Who Are You, And Who Knows?

On a recent visit to a top research university (ok, it was Caltech), I was struck with how much the institution’s mission was reflected in everything that I experienced there.

Why was a building being renovated? To provide more space to facilitate active learning among the students. Why were academic departments located next to each other with shared space? To encourage interdisciplinary research. Even the trinkets in the bookstore send the message that the connection between research and education is essential to whom they are (I picked up an awesome model of the Mars rover “Curiosity”” made by Hot Wheels there).

Institutional identity drives the kinds of students who apply for admissions, the types of faculty who apply for jobs, which organizations are interested in contributing funding for research, and the benefactors that donate to support that mission. The faculty, students and administrators at this school know their institutional identity and live it on a daily basis.

In a time when colleges and universities are experiencing declining enrollment and financial difficulties, institutions that understand and promote their identity are the ones that stand out among the pack. They attract applications and donations. And yet, despite being so important, most college and university presidents think that their institutional identity is not very well understood by the very people they need to understand it.

In a recently released survey, Gallup and Inside Higher Ed presented college presidents with a list of 12 constituent groups and asked how well they thought the groups understood institutional identity at that president’s college. The results show that most college presidents don’t think any group really understands this crucial element very well. In fact, of the 12, there was only 1 group that more than half of the college presidents believe know the institution’s identity extremely well: administrators. Although barely above half, at 51%, administrators are seen by more presidents as understanding institutional identity extremely well more so than their own trustees (43%), tenured faculty (28%), alumni (26%) and current students (21%). Prospective students, who when they translate into matriculants inject life into an institution both with their presence and their tuition dollars, are rated extremely low, with only 3% of college presidents thinking they understand institutional identity extremely well.

Clearly there is a huge wasted potential here in that many constituents are not perceived to have a very good understanding of what these colleges stand for.  As competition for new students and new sources of funding increases, what attracts people to your institution if they do not know what is special about it? Are you an institution that prides itself on a liberal arts orientation that also focuses the importance of civic engagement? Do you have the attention to student learning like a small college but with the resources of a research university? Or are you pretty much just like the college across town, except they are known for an emphasis on applied learning through college-sponsored internships? If, as a college president, trustee, faculty member or alumnus you are not sure who you are and what you stand for, how will anyone else?  And if nobody does know what you are passionate about, and what distinguishes you from all the other post-secondary institutions in the United States, then what are your chances of existing in the next decade?