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Open letter to Father Jenkins: Burnishing the public image

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 8, 2005

The first installment of this letter traced the connection between the tendency of some administrators to run Notre Dame like a business and certain problems faced by the university at the beginning of your presidency. Of particular concern are problems of image-making, of grade inflation and of misleading TCEs. This second installment focuses on problems of image-making specifically.

Like all institutions of higher learning, Notre Dame has a stake in maintaining a favorable public image. The power of a Notre Dame degree to open doors and to influence people depends upon the University’s reputation, as does its success in recruiting students and in raising funds. The degree is in sufficient demand to prompt the thought among administrators that Notre Dame is in the business of marketing an attractive commodity. To the extent that Notre Dame is run like a business, its fortune is determined by the kind of image it presents to the public at large, especially to prospective students and donors.

Some manifestations of Notre Dame’s image are relatively constant and not likely to change. Others are more fluid. Durable components include the Golden Dome, the Leprechaun and the Notre Dame logo. To these might be added episodes from its storied past that can be encapsulated in the form of a picture (the Four Horsemen) or sound bite (“win one for the Gipper”). As long as they remain unsullied, symbols like these are effective in generating good publicity.

More fluid are impressions of the University generated by its involvement in newsworthy current events. A recent example is the unfavorable publicity caused by the firing of Coach Willingham, which was countered by a PR effort focused on the success of replacement Coach Weis in the last Super Bowl. Special bailiwicks like the Athletic Department have their own publicity offices. Image-management for the University at large, however, is handled mostly by the News and Information Office. Some publicity work is also farmed out to dedicated organizations like Golden Dome Productions, which have assisted in numerous capital campaigns and other PR ventures.

There is no doubt that the task of maintaining a positive public image should be managed in a professional manner. The question of present concern is what kind of image Notre Dame should be trying to project, and to what purpose. Is it in the University’s best interest to construct an image tailored expressly to elicit desired responses from specific audiences, like that of a successful candidate in recent national elections? Or is the University better served by presenting itself to the world as it really is, like an old-style presidential candidate on the back of a campaign train?

Put otherwise, the question is whether the University’s publicity managers should concentrate on fabricating an image that will attract donors and potential students, or whether their efforts should be directed primarily toward making known the genuine worth of a Notre Dame education. While the implicit goal in both cases is to advance the interests of the University, the two approaches differ on how that goal is to be accomplished. The difference is analogous to that between trying to boost sales of a brand of cereal by gimmicks like fancy packaging and deceptive pricing, and trying to improve sales by enhancing the actual quality of the product. Although professional image-managers would be quick to embrace the latter as their “official” position (e.g., in mission statements), there are signs that the former may be emerging in practice as Notre Dame’s dominant publicity strategy.

Consider, for example, a recent web-posting (http://und.collegesports.com), which observed that “Notre Dame’s commitment to academic excellence, values, service and character development” places it among the nation’s top 25 institutions of higher learning. Evidence offered to that effect included Notre Dame’s being one of only nine schools in the nation that admit less that half their freshman applicants, its ranking consistently among the top 25 in the survey conducted annually by “U.S. News and World Report,” and its repeated high ranking among the nation’s “Most Wired College.”

Not mentioned in the web-posting was the fact that a dozen or so of the nation’s best institutions (including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford) refused to participate in the “Most Wired” competition because it included no evaluation of how well technology meets their educational needs. Also relevant is the fact that the “U.S. News” rankings have come under extensive criticism among educators for allowing institutions to fudge in reporting data and for measuring factors extraneous to genuine education. As far as admission rates are concerned, the fact that Notre Dame can be selective indicates that many students want to come here, but says nothing about whether they come for academically sound reasons.

Commitment to values like academic excellence and character development unquestionably is a good thing. Indeed, few self-respecting institutions of higher learning would want to gainsay it. But success in meeting such a commitment cannot be measured by numerical rankings among like-minded universities.

Nor can it be measured by statistics internal to a particular university. Notre Dame takes pride in the increasing SAT scores of its entering students (up an average of about .01 a year). It also tracks the graduation rates of these students once they matriculate (currently about 93%), their average cumulative GPAs at graduation (currently over 3.4 and rising), and the percentage of Bachelor Degrees received with Honors (more than doubled in the past 20 years). But there is no attempt to evaluate these figures in light of the well-known facts that high schools are increasingly intent on coaching their college-bound students to do well on the SATs, that institutions can adjust their graduation requirements to let through almost any percentage they please, and that grade inflation is rampant among even the best colleges and universities.

As informed observers have stressed time and again, the genuine quality of education cannot be measured in quantitative terms. This limitation would be beside the point if the purpose of an educational institution were conceived mainly as a commercial venture. In point of fact, the success of a commercial enterprise is gauged by the number of potential customers it attracts and the percentage that end up buying the product. But if ND’s primary purpose is to provide a high quality education, and not merely to market a product, its success cannot be measured by a set of statistics.

In the months to come, Notre Dame’s new administration will be examining its priorities regarding the academic mission of the University. It is not unreasonable to hope that top priority will be given to providing the best education possible, as distinct from the most efficient marketing of a Notre Dame degree. If a commitment is made to the goal of a top quality education, however, a number of practical ramifications will follow in its train. These need to be considered as part of the self-examination process.

One ramification is that primary responsibility for maintaining Notre Dame’s public image will no longer rest with the News and Information Office and similar PR operations. Their services will still be needed in overseeing news releases, and in providing advice on how the way University conducts its business will be perceived by the general public. The persons primarily in charge of the University’s image, nonetheless, will be its top academic officers. Their main task in this regard will be to make sure that what really happens at Notre Dame is worthy of being made known to the public at large. The upshot will be that Notre Dame will have the reputation it deserves, rather than one constructed by professional image-makers.

Another consequence is that the top academic officers must become thoroughly acquainted with what is actually going on in the classrooms, the laboratories, the dormitories and the various social venues where intellectual and character formation of individual students is taking place. A sizeable number of veteran professors share the impression that the intellectual formation of Notre Dame students has deteriorated significantly over the past twenty years. The shared view is that there has been a distinct diminution in intellectual curiosity, in ability to think critically, and in skills of speaking and writing coherently. More students are getting higher grades for less effort expended on their studies, and too many are receiving credit for classes they seldom attend. The new administration should make a sustained effort to find out whether impressions such as these have an objective basis, and if so what corrective actions would be effective.

As far as character and personal values are concerned, current student mores seem to support binge drinking, four-day weekends and cheating on exams if you can get by with it. In a typical daily routine, too much time seems to be spent keeping up with pop culture and too little in developing habits of discernment and recreation (often called “good taste”) that will provide nourishment and staying-power in later life. Among religiously active students, in turn, there appears to be more emphasis on judging the desert of other people than on charitable practices that would inspire others to share their faith. If misgivings of this sort turn out to be well founded, the University might want to rethink the manner and extent of its involvement in student culture.

These are only a few suggestions of possible shortcomings your new administration might want to look into as it takes charge of the University’s public image. If correction is needed, it should be undertaken with the goal of making the education Notre Dame provides so attractive that it needs no further embellishment. The public image that results would attract both students and donors with a genuine interest in education. This is quite different from an image calculated to attract potential consumers and to enhance the commercial value of a Notre Dame degree.

Kenneth Sayre is a professor of philosophy. This column is the second in a four-part series addressed to new University President Father John Jenkins. He can be contacted at ksayre@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.