Is higher education selling out to marketers?

franklin0002.jpgIn the next few weeks, Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, the School of Journalism at Kent State moves to a fabulous new $20-million facility over by the Starbucks. It more than a shiny building. Its a great recruiting tool and venue for teaching and research that may even make our rivals in Athens jealous, at least until their next big gift from Scripps Howard kicks in.

Of course, we were kinda hoping a fat-cat media mogul would see Franklin Hall as a marketing opportunity. But, alas, no one has dropped $10 million in the kitty for naming rights to our J-School — at least not yet.

foxman.jpgHalf joking, I asked a prominent Ohio PR professional what he’d say if Rupert Murdoch offered us $10 mil to call it the “Fox News School of Journalism.” His response: “I’d say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Murdoch.'”

He wasn’t joking.

Offering “naming rights” in exchange for big contributions is hardly a new idea. But in past years, wealthy contributors were happy to have their family names attached to programs and buildings. You know them — Scripps, Medill, Mellon, Newhouse, Tuck… names that are understated, tasteful. It’s the way rich guys — even rich corporations — used to behave.

But in this age of “strategic philanthropy,” companies want their brands front and center. And who can blame them? It’s all about the sell, because the sell drives the bottom line. It’s a marketing machine.

Clearly, the etiquette of giving has changed. Many donors, especially the corporate ones, give their support to nonprofits that are favored by customers. Philanthropy is less about beneficence and more about currying favor with the marketplace. (For more, see my post from last October.)

logo.gifAn article posted to Inside Higher Education last week explores the issue of colleges selling out to business. While it’s clumsily written, the piece raises ethical questions too often overlooked in a world driven by ROI. The story reports on a proposal to rename Iowa’s College of Public Health for Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield. It seems the Blues has offered a $15-million donation in return for naming rights.

Programs, buildings, classrooms, even “schools” are routinely named for benefactors. But an entire college? It’s a bit too commercial for some at U of Iowa, who worry the partnership might compromise the institution, or worse, the research done within the institution. But $15 million is one helluva payday, no matter how big your endowment.

It was a comment from IHE reader Terry Calhoun that got me to thinking about another downside of the “corporate college.” What about those odd-sounding 182157.jpgsponsorships that turn universities into tacky billboards — the Office Depot Center for Excellence at Florida Atlantic, the FedX Global Education Center at UNC, or the crown jewel, Taco Bell Arena at Boise State?

Calhoun sees Boise as the king of corporate naming. But give the development and marketing folks in Southern Idaho some credit. They’re thinking outside the, ah… outside the bun.

U of Iowa Interim President Gary Fethke offers a reality check:

“My view of cooperative naming with businesses is, I am very comfortable with that,” he said. “I’m encouraged by this going forward. [The college] can’t function unless they’re willing to form partnerships with businesses that are important for the college. It’s an important relationship for both of us.”

If you’re a gambler, wager heavily on Blue Cross. Iowa will take this money. And it should.

Like Fethke, I’m a realist. The largesse of Fortune 500 magnates is a godsend to institutions like mine. The money helps create new and exciting opportunities for learning and research. But when corporate megabucks have overt or implied influence in the classroom or research lab, you have to safeguard your integrity. Question is, “How easily can academe be bought?”

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Update: Yikes! I lost the bet! This story didn’t show up on my news search earlier in the day. Clear the aisles, ’cause some heads are gonna roll!

IOWA CITY, Iowa, Jul 10, 2007 (The Daily Iowan, U-WIRE via COMTEX) — Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield has officially withdrawn its controversial $15 million gift offer to the UI College of Public Health that would have included naming rights to the school. See the rest here.

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I’m trying to imagine if we sold our J-School’s naming rights to Murdoch. Would our next class of reporters be more “fair and balanced” in a Foxy sort of way?

Or what if my friend Amanda Chapel were to fund the Strumpette Center for Public Relations. Would we ban discussion of two-way symmetrical PR? Would we stop teaching social media? Would we use the F-word in our news releases?

Aristotle reminds us that the solution to most moral dilemmas lies at the mean — a reasoned position between the two extremes. Reasonable people have little trouble arriving at that mean, and contrary to popular belief, most folks in higher education are reasonable people. (OK, that’s the first thing I’ve said here that’s open to serious debate!)

stater_1.jpgHat tip to the editorial staff at our award-winning Daily Kent Stater for calling my attention to the IHE story.

The paper’s editorial board takes a spirited stand against the “corporate college” idea. But they’re young. They’ll learn to compromise.

7 Responses to Is higher education selling out to marketers?

  1. Bill,

    I am writing to confirm that we are indeed launching the “Strumpette Center for Public Relations.” We will be fostering the sensible return of shareholder value, as well as the authoritative and meaningful communications that support it.

    Sincerely,

    Amanda Chapel
    Managing Editor
    Strumpette

  2. Matt Smith says:

    Bill,
    That’s looks like a great building. So, where’s your classroom/office going to be? Window for your office?

    -Matt

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Amanda. You won’t get any arguments from me on those points. Make the $2-million check out to… Well, just make it out to me. I’ll see that it gets to the right people.

    As to your question, Matt, my office almost made it in the rendering. It’s in the upper right, top floor, but about 4 windows out of the picture. It’s on a corner overlooking the green. I’m getting a sleeper couch and moving in. It’s also a great spot to hunt squirrels, but they told me I can’t do that.

  4. Matt Smith says:

    That’s impressive. Was it the corner office you’d dreamed of since beginning your life in academia?

    A sleeper couch, eh? I’ve thought about doing that myself. I’m right in the middle of Pioneer Square, here in Seattle. It’s really cool down here.

    I’m going to be up in your neck of the woods again, in the middle of August. On the 18th, to be exact. I have to pick up my g/f and drive her to Seattle…gonna be livin’ in sin.

    Have a good weekend!

    -Matt

  5. Bill Huey says:

    “Fox News School of Journalism” sounds like an oxymoron married to a misnomer.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Yep. And it leads to a dysfunctional family.

  7. Stacy Wessels says:

    I’m afraid I won’t be able to offer future financial or professional support to PRKent if it’s housed in the Fox News School of Journalism. Not that you’ll miss the pennies… It’s purely on principle.

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