attract them, not based on what we think they want to hear, but what they need and what they expect because the bar for their expectations is getting higher and higher because there are so many brands trying to get their attention all of the time. So I’m really excited to have this conversation with you two because I think that there will be some really great thought starters and inspiration that come out of this conversation.

Erin Hennessy:

Can you just give me sort of an example that’s going to help me ground this in higher ed and marketing of higher ed? Is there an institution that’s doing it really well or is there an example you’ve seen just to help me cross the bridge from communications to marketing and think about this in a marketing context?

Kevin Tyler:

Sure, I think that an example that comes to mind most immediately, and he’s been a guest on Higher Voltage back in the day, was the president of Otterbein University outside of Columbus, Ohio. They have this idea: they don’t expect college-ready students, they expect themselves to be a student-ready college. And they message around that, right? And so if you’re an adult learner and you are coming to night school and you don’t have any child care, they will take the folks who are in the early child development program and provide child care for the people who have kids who are going to class at night. They have this program or an initiative where if a certain subset of students are doing poorly in say math and they seem to for whatever reason come from a similar district, they’ll reach out to the district as an institution and say, here’s what we are teaching at Otterbein at this college level and it doesn’t seem like the students are prepared for that. How can we work together to make sure that students are prepared for what they will be learning in college? And they message around this. This is not just like, you know, a secret kind of initiative. This is like, we are here for you. We are ready to receive you and you will belong here because we are setting up the supports that you need to thrive and be successful.

And if you’re not doing those kinds of things, you’re not building the kinds of supports that students now have come to expect from an institution, then all we are doing is window dressing, right? We’re just shining up something that might feel broken, the experience perspective, and not doing any sort of service to the nuts and bolts of the experience that need to be kind of fine-tuned or refined. And when we don’t have anything to message from, and we only have what always existed, then we have nothing to say that’s new because of these new expectations from students. So that’s an example that comes to mind most immediately. It feels cultural, it feels intentional, and it feels very strategic. It doesn’t scream like this is a cultural initiative off the rip, but it does inform and influence the kinds of students that they get at Otterbein University and the way that the university operates by virtue of being that kind of place.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So I’m gonna go back to a previous episode, before we had Trusted Voices and Erin and I were on Higher Voltage with Kevin, and we talked about the difference between communications and marketing. And one thing that I would note is that I do feel that this information isn’t intimacy, feels like the circle back to communications, because communications is two-way. And I think that’s one of the ways that we think about what it is that we do. And really the pandemic showed us that we needed to be better at having two-way communications, we needed to listen as well as speak. And I think that there is this interesting crossover moment for us to be talking about culture and climate and why they matter in tandem and together. So in the show notes will be a summary of a book from 1995, and I’ll also put a link to a more recent one in 2016 from Shine. And in there, they talk about climate as perceptions and attitudes of the people in the culture, and that climate can be locally created by what leaders do, what circumstances apply, and what environments afford, and culture can evolve only out of mutual experience and shared learning. And the reason that I think that’s important, and I wanted to mention that, is because there’s this reality that we’re trying to create a sense of belonging, but we don’t always try to understand why some don’t feel like they belong.

So in the show notes also will be a report from the Education Trust called Creating Positive College Campus Racial Climates for Students of Color. And why I think that’s important is that there is this listening factor to what students had to say. And then the report then walks through issues and barriers and what institutions can do to create an environment that is more welcoming to students of color. And that’s important because we need that because mutual experiences and shared learning are part of what binds us as a culture. So if students don’t have that climate experience, they aren’t going to move to the shared culture, which means we’re gonna continue to have a divide on campus.

Kevin Tyler: 

I think having a real clear idea of what-how culture is defined on a campus is really important. I think, you know, in preparation for this conversation, we, the three of us, have been kind of emailing each other about some of these questions, and one of the things that I have thought about after hearing Dr. Collins speak and reading the book and having the other conversations around the space is the difference between your campus culture and your culture on campus.

Campus culture can be defined as how we get things done here, who you have to talk to first in order to get this person to buy in, things of that nature. Culture on campus is something entirely different. So understanding who is on campus and what they are contributing to the experience on your campus. One of the questions I asked Dr. Collins when he spoke was what comes first? When we hear these messages of Be a Bruin or Be a Bobcat or whatever it is, am I disassociating from my culture to become part of a new campus culture or culture on campus, or is who I am as an individual as a person contributing to the evolution of that campus? Can I still be a Bobcat as an out-gay Black man? Is that, or does that not fit into what you might see a Bobcat as being? And so I think these conversations about like, is it assimilation? I’m not sure it’s so much that, as much as are we asking you to fit into what we have already created, or are we welcoming you into a space that is free to evolve based on what you are giving back to it?

