(Over)Promoting Middlebury?

Fall Family Weekend just passed and from all accounts was a huge success: the weather was terrific, foliage spectacular, many excellent events for families to enjoy together, and success on the playing fields (even the lone defeat, a 38-31 loss in football to undefeated Amherst, was exciting and allowed the huge crowd to enjoy all that the Vermont fall has to offer).  Above all, there was great spirit palpable on campus.

In my several meetings with parents, including my address and discussion with them on Saturday morning, the issue of “getting the word out” about Middlebury came up, if not during the session, then afterwards when parents sought me out throughout the day.  Many seem concerned about how “too many around the country do not know all of the great things that Middlebury is doing, what wonderful programs we have, and why it is important we do much better on this front.”  “Middlebury,” I was told, has a distinctive “brand” among its liberal arts college peers, “and needs to get the message out.”

I listened and strongly agreed with much of what I heard, but also chuckled, because the perspectives of parents and alumni (including recent graduates) on the one hand, and current students on the other, are quite different.  I often hear from current students that the College in general, and I in particular, are forever “selling/promoting” Middlebury—trying to “brand” it, as if their education and institution were a “product.”  Many students are uncomfortable with the promotion of Middlebury, and believe it is unnecessary to spend all this time “pushing the brand.”

I am sensitive to this observation, yet those who are sensitive to this idea of “selling” the College will come to appreciate the benefits of their alma mater being better known soon after they graduate.  I recognized this during one of my first trips as the College’s president in 2005, at a reception in the Presidio in San Francisco.  There was a great turnout for the gathering and after my presentation I was surrounded by many recent alums—alums who had graduated within the previous five years.  All told of how “unknown” Middlebury was out west, at least in the Bay Area, and they wanted to let me know how these reputational factors hampered their job searches and other forms of important networking.  I heard later that year the same message in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago (and then London, Atlanta, and Denver).  In short, young alums were frustrated that Middlebury was not better known.

Being better known is not only about networking and jobs, although having a strong alumni, parent, and friends network helps a lot in that important area.  It also helps to feed the pipeline of the very best students to ensure Middlebury’s excellence into the future.  Excellent students attract excellent faculty which, in turn, leads to new and exciting educational opportunities in the classroom, laboratories, on the playing fields, and outside the classroom in general.  This kind of success leads to financial support from foundations and donors, plus non-monetary support (help in admissions, career services, etc.), which increases opportunities for current and future students.

I am curious to hear more about the pros and cons of promoting or marketing the College, especially when the result is to enhance educational opportunities for students and career possibilities for alumni.  Is there a better way to make the public more aware of all the good the College is doing, whether in the classroom, on the athletics fields, or through our environmental, international, and other initiatives?  I am interested in hearing more about the tensions surrounding this issue.

10 comments

my 2 cents (and probably worth just about that much) –

I have always been a fan of what I like to call a “zero-based marketing budget” – which means using public relations (e.g. articles, profiles, etc) as a means to building awareness without seeming to be overly promotional. We used to joke in our business that our pr consisted of talking to reporters once in a while and hoping that they said a few nice words….(we were a bit more structured than that, had a pr agency on retainer – but nobody knew that).

My guess is you got more mileage out of the TIME magazine profile (I think it was TIME?) than most of other venues.

Short conclusion – a zen like approach may work – market without making it obvious that marketing is exactly what you are doing….

Regards…Keith T.

I once asked my father, an attorney, why his firm did not advertise on TV as other lawyers did. His response? Never hire a lawyer who advertises. While I see his point and I think it in principle applies to colleges and universities, it should be said that his firm now buys small ad space in certain environments, particularly non-profit publications. The world is changing.

I am sympathetic to students’ concerns around over-promotion — I think branding often represents reducing oneself to the lowest common denominator and selling out — but my guess is that we as an institution have a long way to go before we get there. Many Eastern schools are not widely known on the West Coast, including my alma mater, Brown. Indeed, my guess is that outside of a “Big 4″ — Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford — the only schools with truly national name recognition are state universities and major sports schools (e.g., Duke, USC).

For better or worse, name recognition and reputation help in the job market — when meeting with HR people who *had* heard of Brown, I often still had to counter its reputation as the “easy Ivy.” The more we can do to bolster the name recognition of Middlebury, the stronger the institutional “letter of recommendation” we will be giving our students.

At the same time, I am personally uneasy about the never-ending quest for the “very best students.” It’s not that we don’t want the strongest applicant pool and student body we can recruit or that Middlebury necessarily engages in the admissions arms race that has led many schools to boast of the percentage of valedictorians in their incoming classes, among other troubling metrics — I haven’t been at Midd long enough to have an opinion on that subject. I only mean to say that while I don’t see the institution as over-marketed now, that doesn’t mean it’s not something to keep in mind as we move forward.

I’m not an alum, but fully aware of the equity that a Middlebury diploma delivers as one of the finest educational institutions in the country. You own a distinctive posture. As an alum, would you really want to work for an employer that WASN’T aware of Middlebury? Great topic and timely for higher ed in general. All the best in your endeavors.

I like what the previous poster wrote about the distinctive posture.

Thanks for posing this question, President Liebowitz.
As a young alum, I have some questions: what portion of midd students go directly into grad school? If a majority of the students do so, then I think publicizing needs to take the backburner–most grad schools know about us (is that safe to say??). If, however, most get thrown into the proverbial lion’s den of a job market, then yes, Midd needs to get the word out, and quick. Unemployment is crazy!

Some other questions: do you think Midd generally lacks qualified candidates? I think that, for a small town in Freezing, VT, Midd does a phenomenal job of attracting the best of the best of professors, students, and staff. Anyone who does even a little research will become aware of Midd. So as far as improving educational opportunities goes, a healthy program of attraction rather than promotion makes more sense to me.

I personally heard of Midd from a family friend. So I think the best kind of publicity Midd can engage in is to continue doing what it’s been doing. The world will learn what and who we are from 1st degree testimonials like my own.

The comment above about the right kind of publicity (ie Time Magazine) is also great– a colleague told me Midd was on ESPN and I thought, “Quidditch?” It turns out he was talking about Butch’s story. Butch is all the publicity we need.

I am in Ghana, West Africa and I am aware of Middlebury. I am in the process of applying for fall 2011 admissions. Personally I am not averse to promoting the brand of a college at all as long as it is done in good taste. Promoting the school and the accomplishments of students and faculty would surely

attract more high achieving students and professors whose appetite for success has not been sated

I say, “Promote onward!” There is no such thing as too much favorable public relations outreach, on behalf of future grads, recent grads or very old grads — and on behalf of faculty and research. One never knows where a positive promotional seed might germinate. If the president (and we, as alums/parents) ever quit scattering seeds, the next crops will be weaker and weaker and will eventually wither away.

The president’s promotional message might seem overdone to those of us who hear it a lot or who are predisposed to notice it, but out in the real world many folks have never heard it before, so the Middlebury message bears repeating.

The thing I really resent is the combination of the following: what a superior student body Middlebury has compared to the mediocre clods we were; how the current leadership is trying to promote this newly wonderful and expensive institution by an email a day and a letterhead that looks like a Canadian athletic team’s ; what stupid decisions have been made by trustees who have allowed the location of the “Natatorium” and that group of prison barracks near the Chateau in exchange for dollars for what appears to be merely visionary global importance.

I am heartsick to read about the Hispanic student who cheated to gain admission to Middlebury, when I know of an incredible young (white) woman waitlisted who would bring so much to the school. How could this happen, and more importantly, is Diana able to do Middlebury work? How unfortunate for all, including Diana, if she cannot.

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.