Planning, branding, vision, values — how academia tries to impress with a corporate dress
I love flying Delta. When I moved from Germany to Minneapolis several years ago Lufthansa was no longer an option. It turned out that leaving behind the barebones, Teutonic version of customer service was a blessing and I never looked back. The other day, however, I found myself staring with disbelief at Delta’s corporate values when browsing the company’s website. There they were, the usual suspects — honesty, integrity, and respect — along with explanations seemingly targeted at preschoolers: Always tell the truth and don’t hurt anyone. Did that mean that Delta was run by a bunch of toddlers? No, I am told by my daughter who works in public relations, emphasizing basic virtues like honesty helps build consumer trust in the age of fake news.
Which brings me to the deplorable efforts of today’s universities to build trust with the public by casting themselves as corporations that have a plan, a strategic plan that is. I wonder if the public is aware of the endless hours faculty must spend in committees to come up with vision, mission, value (VMV) statements when this time could instead be used for doing research, which, ironically, is supposed to be objective and value-free. At least according to philosopher and sociologist Max Weber, who was adamant about keeping the realms of “is” and “ought” apart and once upon a time had a bigger following in America than in Europe.
Neutrality and objectivity don’t seem to be in fashion anymore. At a recent National Association of International Educators (NAFSA) conference, I learned that “empathy training” rather than “language learning” is what gets you prepared for study abroad these days, and yes, you can measure it — there is a standardized test for that, but I doubt that Max Weber would have called it “objective.”
The other thing I learned from my daughter about building consumer trust is that you have to under-promise and over-deliver. Academic institutions do the opposite. They promise the moon knowing they can’t deliver it. Usually towards the end of VMV statements, you’ll find a list of all those positive research impacts that will be showered upon humankind by the university, department, or program depending on whose website you have landed on. Of course, every unit, no matter how small, has to have its very own VMV statement. Some are dripping so heavily with righteousness that they sound more like church catechisms.
And then there is the catchy tagline that tries to sum up the entire institution in a few words. Compared to slogans like “Think Big. We Do” (University of Rhode Island), “Big Thinking, Small Planet” (Concordia University, Montreal), or “The Entrepreneurial University” (Technische Universität München), the University of Minnesota’s motto “Driven to Discover” sounds refreshingly academic, even modest. Oddly, though, a “Driven” fundraising campaign, which was highly publicized not too long ago, put individual faculty members in front of a microphone and had them solemnly pledge what they would discover and do for humankind. With the camera filming from below, the speaker gazing into the sky, the choir music and Greek columns in the backdrop, the whole affair looked more like a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda movie to me than a scene from a college campus.
But aside from invoking dark memories, the bigger problem with these kinds of ads and promises is that they are not honest (despite the fact that “integrity” and “honesty” are clear front-runners in VMV statements). Where is the university president who has the guts to tell the public that we don’t know where our research takes us or when and how society will benefit from it? The only thing we know for a fact is that curiosity-driven, fundamental research has been responsible for the greatest innovations in human history, not five-year plans. This is what our messaging should be, not tacky, pseudo-corporate slogans. And oh, if you still want to keep your VMV statement how about making “humility” the highest-ranking value?
Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is email@example.com and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.
An earlier version of this article was posted on Academe Blog.