Erin Hennessy:  

And I think that for me at least, brings it back sort of Tressa to where you started. I think we also have to ask the question of who is creating the culture. And it circles us back to why it’s so important to have diversity cast broadly across leadership, across the institution, because if it is middle-aged white men setting the culture, that culture is going to be harder for other folks to feel like they are welcome and like they have a route into that, to connect to that culture on a personal, meaningful level. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yeah.

Erin Hennessy:

But I also wonder, I keep thinking back and I was thinking about this last night when I was thinking about getting ready for today. When I worked on campus, we had this sort of similar, we wouldn’t have called it belonging then because we weren’t that ahead of ourselves, but there was this similar question about whether or not students felt connected to the place and connected to life on campus. And I sat in all these meetings where people talked about, we need to come up with some traditions that’ll help students feel connected, that will bind them together and bind them to the place and be sort of these touchstone experiences. And I, of course, was the person in the meeting who went, you don’t create traditions. They come out organically. And so I guess I sort of wonder where the conversation goes when we talk about creating culture and how much of that has to be organic and identified as opposed to just sort of created and pushed down.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So I’m gonna go back to where you started with this, Erin. I think that we do see the influence of different leaders trying to shape culture, whether or not they can do that. I also think right now on our campuses, we’re seeing this significant divide because alumni very much think that they know what the culture is and some of our younger alumni don’t agree. Some of our students don’t agree where they want their experience to focus and what they want to have as an experience may not also then mirror what alumni say that they cherish and they don’t want to have change about the institution. So one of the interesting things about the book is talking about the evolution of what culture can look like. 

I’ll add in the show notes a piece from Inside Higher Ed called Communicating Culture in a Distributed World. And one of the things that they note is that climate can often change pretty quickly and that climate is often based on events and people’s reactions, incidents between people, et cetera. The culture is less dependent on individual events but tends to drive people’s interpretation, thinking, and perspective of events that occur. So I think right now we’re living through a perfect moment and experience of that. As we look to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, we’re seeing so many different opinions that are really drawn along generational lines. And I just had this conversation the other day because it ties to culture with an institution. They were saying, our students aren’t the kind that protest. Our students are very well-behaved. Our students know that what our policies are and our students are going to behave in a way that we’ve all agreed upon. 

And this won’t come as a surprise. Their students did not, according to what their expectations were. And what I pointed out to them is that we lost something in the pandemic in that there wasn’t that transfer of how things have been. And I also think that we have Gen Z who has decided we don’t have to go along with how things have been. So when we put a, our students are, fill in the blank, we’re really underestimating their agency and also that that culture that we’ve been talking about is being shared and wants to be and that students want to buy into it.

And I think those both are huge assumptions these days.

Erin Hennessy:

Well, and it cycles back some of our greatest hits when we bring students in and we say part of our culture is creating students who are engaged with the wider world, who are engaged with the most pressing issues that we are training the people. We’ve all read this tagline, we are training the people who will solve the world’s problems. And then we flip our shit. Pardon my French. It’s the day after a holiday weekend. 

Kevin Tyler:

Allowed. I’ll allow it.

Erin Hennessy: 

Thank you. We lose our minds when they do exactly what we have told them the culture internally and externally demands of them. And we can’t handle it.

Kevin Tyler:

It’s so true.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Because we haven’t created buy-in. We haven’t talked about why. We haven’t, you know, there isn’t that mutual experience in shared learning that suggests, yes, this is what I value. This is what I buy into.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, well, and sometimes there is and we’re not living it. And sometimes there is and it’s, but do it this way. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Mm-hmm.

Kevin Tyler:

Right.

Erin:

Please be engaged in these issues, but don’t occupy buildings, don’t shout at speakers, don’t send letters to the board. I mean, these are all things that we’ve seen institutions grapple with and sort of fall apart when they are trying to navigate responses to those kinds of activities.

Kevin Tyler:

Which is so fascinating to me because the role of the college campus in evolutions and revolutions has been so critical. It has been so critical. So many things have happened on college campuses that have moved the society forward. And we have arrived at a place, I will never condone, you know, people being hurt, killed, violence, et cetera. We have arrived at a place where we as administrators, as leaders of campuses, paint the best picture of students, regardless of what the actual behavior of the students is. Like, you know, when we talk about Gen Z in general, in very broad strokes, we talk about a generation being a group of activists, and they are vocal. And while they might not be vocal in the spaces that leaders and administrators or older generations are vocal and did it on their campuses, it’s in a new place that those folks, those older folks, might not be familiar with. And because they say things like, our students will never be, we don’t do protests here, we don’t do et cetera, X, Y, Z. That is so far from the truth. It reminds me of, you know how like museums, when museums are robbed, museums try to keep that kind of under wraps, right? Like if we tell everyone we got robbed, then no one will give us their art. And so if we tell people that our students aren’t protesting and this isn’t happening and then it does, then A, you become an unreliable narrator, and B, you are not giving the people who are making up your campus community any benefit or any recognition for what they are trying to do in the world and for the world, which is what we are doing in higher ed. We’re trying to prepare people for the future of the world and that’s what this looks like. That’s what it looks like.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Well, and it feels to me like what we’re saying to them, right? I think that they can hear it in this way. The culture says, please behave in ways that are convenient for me, right? The culture is this convenience factor, so that others aren’t uncomfortable, I’m not uncomfortable, and I also am not inconvenienced in doing my job. So…

