Five Takeaways From CASE Summit 2014

1. Ideas Trump Loyalty: 

John Sexton, President of New York University, led an interactive session entitled “A Whole New World,” in which he posited that while a time traveler arriving today from one hundred years ago, or even from Oxford and Cambridge one thousand years ago, would likely recognize our universities and colleges as little changed in essential structure and design. Twenty years from now even we will likely not recognize the shape and structure of higher education, so disruptive and fundamental is the change that is before us.

While challenging us all to think anew about how our post-secondary education industry needs to respond to meet the dramatically changing needs of people the world over, President Sexton particularly challenged the fundraising and communications officers gathered at the conference to consider how they, too, will need to do things differently in the future. Simply put: with governmental support of higher education showing no signs of ever coming back, net tuition revenue levels flattening out, and the real tuition cost of even public education inching past the reach of so many prospective students, universities and colleges will need to be dramatically better at raising money from donations than they are today.

How to do that? As you might imagine, President Sexton was not without an answer to this question: Focus on getting the ‘idea-generated gift’ rather than the ‘loyalty-generated gift.’ This is why a solid, truthful, compelling, and humanly irresistible brand is so vital to success in development.

 

2.  A Useful Mix of Metaphor: 

In the opening plenary session of the Conference, the idea was advanced that higher education institutions in America would do well to see themselves as members of a great symphony orchestra (metaphor #1) working together rather than individually to produce an excellent outcome (i.e., a well educated and productive society across the board, not just among the elite). The idea is that individual institutions should focus on helping students at certain stages in their education “up the ladder” (metaphor # 2).   John Sexton, in his later session picked up on this idea: he rejects the idea that the top research universities should be reserved only for the elite students. He thinks that poor students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be able to take advantage of what big research universities can provide them, and that this will be possible if the community colleges and the smaller undergraduate institutions work in greater alliance and shared purpose to move students up the educational ladder. “In this way, working together as players in an orchestra do, (back to metaphor #1) “we can hope to avoid stratification of the educational system.”

 

3. The “Truth” is More Important Than the “Facts”: 

Peter Holloran, CEO of Cognitive Marketing, teamed up with Don Cooney, Director of Development at Swarthmore College, to do an interactive session entitled It Takes Clear Vision and Inspiring Stories to Be a Great Brand School. Our focus was on the critical role brand-coherent storytelling plays in improving institutional outcomes across external audiences, in particular, the development audience.

At one point in the session, both presenters told the same story—that of President Abraham Lincoln coming to Gettysburg in 1863 to dedicate the new Soldier’s National Cemetery. The students of the College attended the Dedication Ceremony, and today’s first-year students recall this moment in history by taking their own walk to the site where Lincoln had spoken.

Don, being the gracious fellow that he is, went first, conveying the “facts” of the story much as a reporter might. And then Peter told the story, only from a different perspective–that of a brand advocate. He sought to not just convey the facts, but to tell a “truth” about Gettysburg College, and establish the relevance of the College’s unlikely participation in our nation’s history to what the institution stands for today.

The audience then evaluated its own reaction to both stories, with particular focus on how each story did or did not help them better appreciate and understand Gettysburg College. The consensus: Both storytellers conveyed the same basic story, but Peter’s version served to reveal something intimate and compelling about the College, and that had the effect of actually changing–by deepening–the understanding of Gettysburg College that audience members had brought with them to the session.

Great stories move people, and when you tell such a story in a genuine effort to help someone understand something compelling about your institution they hadn’t known before, and if that ‘something’ serves to revealing something of the character or purpose of the institution, that’s an act of brand building.

Turn your college or university community into an army of informed and motivated storytellers, and you will soon make major improvements in how your brand is appreciated externally.

 

4.   Improvisation as a Way of Life, Leadership and Resilience: 

The most entertaining session of the Conference, by a mile, was Chris Washburn’s session on what jazz has to teach us about leadership. A professor of music at Columbia University (where, by the way, every undergraduate student, regardless of major, is required to take a course in jazz!), Chris is also a professional jazz trombonist, and he had with him a band of extraordinary players, who did a magnificent job helping him illustrating through performance the points he wanted to make about leadership. (The band was, of course, a stand in for your Advancement or Communications or Admissions department.)

Point one: A band leader (or President or VP) gets the music started–he or she may or not may not step up to perform the first solo, but sets up the framework of the piece, and then gets off the stage as the piece develops, trusting his players to each take it on as they choose. And it’s a given that they will never take it on exactly the same way from one performance to another.

What’s important in a jazz group is that the players be good, so that they can “trust” each other. It’s also critical that every player come to play–that they be totally “present in the moment.” Why? Because improvisation only works if every musician clearly hears the other players, sees and hears what they’re doing and where they’re taking the piece, so that when it’s their turn to play, it’s a seamless transition.

My favorite comment, one that I think any of us who manage people would do well to remember, is that “Jazz depends on generosity of spirit.” (A young piano player in Miles Davis’ band, no doubt somewhat nervous to impress the boss, managed to hit the absolutely worst possible chord at the end of his solo–a chord that had absolutely nothing to do with the piece. Instead of letting that player “hang out there” just to be fired at the end of the gig, with his very first note, Miles immediately took his solo in a direction that validated that chord, changing the whole direction of the piece instantly, (a new direction that all the players then needed to respond to themselves) so that in the end the audience didn’t hear that anything was wrong. That was what he meant by generosity of spirit.

 

5.   The Crossroad of Technology and Education: 

The closing section was entitled, “Great Discoveries Made Here.” Moderated by Donna Brazile, the panelists included David Skorton, President of Cornell University, Alfred Z. Spector, VP of Research at Google, and Dan Huttenlocher, Dean and Vice Provost of Cornell Tech. This very smart discussion about the future of technology and its implications for the future of education offered viewers several great insights.

Mr. Spector, from Google, said that his company already embraces the idea of hiring people without specific degrees based upon their proven competencies. “We’re headed to a meritocracy,” he said. He also predicted that computers will “fully disrupt the University model and make it both more efficient and less expensive.”

One obvious way online education will live up to this promise is by becoming the superior means for delivery of the type of learning that has for so long been the province of the classroom lecture. In the future, use of the “live” classroom, even in a residential college, will likely be limited to that kind of learning that can only be delivered interactively and experientially.

Other panelists asserted that the really game-changing discoveries will likely continue to develop most consistently in the context of university campuses, places of truly interactive collaboration, where faculty are learning as much from their students as students are learning from them. This creates the perfect environment for innovation.

Dan Huttenlocher expressed the need for colleges and universities to educate parents to understand that the new model will be every bit as immersive and dynamic as the old one. He took this thought one step further, declaring that it will be “a disaster for future generations” if parents don’t come to accept that their children’s education will necessarily be very different than theirs was.

Speaking in this plenary session to a ballroom full of Vice Presidents for Advancement, David Skorton expressed tremendous concern over the fact that not only is government support of education in steep decline most everywhere, but so is Corporate R&D investment. And he also made it clear that he doesn’t believe we can solve our problems by supporting STEM education alone. “We need to support the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy too, in order to assure a truly educated citizenry.

Finally, David reminded the gathered development and advancement professionals who rely on their presidents to be their best spokesperson: “Remember, the president of any university is by definition a generalist, so pat your president on the back and tell him he’s still needed, but then get others in your institution, people closer to the work, to get the message out about what you’re doing. Get your faculty and students to help you tell the stories of what is happening every day in your labs, classrooms, and programs.”

Donna Brazile summed it up by quoting Maya Angelou:

“The greatest agony is the untold story.”

 

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