Higher Ed Reform, The Saga Continues

Inside Higher Ed (www.insidehighered.com) today was good enough to share the list of the 200 or so individuals who will all be attending Secretary Spellings’ Higher Education Summit.  (http://insidehighered.com/news/2007/03/20/summit)  The initial grumbling, at least that that Inside Higher Ed is hearing, is that faculty members and faculty unions are not represented.  No shock there, faculty often grumble if there is a party and their invite is lost in the mail.

What disappoints me is the absence of communicators on the expected attendee list.  Yes, the government relations/lobbying side of higher education is represented, as it should be.  But if the reforms proposed by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education are to be effectively implemented (and implemented in a timeframe that may affect those students today in high school, or junior high school) there should be some full-time, proven-effective communicators around the table (or at least in the seats behind the table).

There are some great minds that will be sitting around the table with Secretary Spellings.  Individuals who have successfully taken on reform initiatives and have made a lasting difference in the quality and impact of their institutions or organizations.  And each and every one of them can tell you that effective communications played an important role in that success.

Undoubtedly, many attendees will take the content of the summit back home with them, relaying it to their communications staffers and identifying ways to do what they can to move recommendations and reforms forward.  But successful communications requires giving PR a seat at the table, not a summary after the fact.

I assume my invite to the summit was also lost in the mail, but here are my reccs:

* Focus on the ultimate impact — Who are these reforms designed to help?  How will they see that help?  When will they see it?  How can we put a face on higher education reform?  Discussion must move beyond structural and procedural changes and focus on the impact it will have on our communities.

* Define “what’s in it for me” — IHE presidents will be seen as true leaders.  The business community will gain the pipeline of qualified workers they seek.  Community leaders will have community members coming back to improve their neighborhoods.  Parents will see their children do better than they have.  Students will achieve their dreams.  Every stakeholder in the process has a role.  We’ll ask all to do something different.  Let’s demonstrate the result of that change in behavior.  If we want stakeholders to help implement change, we need to show the benefits to them and their core constituency

* There is no “one size fits all” — There is no simple way to trigger reform across all corners of higher education.  While our ultimate goal may be singular, each audience needs to hear it a different way and be asked to do a specific thing.  Don’t try to speak in a universal voice.  Speak to administrators as administrators.  Faculty as faculty.  Students as students.  Business as business.  It demonstrates respect and understanding for the audience, and gets us to the goal faster.

* Build a big tent — Today’s faculty grumbling should tell us something.  Not only do we need to define roles, we need to build an effort that offers everyone an opportunity to participate in reform.  Many audiences may choose not to join in.  They may oppose the recommendations, lack support among their own constituencies, or just not want to commit the time and effort to the cause.  Give them access to the party now, and it is harder for them to oppose the end result later. 

The cause is noble.  The recommendations are actionable.  The major players are at the table.  Now is the time to unleash the communications dogs and let them soften the ground for meaningful higher ed reform.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s