Erin Hennessy:

And God forbid don’t impact yield. Just don’t do it during yield season. Whatever…

Kevin Tyler: 

Or gifts.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Right. Don’t do it during tours, during yield, during application season. Don’t do it. Right. 

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, yeah, nowhere near giving day.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And we also need to remember that so many of these Gen Z students, their parents are Gen X and Rage Against the Machine had a fantastic song for all of us when I was in college that suggests…

Kevin Tyler:

Say that. Sing it.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I’m not, first of all, I can’t sing. So please know I’m saving everybody who’s listening. But second of all, please go listen to Rage Against the Machine because that’s what we listened, I listened to in college, that is still, you know, when I have a bad day, but I shout at the top of my lungs. And so we can’t be surprised that this generation has its own ideas and also was raised by those who had their own ideas.

Higher Voltage Ad Read

Erin:

Also, let’s just take a moment, and I know we’re going far afield here, but let’s parse the statement. I’ve heard it in just the last few weeks. We don’t have an activist student body. As if, it wasn’t necessarily set as a point of pride, but it was definitely like, thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that. I hope folks in positions of power at institutions that can say, we don’t have an activist student body, really spend some time thinking about why. Is it because they don’t feel like they will be given a fair hearing by administration? Is it because your curriculum isn’t bringing enough of the outside world into the classroom? Where is the breakdown? Because you can’t tell me that somehow your enrollment management professionals recruited an entire class of students who simply aren’t engaged with matters of the day. They are. So, yeah.

Kevin Tyler:

They’re there. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

We tout that part, we tout that.

Kevin Tyler:

They’ve enrolled. They are very, they are engaged with the matters of today because they are there to learn.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, exactly. So think about it and help me.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So here’s part of that. I think it’s, yeah, I think it’s a terminology issue. And Erin, you’ve heard me push back on this in real life. And that is that when a lot of leaders talk about student activists, it’s like a four-letter word. And we always remind them, these are your students. And also, this is what you say you want, critical thinkers who are asking important questions and are challenging their own beliefs, right? And it goes all the way back, I’m gonna get nerdy for a second. It goes back to the theory of identity development, right? These students are looking into processes that are complex, not necessarily linear, and they’re not fluid because they’re figuring out who they are. That’s part of why they go to college. That’s part of what we say the outcomes are, those soft skills. So how do we think about this? And how do we talk about this? I think it’s really, really important what words we choose and why. And the intonation of it.

Kevin Tyler:

I agree. And I think broadening the definition of what activist and activism looks like, because we all are making decisions for or against something every single day with every single transaction, every single act, like whatever it is, we are expressing or exposing who we are as consumers, humans, marketers, whatever.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Pick a culture that we participate in, right?

Kevin Tyler:

Right, exactly. And also I think the idea of expanding what culture means, I think this is a really important piece is that I am not just talking about Black people and gay people and women, it is runners. There’s a culture around running. There is a culture around debate club. There’s a culture around so many aspects of American life that marketers have to be at least negligibly fluent in. Like, you have to understand what you’re talking about in order for it to feel real. And the example, and I know that this is a company that people always look to for examples of things, but the example that Dr. Collins uses so often that I think that really fits just really well is that of Nike and how the broad brush umbrella message is like every human is an athlete. But the way that we talk to you, like depending on what kind of athlete you are, will differ because we need you to know that we get you and we see you.

So the language that they use around running is gonna be very specific to runners. The language, it will be different than what they use for swimmers. There’s a whole other vernacular. And if you are not down with like how people are talking to each other inside of a community, inside of a culture, then you don’t have any street cred. And so what we need for higher ed now to have is some street cred. And how they get that, I don’t know, but it will take a lot more than what we used to do and what we have done and what we are doing to get to where we need to be to get us where we need to be as an industry. I think.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So I’m super nerdy today, guys, because I’m back from vacation. And so I’ve done a lot of reading and just thinking about life. And I think I’m about to list another four-letter word in higher education, and that’s intersectionality. So we like to think that it’s just our brand that is what’s in their life. They’re thinking about us all of the time. They’re focused on us and what we want people to focus on. And the reality is, it’s all of the layering of those identities and the cultures that you just described that make each of us who we are. As MarCom professionals in higher education, sometimes we forget that and we think it’s all about us and it’s not, it’s all about whomever we’re trying to communicate with and who we’re trying to help to see in themselves in our culture, in our community, and that we’re trying to provide a climate that allows for that.

