I’m the lucky beneficiary of a great education – Harvard undergraduate, Harvard Business School. My time in Cambridge expanded my mind and prepared me for a lifetime of critical thinking. When I came into the workplace in 1978, the world was a simpler place. I was at the vanguard of the Era of Normalcy — a prolonged economic boom with no wars, a recovered belief in institutions, a triumph of capitalism over communism, a bustling media scene, a nascent technology sector, and quiet on campus after the uproar of Vietnam and the civil rights movement.
That world has changed dramatically since 9/11 and the Great Recession. The mandate for all institutions has evolved — and that includes higher education. Therefore, our old way of working as communicators and marketers simply cannot succeed.
In this moment, what is necessary is a more ambitious role for higher education, to build authentic engagement with society, to reimagine your role, to have a greater impact on real world issues.
Like all institutions, universities are facing four revolutions that are fundamentally changing our landscape.
First, the precipitous decline in trust in established institutions, from the U.S. government to big business to mainstream media. For the past 16 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has been tracking trust in institutions. The election of Donald Trump was a profound rejection of the establishment. The long-cycle changes include government moving from the second to the last place among institutions, behind NGOs, business and media. The most trusted spokesperson is now “a person like yourself,” along with academics and technical experts, while the most popular source on social media is “friends and family,” twice as trusted as CEOs or government officials. The predominant axis of communications has moved from vertical to horizontal, from top-down toward peer-to-peer, with frequency and personal experience valued above all.
The second big change, in line with the erosion of trust, is the profound and growing divide between elites and the mass population. It is the end of the Grand Illusion. The U.S. is the poster child of the mass class divide, followed by the UK. The mass population no longer believe they can ascend to membership in the elites and that the elites are self-serving. They believe they have superior information to the elites based on peer input. The gap is most profound when segmented by the top 25 percent income level versus the bottom 25 percent income level, a 30-point difference. When segmented by education level and high media consumption, that gap is 25 points.
Third, there is fear of innovation. The confidence in a better future is eroded by a sense that innovation is moving too quickly, without consideration of job elimination through automation or loss of social benefits in a sharing economy. Technology represents not progress, but a threat. By a two-to-one margin, people are afraid of the pace of innovation and how it affects their privacy and data security. In the U.S., where the number-one job for white males without a college degree is truck driving, what are their employment prospects in a world of driverless vehicles?
Fourth, we see the implosion of the mainstream media. The number of reporters in daily newsrooms is now half of what it was in the year 2000, with more cuts to come given the deep declines in print advertising. Revenue from circulation now exceeds that of advertising for the first time. The local newspaper will likely cease its daily print run, focusing on the digital product. National papers are cutting back on foreign bureaus, shuttering non-core operations such as the Greater New York section of The Wall Street Journal, and opting for alternate business models such as native advertising which blur the line between editorial and paid media. The born digital media is booming, but with a very different mission of “news-tainment,” heavily reliant on video and short-form content with a large space for consumer-generated comment. Social channels such as Facebook become the town square, through which readers get their editorial content, going for specific stories referred by friends instead of browsing through content curated by the editors. Fake news has become an epidemic, while the election proved that candidates can go direct on Twitter.
These four factors are playing out on campus. Universities, from Harvard to Baylor to Stanford, are being rocked by accusations of misbehavior, especially sexual assault. Student demands to rename prominent buildings or schools based on a modern view of historical figures such as former President Woodrow Wilson or Vice President John C. Calhoun, are catalysts for protest. There is pressure on universities to divest their shareholdings in companies involved in specific industries as diverse as energy, firearms and prisons.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the university — an existential risk — is an erosion of belief in the value of higher education in its current form. This goes beyond “Is college too expensive?” to the question “Does the university have real-world impact?”
Public Agenda’s recent poll shows a stunning drop in the past six years of belief that college is essential, from 55 percent to 42 percent, with a majority (59 percent) saying that they believe colleges are self-interested and not focused on the student. And, according to a recent Edelman study of higher education, six-in-10 respondents believe that the role of the university must evolve, that academic excellence is not enough.
In the 1960s, at universities like Berkeley, when peaceful protests turned violent, university leaders of the time quickly discovered they needed to show they could adapt to changing times. Other presidents (such as Kingman Brewster at Yale during the antiwar protests) felt it was their responsibility to be a thought leader on the issues of the day, such as Vietnam and racial equality.
