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Carol Folt: All Is PR

(My apologies for not reporting earlier on last week’s faculty meeting. Accessing the College’s recording of the proceeding was somewhat difficult. Funny enough, taping and photographing the meeting are formally forbidden to everyone in attendance, even though the administration makes a professional quality recording that it does not disseminate — unless you know where to look.)

IP Folt returned over and over at the faculty meeting last week to the need for Dartmouth to enhance its “global profile.” Though she spoke often about the huge strategic planning effort (“strategic planning retreats, 200 working group members, nine working groups; 3000 people participating in focus groups and forums,” etc.), she endlessly repeated her sense that the College must have a “global communications strategy” (mercifully never referred to as a GCS, though all of strategic planning’s other committees enjoy military-style acronyms). Publicity and the enhancement of Dartmouth’s reputation among the general public are seemingly vital to the College’s future, she thinks — though Folt noted that a record 23,000 students applied for the 1,100 slots in the coming freshman class. Some of IP Folt’s observations:

● “Our share of communications is low.”

● “In the strategic planning process, there is a whole committee dedicated to thinking about how Dartmouth can communicate about itself in a way that is more effective.”

● “You need to be very active and proactive to have a strong communications strategy.”

● “…as Dartmouth takes this year to develop a truly global information strategy. This is a big part of strategic planning. But even this year, they [Spokesman Justin Anderson’s dedicated communications team] even more than doubled the hits coming to Dartmouth in a single year. They’ve increased reporting about research…”

● “The media we are getting is positive. The majority of it is positive.”

● “Our Facebook fans grew by about 3,000, an increase of 31% in just one academic year.”

● “When Mike [Mastanduno] and Lindsay [Whaley] and I were over in China and Japan and Korea, and when I was in Kosovo, it was pretty surprising how little Dartmouth is known. You know, the President of Beijing Normal University took me aside and said, ‘you really have to do something about this.’”

● “When I was in Kosovo, and I said I was from Dartmouth College, they thought that I was the headmaster of a secondary school… You can explain this, but it’s not really just our name. It’s more about having people know what we do.”

● “We all know that we need a global communications strategy that can really help us have an influence.”

Let’s leave aside the question of how positive our press notices really have been over the past year. I need only note the national reporting on hazing at the College and on the Trustees’ penchant for investing the endowment’s money in their own hedge funds to give lie to IP Folt’s comments. They illustrate her tendency to describe the world only as she wants it to be.

More to the point, Jim Wright used to praise his administration (“This is a great time for Dartmouth”) and then lament that we just hadn’t gotten the word out, too. Such remarks were meant to bury the alumni revolt and student dissatisfaction with class oversubscriptions and the general direction of the College. But what is driving IP Folt here? After all, as far as our public reputation goes, the College still ranks #10 with U.S. News, we are perennially in first place or close to it for undergraduate teaching, and this year we we attracted over $200 million in research funding. Perhaps Folt is motivated by the parvenu sensibility of our MBA Trustees, who seek recognition for more than their ability to make a great deal of money? Or maybe the supposed need for the College to enhance its standing is a justification for increased research? After all, the reasoning must go, Harvard and Yale are better known than we are, and they do more research and focus less on their undergraduates.

At the end of the meeting, a professor asked a long-winded question that nonetheless got to the heart of the matter:

“A lot of what you say focuses on marketing, how we sell ourselves, how we brand ourselves, how we establish a space in a competitive marketplace, how we attract funding… and I think that another way to re-focus it [the discussion], to allay some of the unease here, is that in addition to the marketing problem, the real strength of this place, and what enables us to market what we have, is what we can do. What is our product? What do our students do when they get out of here? Regardless of whether they major in English or whether they major in Physics or Economics, or whether they go on to law school or med school or whatever, what kind of students are we producing?

It seems to me that maybe a way to allay some questions and uncertainty about that is if we can turn to a conversation about that. We teach pretty good students here, and they go on to do some pretty impressive things. And that may be the route. How would we enhance that by making connections to other places [other colleges and universities]? Rather than necessarily allying ourselves with other places, with perhaps the unintended implication of becoming more like these places, this might be a way to re-phrase the conversation.”

Allow me to paraphrase this question more directly: How are the changes contained in the strategic plan — like farming out our students to other schools, doing more research, emphasizing on-line learning, putting extra grad students in the classroom, and spending heavily on marketing — going to improve what we do best: teach undergraduates?

In his question, the courageous professor mentions twice how concerned the faculty is about these ill-considered changes and about IP Folt’s fixation on marketing to the detriment of the day-to-day life of the College. You should be concerned, too.

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