maybe the ‘dirty word’ of academia isn’t dirty after all?

At my first meeting of Provost’s Council a few weeks ago, I used what I’d always been told was a “dirty word” in academia. And the reaction was the opposite of what I expected.

In describing a feature of our new website to a room of deans and other academic officers, I said, “At the risk of using the ‘dirty M word,’ we hope this results in better marketing of our academic offerings.” I braced for a backlash, weeping, gnashing of teeth. None came. Quite the contrary.

“Finally!” one said, raising his hands for emphasis. “Hallelujah!” added another. While so-called “experts” tell us “academics” consider “‘marketing’ a dirty word,” here was a room full of people waiting, hoping, praying someone would acknowledge a greater need to market, promote or otherwise publicize all things academic.

If you’ve attended a higher education conference, you likely seen the following: A speaker uses the word “marketing” and then smugly says, “Of course, that’s considered a dirty word in academia.” The crowd then chortles along knowingly. Or not so knowingly. I’ve been among them. And I’ve been wrong. Maybe we all have.

Having worked in higher ed for nine years, I know this much: Almost everyone here welcomes and strives for greater publicity, promotion or marketing of what they do. They want to attract great students, want to retain those students, want to recruit and keep outstanding faculty, want to receive grant money, want to (individually or collectively) gain prestige. So why — other than our own preconceived notions and often-faulty conventional wisdom — would we expect them to be averse to the term “marketing” or any attempt to help them attain their goals?

The bigger problem is that once we start to see others as preconceived groups — academics or Briggs-Myers categories, generational stereotypes or ethnic types — we stop seeing them as people. Making assumptions on anyone — an all-too common practice, even in higher education — is just wrong. Maybe stereotype should be the real dirty word of the conversation.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “maybe the ‘dirty word’ of academia isn’t dirty after all?

  1. I like this post… just find it upsetting that you stereotype higher ed conference crowds.

  2. Elizabeth

    I’ve been in those crowds, too. It does happen.

  3. I agree… the tables seem to be turning. That’s not to say there wasn’t a time when marketing was a dirty word. But that was also at a time when higher ed marketing was a dirty practice. I think academics had a real problem with “marketers” who were filling brochures and websites with a bunch of made-up fluff– oftentimes really stretching the truth. Nobody really seemed to get it and prospective students didn’t care much for it either.

    When marketing turns to sharing the stories of the good work happening in their classrooms and labs, faculty gladly oblige.

    Because the pace of change in higher ed is so slow sometimes, we forget that people change, too. This was a good reminder of that. Thanks!

  4. Tim, Good post, although I was guessing the dirty word was branding, not marketing. I don’t go to enough of those higher ed conferences. :)

  5. Maybe if we talked more about “marketing,” all our schools would no longer be the “best-kept secret” in “higher education.” (Gotta say I “loved” the use of “quotes” in “paragraph” “three.” I “thought” I was “watching” an old “SNL skit” with “Chris Farley.”)

    P.S. – Like Joe, I don’t get out much to conferences these days. These days, the dirty words on our campus are “non-essential expenses.”

  6. Tim Nekritz

    TODD: Ha! Touche’!

    ELIZABETH: Maybe I’ll speak up and rebut the next time this happens at a conference. That would be interesting …

    J. TODD: Good point. Just like with sibling industry public relations, too many people identify it with all the poorly done stuff. I think all kinds of communication have come a long way. Like you said, storytelling is a compelling way of doing it.

    JOE: Thanks, but sorry to hear about your conference drought! Maybe you and Andrew can share a ride to a good conference soon?

    ANDREW: Ah, “best-kept secret.” If I had a dollar for every time that line was (mis)used, I could buy your way (and Joe’s way!) into a conference! And I think Chris Farley has had an unquestionable impact on all air-quote visualization.

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