Erin Hennessy:

Can we take this conversation, we’ve talked a lot about students, but I also think about this in terms of faculty and in terms of staff. And thinking a little bit about some of the work that one of our mutual friends, Kevin McClure is doing around culture for employees coming out of the pandemic. But I also think there’s so little thought in most cases, to creating that staff culture and faculty culture within the institution. I think a lot of it is perhaps built within divisions or departments or even some of our faculty may feel more connected through culture with their colleagues at a different institution than they do internally with their colleagues in mathematics if they teach in anthropology.

But I think as we look at these workforce issues and we look at sort of the post-pandemic job market, we look at the financial challenges facing all of our institutions and how folks are looking at, quite frankly, cutting and reducing to address those challenges. I think we really need to start thinking about and investing in culture on the employee side and not just thinking about it as a recruitment and retention tactic for our students. I think we miss a huge swath of our people when we just think about it as a student attractor, which is a word I just made up.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I agree. No, I get it. No, I agree. 

Kevin Tyler:

I agree.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I would say that I think the faculty culture exists more significantly than the staff culture in higher education. And the faculty culture includes, in many institutions, this element of hazing as well. So we allow that to occur, this professional hazing because that’s how it’s been, and it’s part of the tenure system, et cetera. So I do think there is this bigger conversation to be had around what is the culture, the faculty culture, and is that healthy. And for us to be thinking about why do some academics have stronger affinity and affiliation with their profession rather than their institution. And there are real questions for us to ask about as employers, right? And as a community for what that means.

Kevin Tyler:

I could not agree with you more. I think that the culture of faculty transcends individual institutions. I can’t tell you how many campuses I’ve been to for a project where someone said, oh, well faculty is gonna be really upset about this. It was like, it’s like a line in a script. It happens on almost every campus. There’s no follow-up that says like, well, why?

What do we need to do in order to get people who are on faculty on board what we are trying to do? Because they are on the front lines of all of the messaging promises we have made to get these students into their classroom. So, of all the people on this campus, faculty, we need them to be behind this or whatever in the culture that exists that, or at least the perception of the culture is that. All they want to do is do their work and they don’t care about marketing. They don’t care about the institution, all these other things that I have found that is not entirely true everywhere. But there’s this idea that just is floating around this gray cloud of the faculty around all over higher ed industry. That’s like, they’re going to be unhappy with marketing. And if we are not addressing what faculty needs as a cultural component of our campus, then we’re leaving them totally out. And I would understand why they would get, you know, be dubious about whatever effort it is. 

And so the same ways that we need to attract faculty to a culture or attach them to a culture or interact with them as their own culture to bring them wherever we would like them to be, the same goes true for students and staff and leadership and everyone else. The brand is not just a recruitment tool for students. It’s a recruitment tool for your president. It’s a recruitment tool for

everyone else on that campus. And if we’re only using it for 18 to 22-year-olds, quote-unquote, then that’s a short-sighted brand.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, and it’s not going to work.

Kevin Tyler:

At all.

Erin Hennessy:

Because to your point, you know, we can sort of identify the folks who are prospective-student facing and are bringing them in. But the folks who interact with our students the most in most cases are the faculty. And if they aren’t bought into that culture and ambassadors for that culture and extenders of that culture, then it doesn’t work. You have really nice artwork and really good taglines and probably a nice website. And it all just becomes this sort of wrapping and inside it’s hollow. And it’s the same thing with staff.

Kevin Tyler:

Right.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yeah, and I’ll also say I think that this is where mimicry in isomorphic environments really come into play because we all want to be like each other and/or we all want to be like whomever we see is most successful by whatever parameters we set. And for that reason, I think there is this interesting part at the end of Marcus’s book where he talks about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. And I think this is a perfect time for higher education institutions as a whole to be thinking about whether or not they are taking others’ cultural identity and associated markers, his language, or if they are respecting and learning about what those mean and then deciding if they are going to apply that in their own way to their own environment.

But so often what we do is we say, well, this worked there, so it’s going to work for us. It worked for us, so it’s going to work for them. And we don’t really think about the core component of what culture is.

Kevin Tyler:

Yeah. I don’t even have a follow-up, but yes.