Since the mid-80s, in a quieter time, the universities and their presidents have receded from the fray because being a thought leader makes you a target. That is a shame. Four decades later, critical issues facing our society — like economic inequality, social justice and civil rights — demand that university presidents step back onto center stage.
In addition to social pressures surrounding universities, their structure is being forced to evolve, spurring a myriad of stakeholder engagement challenges. Universities want to invest in distance learning and online models. If a 400-person lecture is no longer the gold standard, then teachers will need to reformat the way they engage. No longer can state universities carry the costs of multiple campuses. Earlier this year, the University of Connecticut endured an emotional community debate around closing its Torrington branch campus, which could not sustain through low enrollment and budget cuts. State government investment in higher education has dropped precipitously.
What will the value of higher education be? It should be more than job training. It’s more than vocational school. The role of a college education must also be to train students’ minds to navigate the next 50 years, not just to do a job for the next two. Universities are not, and should not be, vocational school. In short, universities will need to control their own context to survive and grow on their own terms. Moreover, amid climbing and crippling student debt, society questions whether the university is worth the price of admission.
The university must engage professors and students in solving the social issues of our day – immigration, sustainability, inequality, poverty and so on. Higher education now has an opportunity to become not just a voice shaping the issues, but also the problem-solver that neither business nor government can be, because you are a safe place for open conversation.
In a society of checks and balances, universities should be the Fifth Estate in global governance, joining the legislative, judicial, executive and media as institutions that drive us forward.
The university is unique in its ability to bring together disparate disciplines to unlock the solutions that society’s challenges demand. You have a scale of insight and learnings, plus objectivity, freedom from financial interests, and the benefit of long-term thinking that no business or government can match.
One great example is the University of Washington’s Population Health Initiative, which brings together the school’s capabilities in research, big data and technology to evaluate the health of an entire community and develop solutions to improve it. It’s an ambitious goal by President Ana Mari Cauce – one that is drawing support from the Gates Foundation, Amazon and others.
Whether it is the University of Chicago led by Bob Zimmer dedicating itself to the problems plaguing American cities, or Dartmouth College led by Phil Hanlon committing to finding solutions on the future of energy, universities can and must respond by bringing together all of their resources for impact on the issues of the day.
In the words of Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia, it’s about “finding new ways of being a university.”
Furthermore, as the Fifth Estate, the university must demonstrate transparency. No more sacred cows, with athletics or development having their own standards based on economic necessity or perceived reputation-building capacity. From admissions to social mores, the university should be held to standards, reporting annually on progress, committing to engagement and integrity.
Importantly, within the context of shrinking mainstream media, the university must become its own media company to get the message out, define its own agenda against detractors’ criticism, and build the conversation it wants to have. With the brightest minds, open discourse and targeted action, you have the tools to build compelling content beyond what government or business can provide.
You have the most brilliant array of academics whose material you must configure in such a way as to be visual, short-form and shareable. Video should be your predominant motif, not the written word. There must also be a re-purposing of your news operation to encompass student-generated content. There must be a place for robust debate online, with established social channels, vertical by interest area and horizontal by issue.
These are the right aspirations, but now how to execute against the plan?
Universities need a new, important and senior function for this complex era. I am calling for the creation of an Office of Engagement, reporting directly to the university president, to serve as both conscience and connection for the school. This is a necessary reorganization in an age when trust in authority has evaporated, the rules of communication are being rewritten, and the very value of the university is under scrutiny.
The Office of Engagement must break down the present silos that stand between external-facing departments that must now be combined in a world where expectations have changed. It will bring together communications, marketing, government affairs and community affairs to offer a unified vision of how the university impacts the world.
The Engagement office needs to be vitally involved in policy, on issues that are core to reputation, from diversity to access to education in the larger community. And it is the role of the Engagement Officer to encourage the university to have a voice on these complex issues. The Office of Engagement must help the university achieve its goals in bringing new value to society.
The words of Abraham Lincoln in his message to Congress 154 years ago this week are apt for this moment:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
Many of your universities find yourselves unwittingly in the center of the storm Lincoln so aptly describes. The opportunity is to be a convener finding solutions, rather than to seek refuge. Ladies and Gentlemen, you must choose to lead. The world needs you as the unbiased, thoughtful and open forum. This is the destiny of the Fifth Estate, reclaiming its societal role by providing a bold vision and a place for open discussion.
Thank you very much.