Universities must get their public reputations in order

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This seems as good a time as ever to step back and consider influence and reputation in higher education. Post-Brexit and under the reign of Trump, where should universities collectively and individually best expend their energies to influence their own reputations, and on whose behalf?

This is one of the vital questions facing universities that Sue Wolstenholme and I will be looking to answer at the ‘Leading Reputations’ day workshop with Wonkhe on 7th December. How, for instance, can different models of stakeholder management help a university understand where the fulcrums and vectors of influence and interest lie? What are the consequences of recent events for strategic relationship management and for an institutions’ capacity to influence policy? How do the significant differences between institutions in terms of geographies, type, size, influencer networks and capacity to change impact their ability to influence (or not)?

Reputations, though complex, fractured and implicit, are often expressed in terms of students’ expectation, experience and satisfaction – the latter made even more prominent by a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Shaping expectations is vital and requires a clear and shared vision, which in turn needs visionary leadership and professional communication of that vision. There is a constitutive role for those managing reputation and relationships that is not necessarily understood in many institutions, particularly where support services might struggle for recognition from the academy. Questions like ‘what is our place in the world?’ have communication at their centre because they depend on the support of stakeholders, which requires relationship-building and trust.

These require behaviours that are consistent with an institution’s vision and values. To paraphrase Socrates: ‘it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters.’ In the context of higher education, this means understanding the consequences for reputation when institution deals with the TEF, REF, league tables, student engagement, freedom of speech, sexual harassment on campus and so much more.

More broadly we will consider how, in the wake of Brexit and the US election, universities can reconcile the need for collaboration – not least in defence of rational decision-making based on evidence – with the competitive realities of the modern higher education market. Given the financial challenges facing higher education, as set out in the recent HEFCE financial forecasts, this looks increasingly difficult. Universities, operating in a regulatory and funding framework that encourages competition and a market view, might find it hard to resist squabbling over a shrinking pie. The reputation of the sector is of course a factor in the size of that pie.

The session will also seek to help participants understand how to shape reputations while working with (rather than against) the grain of some of the cultural and structural nuances of higher education. We’ll consider the impact of the complex internal stakeholder relationships in a university – once brilliantly described to me as ‘little more than a series of fiefdoms connected by a central heating system’. Complexity can lead to inertia and a sluggishness to respond to public difficulties. Internal politics can be toxic to reputation if while a university is busy building internal consensus, the world and her dog have looked in its window, made a judgement, and moved on. Addressing this challenge involves professional communications planning. It also requires sufficient cohesion across a fragmented institution to ensure that the values that act as shorthand when an organisation is under pressure are accepted and acted out.

Institutional caution can also manifest itself in a reluctance to stand up and be counted on issues of public interest, which in turn may work against the longer-term interests of the institution. In the current political climate, as Tracy Playle elaborates, lukewarm no longer cuts it when it comes to the defence of the academy; “we really need to get our s**t together”.

On the subject of climates – it’s probably unwise to consider the reputation of higher education without reflecting on how to resuscitate the expert. We will be looking at the solutions to the challenges facing universities in research communications – as highlighted in Chalktsream’s 2014 research. This topic has also been usefully covered in recent articles by HEPI’s Nick Hillman, Kate Dommett of the University of Sheffield and Katherine Mathieson of the British Science Association. More specifically, we’ll be looking at how well (or otherwise) universities research their reputations.

Ultimately, reputation is all about relationships, and there are clear tensions inherent in the relationships universities are trying to establish with the wider world. How to maintain an international outlook while paying local or regional relationships due attention? How to pay due regard to teaching in a research-intensive environment? Where to build alliances when the premise of the institution appears under threat?

Sign up for Leading Reputations: Proactive relationship management in higher education. The workshop is ideal for senior leaders including Vice-Chancellors, Deputy- and Pro-Vice-Chancellors, Registrars, Deans, Heads of Department, Directors and other senior managers in universities. 

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