Erin Hennessy:

Thank you so much for joining us today. Kevin’s done. We’re finished.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

[laughter]

Kevin Tyler:

I mean, it’s a fine line to have to navigate. I get that. This whole Matt Rife comedian thing around him co-opting this Blaccent and what that means and all these things, like that is an example. I think that there are ways to do this that don’t feel like you’ve co-opted or that it feels like exploitation. I think that it just requires more work than on the audiences than what we have given in the past. And if we continue thinking about our existence as marketers and branders and communicators in terms of these yearly cycles, like decision days May 1, and this is, we only have until then, we are never gonna get ahead of the game. We’re only gonna be thinking in those 365-day segments at what we can do. If we don’t start, we will never get there. So we just gotta start doing the work. And it’s similar to all the things that we, a lot of people heard during 2020 outside of COVID. You need to do the work of understanding the different cultures who are being impacted by these things.

It’s the same thing that’s happening in Israel and Gaza. Understanding the context, understanding the culture, understanding what is happening with the people so we can make really smart decisions. And that’s not just about marketing. It’s about support services, about what’s available, about what the experience is going to feel like, all these other things. If we do the work, like that foundational work, the entire experience gets better. Not just the marketing. We have to think beyond just the marketing. Because as a marketer myself, I can only tell a story that already exists. I can’t make up a story for what your experience is gonna be if the chapters are not true. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

That’s key. We have some who are trying to do so, Kevin.

Kevin Tyler:

Girl, every single day. And it’s fascinating to me that how many people think a new message means that all of the bad parts of your experience just kind of go away. I think it is fascinating, which might mean that we have not done a great job of educating folks about what the value of marketing is in an industry like higher ed because what used to happen way more than it does now is like, oh my god there’s a you know, a sexual assault scandal on our campus. Let’s get a new brand. Well, I don’t know if that’s going to help your culture or whatever it is you’re trying to do, let’s address the things that people need and then we can have, we have all the stories in the world for that.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I think that goes back to the silver bullets that people think that marketing and communications, each of them having different silver bullets, people assume, how people want to think about what we do and what we can provide. And as we always say, we’re truth-tellers. And so we can’t make this up for you. We can share your actions. We can share what has happened. We can share leadership decisions. We can share collective action. We can share so many things that are about movement, that are about decisions, that are about leadership. And we can’t, first of all, we can’t communicate you out of a leadership void, but more importantly, we can’t make up culture because it doesn’t stick. And instead, we then become the snake oil salespeople that people think MarComm is.

Erin Hennessy:

I mean, I’m guessing Teresa and I’ve both been on an equal number of calls with folks who have reached out about an issue, whether it’s Israel-Gaza, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s George Floyd, whether it’s any number of things. And they haven’t explicitly said, tell me what to say, but they’re sort of, it’s implicit, it’s in there. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yes.

Erin Hennessy:

And, you know, while I would love to have the magic answer to every issue we’re facing. I can’t, sitting here in southern New Jersey, tell you what to say to your people. What do your people need? What have you said to your people in the past? What are you going to be able to tell them here? I mean, we’ve seen folks issue those namby-pamby, milquetoast statements that are a lot of multi-syllabic words that don’t say anything and our audiences know it, particularly when it is in violation of the way that the culture conducts itself when it’s not under stress like this. And I just come back over and over again to this isn’t a problem we can solve for you. You have to figure out how to solve the problem and then we’ll communicate it for you. But I’m not some magic soothsayer who can fix this for you with a nicely worded email. Go out and talk to your students. Go out and what are your students, what are your faculty and staff expecting? How do you conduct yourselves in these difficult times? Those are your guideposts. That’s where you start.

Kevin Tyler:

Right. And I think that – I’ll speak for myself – I am virtually always, always looking for indications from any sort of brand or whatever it is that I’m involved with or about to get involved with whatever. I’m always looking for indications that they don’t have to think like me, but they have to see people who think like me and understand what’s going on here. And you know, we can go back and forth on whether or not it’s important for presidents to say something when there’s a global crisis or whatever else. But there will always be people who are looking for those indications of your fluency in the space and if you will do anything. And that constant assessment is only getting amplified the more generations that we have born. Like, we are all looking for those indications, those hints, those clues, green flags, if you will, that indicate you understand what’s going on. You have, you know, a plan or a decision point, whatever else, and you had, quite frankly, the spine, the gall to say it out loud because a lot of people are just gonna wait. And so I had a conversation on Higher Voltage not too long ago with Brit Kirwan, who I have mad respect for. He was like, you know, not everyone has to say something about everything. I get that.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yes.

Kevin Tyler:

But as a person who looks and loves like me, I’ll be looking for specific things in 2020 about, you know, George Floyd and all that stuff. If I don’t see it from your brand, then I’ma think a certain thing about it. So I think understanding what is necessary and trying to be fluent. There will be mistakes. There will be mistakes, especially when you’re talking about culture. If this culture is personal, culture is intimate. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And leadership is messy.

Kevin Tyler:

Leadership is messy as hell.

So like making sure that you have an idea of what needs to happen, for whom, because some of that stuff’s gonna be different for different people. It all takes more work.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I’m going to layer onto that as well and say that there is this reality that people want an easy way out to leadership. So this is where we see the statements that go to all of alumni or we see these people think these one-size-fits-all communications. And increasingly, I’m encouraging people to pick up the phone because to your point, Kevin, let people know that you see them. Them as individuals, not them as a collective group or them as something that needs to be solved or them as something that just needs to be told who we are and what we stand for. But instead have a conversation and this goes back to feedback loops. It goes back to the research that we were talking about before. Ask, don’t just say. And I think that’s critically important that we have to be okay with being vulnerable and uncomfortable sometimes because that’s what the moment expects from leaders. And it can’t just be something that we pop on our website and assume that leadership is done.

Kevin Tyler:

Totally.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, and the other thing that I sort of come back to, I mean, I agree entirely, we all got way too reliant on emailing COVID and we have forgotten face-to-face interactions. And I can’t imagine it’s fun to be on a Zoom with 800 students and be hollered at. But, you signed up for the job is part of my thinking. The other thing is, and it occurs to me as we talked about culture with faculty and staff is, I think we need to stop siloing administration leads, runs the place, faculty teaches and staff sort of makes it all possible. Because one of the things I’ve been struck by, and I feel like we did it better in the wake of George Floyd’s murder than we are doing it currently, we aren’t relying on our faculty at all to help us negotiate student reactions, community reactions, and feelings and concerns and hurt about Israel and Gaza in the way that I feel like we did it better around the murder of George Floyd, bringing the faculty in with us, us being administrators, to sort of help, A, give our students that context, B, give our students, you know, the opportunity to test their beliefs and assumptions to challenge the beliefs and assumptions of others in civil, productive ways. And if we are building this culture where we are asking our students to engage with big world issues, then why aren’t we tapping our faculty to sit down with them and say, this is exactly what we’re trying to teach you? Let’s work through it in real-time. And here are the guidelines, here are the parameters, and here’s how we’re going to do this.

And I think it’s such a miss for our entire industry.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I have real thoughts about why this is, and it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, is that as much as we tell our students, please behave in ways that are convenient for me, the reason we’re not asking faculty to participate is we aren’t sure if they are going to behave in ways that would be inconvenient, right?

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, yeah, we don’t trust them. Yep.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

We don’t trust them. And I think I’m always a big fan of shared governance, and this is a perfect opportunity to say if institutions truly had working shared governance models, then we would be participating and encouraging and collaborating with our faculty in different ways. I think that people are worried about a loss of control and they are worried about the unknown, so they just bypass them.

Erin Hennessy:

Mm-hmm. And it’s such a missed opportunity.

Teresa Valerio Parrot: 

Such a missed opportunity.

Kevin Tyler:

I agree, totally agree. Teresa, the point you made, I think a little bit ago, has me thinking about a project I was on several years ago, or at least I consulted on, where a well-known university was trying to figure out how to communicate their DEIB, kind of philosophy or perspective.

And the original idea was to send information, well-designed, well-written information, to just the minority students. And I understand why that would be your idea. However, everyone benefits from understanding the philosophies and perspectives around DEI at any institution, but especially at this one. And I think that it goes to this idea that only people who look a certain way care about the things that those people care about, right? Black people only care about, you know, Black people stuff, right? So let’s get a little piece that says, you know, we support you and the Black stuff that you do whatever it is but if everyone if everyone hears that then everyone is on the same page we are starting from the same place. We’ve all made an agreement, a cultural agreement that we care and we’ll make space for all of the kinds of different lived experiences on this campus. And that word “convenient,” I think that you have mentioned a couple of times in this conversation, I think is one of the things that kind of guides higher ed marketing. It’s convenient if we just take what we did last year and just plop it into 2023’s template and then ship it out. Or if we just use the information that we have about Gen Z that says they all care about this thing. Let’s do it like that. Let’s just do these things. It becomes an effort of convenience. And I will say on your podcast, the same way I say on my podcast, what got us to where we are today is not going to be what gets us to where we need to be next. It will take more work and someone has to start doing that work.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yes. So going back to that Ed Trust report, they define campus racial climate as current attitudes, behaviors, and practices of faculty and students – they missed staff in there – at a higher education institution towards students based on their race and ethnicity. So if you just communicate with those students, and I was one of those students, right, you’re not looking at the campus racial climate. You are instead talking to a subset. And in order to map to that culture and to have people be included, there has to be a bridge and that doesn’t include a bridge. It’s a this group and a that group and there needs to be a bridge.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, we’ll put a pin in the fact that thinking that DEIB is only about students of color. 

Kevin Tyler:

Right. Could you imagine living in a world like that?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yeah…

Erin Hennessy:

That it’s just, yeah, like never mind disability, never mind LGBTQIA status, never mind gender, never, like, okay. It’s about tactics and not about the larger strategy and not about the larger culture.

Kevin Tyler:

It’s short-sighted. Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like a very short-sighted, very transactional kind of effort. It feels just like tell me the top line on, you know, non-binary people and I’ll just use that in a piece. Okay, well, we’re not doing that anymore. 

Erin Hennessy:

To talk only to them. To say to them, here’s how you can make this experience better for you or something. I don’t…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Here is how you can persist so that we can count your numbers in the ways that we value.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, here’s how, let me get more cynical. Here’s how we can check the box to say that we’ve done something to support you by sending you this pamphlet. Don’t you feel good?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Because our accreditor wants us to do so.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah. Mmm, pamphlets. I love the warm embrace of pamphlets. Mmm. 

Kevin Tyler:

Hmm, that tri-fold. There’s nothing…a tri-fold is just…

Erin Hennessy:

Oh, give me four-color and a tri-fold. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

That’s expensive, y’all. Most people don’t go that far.

Erin Hennessy:

Stop it. Well, and I think that’s, that’s the sort of underwritten – Kevin, going back to, you know, what worked in 2022, just drop it in and do it all over again, is a lot of these institutions are being asked to perform miracles with the exact same amount of money they had in 2022 as well. And so, not that I think you were imputing intentions on these folks, but we’re asking a lot for our folks to do on what’s a very limited marketing budget, although our colleagues across the campus are profoundly resentful of what they perceive as us getting all the resources.

But it’s, it’s really hard to your point earlier point, Kevin, to sort of stop and say, there isn’t going to be this, you know, sort of start line that we cross. We are just going to start doing this work now and continue to do this work. And we’re going to do it with the same amount of resources. And I haven’t been allowed to backfill that position of somebody who left and, and, and…

It starts to feel like a Herculean task. And I can understand why people elect to say, I just got to focus on my tactics and bring in the class because, otherwise, my butt’s on the line.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s a very fair reality check. Very fair. And I think you’re totally, yes, I agree with you 100% that the budgets do not align with what is expected of the function ever. You know, at AMA, one of the final keynotes, there was a point that has just stuck with me ever since, ever since I heard it. And it was about the idea that this idea of the funnel is going to change significantly. The sooner we stop thinking about the funnel, the more we can see some other ideas and whether it may be inspired by other approaches to this. And one young woman, I think it was Kathryn Bezella from Penn, she said – who I’m a huge fan of – she said that it’s gonna be less of a funnel and more like a horizon. And we will have to plant flags or things in the horizon line that we think will help people, will help attract people to who we are as institutions. I thought that was such a fine way of saying it because the idea of the funnel requires there to be this like blanket approach. We’re going to mail to a million people and if we get like 0.2 response then that’s great. Well, if we change the way we measure it, maybe to change the format of it, we can change the way we measure it as well. The more intentional and more specific and more familiarly we can communicate about institution, we might get even bigger gains because people are like, Oh my God, they see me. They knew all the stuff about me that might require some changes in the way we ask questions on an application. It might change, you know, what the yield situation looks like. There’s so many different parts of the experience that we might be able to augment to get to more of this culturally specific kind of marketing practice or experiment. So that it doesn’t mean we have to like jack up budgets and all this other stuff. I mean, there’s always going to be a price tag on any sort of change, especially in an antiquated kind of structure like higher ed, but, um, and there’s risks.

Erin Hennessy:

And there’s risk. There’s risk for the VP to sit at the cabinet table and say, particularly for the tuition-dependent institution, I’m gonna mess with the formula this year. And I don’t know what the results are gonna be.

Kevin Tyler:

Yeah, but if we’re all-in about learning more and doing things, I mean, risk is going to be a part of that equation, I think.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, I hear you.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And I think the only way we can really start to move the needle, this goes to the first keynote that we had at AMA, Tia McNair, hello Tia, is that we measure what we value. And so if we aren’t creating the measurements and if we aren’t looking for the ways to focus on culture and those that we want to be a part of our community, we aren’t going to be able to get the kind of outcomes that we want.

Kevin Tyler: 

I mean, it feels like it just feels like a turning point for the industry that we start to have these other kinds of conversations that we – having the same conversations with new people entering the space all the time means that we are going to promote and continue what has already been proven to be somewhat broken. These conversations are going to be really important. The cultural component is going to be really important.

And I’m really excited to see how this conversation kind of progresses across the space.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Agreed.

Erin Hennessy:

In my mind, the culture should not be changing so in a way that gives people whiplash. It should be an evolution. I don’t think you can show up and impose a culture and be like, and now we are X. It has to be built and it has to ideally have buy-in and so your faculty should be coming along with you and it shouldn’t be today we’re Nike and tomorrow we’re Apple. Like, it shouldn’t be this huge swing.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I think it’s like strategy, right? Both culture and strategy should not have huge pendulum swings, but instead, you refine based on the moment and what the moment needs and the feedback that you’re receiving and where you’re making progress and where you’re not, but instead we just apply a one-size-fits-all approach to it.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, and there may be a place that you want to get to, but if you’re a smart leader, you realize it is 10 years down the road. And here are the milestones we need to move this culture through to get it to the place.

On that note, I think I’ll bring us to a close. As Teresa mentioned, there are a lot of links that we will share in the show notes, as well as a link to where you can buy Dr. Collins’s book at the independent bookstore of your choice or the big box store of your choice. This I think, was a really important conversation. I’m really glad the three of us got to have it together. And I just wish we could have blocked another hour or two to work through some more of these questions. But Kevin, if you’ll come back, I think we can dive into this again in the future.

Kevin Tyler: 

Oh, anytime, anytime. I love being here with you all. Thanks for the invitation. I look forward to our next conversation.

Erin Hennessy:

Thank you so much, Kevin. And to our listeners, we are so grateful that you are continuing to listen to these conversations and we hope you’re engaging meaningfully with these issues in your community and at your institution. As we come to the end of the fall semester and the end of the calendar year 2023, we hope that ahead of you is some real restful and restorative time with your family and friends. And we hope to have you back here early next year 2024 as we continue these conversations. 

On behalf of Teresa and myself, as well as Kevin Tyler, we thank you for listening. We thank the Volt team and DJ Hauschild for their support through this project, and we look forward to speaking with you soon. Thank you so much.

Kevin Tyler:

Thank you. 

 

Trusted Voices

Trusted Voices

Podcast

Trusted Voices explores the complex intersection of leadership and communication in higher education. Each episode, hosts Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy chat with university presidents, industry thought leaders — and each other — about the latest news in the industry and the challenges and opportunities facing those in the most visible roles in higher ed.


Newsletter Sign up!

Stay current in digital strategy, brand amplification, design thinking and more.

Also in Podcasts

Graphic design showing a black-orange background next to a picture of a woman with dark skin, brown hair, and a black-colored suit jacket with a yellow scarf; the word Trusted Voices appears on the background; beneath that is the name 'Valerie Seares Ashby.'

Valerie Sheares Ashby on Mentorship, Team Building and Measures of Success

President Valerie Sheares Ashby of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County discusses mentorship, team building and measures of success.

By: Trusted Voices
Jenny Li Fowler, MIT's director of social media strategy, is a woman with black hair wearing a black blazer and blue shirt.

It’s Time to Treat Social Media as an Adult – Jenny Li Fowler

Kevin Tyler welcomes MIT’s director of social media strategy to discuss her new book and social media’s impact on higher education marketing.

By: Higher Voltage
A graphic design with the title 'Trusted Voices' and the words 'with hosts Teresa Valerio Parrot, Erin Hennessy,' and showing the pictures of two women, both with light skin and light brown hair, one of whom is wearing glasses. All of this is set against a black background that gets orangeish around the images of the two women.

AI Unveiled: Are We at the Peak or the Plateau?

Erin and Teresa dive into AI and its profound impact on higher education, underscoring the need for thoughtful adoption and careful review of policies and use.

By: Trusted Voices
Graphic design showing a man in a shirt and tie holding his hand over his mouth as he stands behind a podium with the stars of the American flag behind him.

The Myth of Political Neutrality

As higher ed becomes increasingly politicized, can college and university presidents afford to remain silent?

By: Higher Voltage
A graphic design with the title 'Trusted Voices' and the words 'with hosts Teresa Valerio Parrot, Erin Hennessy,' and showing the pictures of two women, both with light skin and light brown hair, one of whom is wearing glasses. All of this is set against a black background that gets orangeish around the images of the two women.

Takeaways From Our Conversation with Valerie Sheares Ashby

Teresa and Erin discuss how mentorship and making people feel heard are keys to effective and genuine leadership.

By: Trusted Voices
Paul LeBlanc, president of SNHU, is a light-skinned man with white hair and beard, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and blue striped tie.

CBE Prepares Students for an AI-Driven Future – Paul LeBlanc

Erin and Teresa welcome SNHU President Paul LeBlanc to discuss AI, competency-based education and preparing students for a changing workscape.

By: Trusted Voices