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On Balance

A visiting professor at Duke University's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, John F. Burness says communication transparency has become all-important. As Duke's former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, he knows whereof he speaks.

By Matt Hamill

John Burness: Build Trust Through Transparency

*With today's instantaneous flow of information, transparency of communication has become all-important, says John F. Burness, former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, and currently a visiting professor at Duke's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. One great thing about transparency, says Burness: "You can use it to build trust."

As a former senior public affairs officer for four major research universities and a consultant for many others—as well as serving as interim president of his alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College—Burness has studied a wide range of local, state, and federal higher education policy issues. His areas of special interest include the campus—host community relationship, and strategic and crisis communications. Regarding the latter, notes Burness: "In a 24/7 communications age where everyone expects leaders to have a solution before they may even understand the problem, it's important to prepare for a crisis when you don't have one so that you know how you will handle one when it comes."

You've been managing external communications for higher education institutions over several decades. How have the issues changed?

Some of today's issues are similar to those of 20, 30, and almost 40 years ago. For instance, with the economic downturn in the early 1980s, you saw really significant cuts in state funding. Much of the national focus in those days was on indirect costs for research, which led to increased public scrutiny and questions about how dollars were being spent. The scrutiny and the cuts have continued to this day.

Similarly, the demise of the liberal arts college has been predicted for decades and I think will be predicted 30 years from now. Yet, many of these institutions are thriving and in fact are providing a model for countries like Germany and China that want to broaden their educational systems beyond technical skills and training. More interesting to me are the external changes taking shape that will in fact drive the future of higher education and perceptions about our sector.

What are these?

One fundamental change is demographics. How are we going to address the challenges associated with serving a growing national minority population? A second related issue is the decline of K-12. This has broad implications for society and poses challenges for higher education in terms of the remediation needs of students entering our colleges and universities.

With states cutting back so dramatically in their support, we now must have some hard conversations about the cost of education, in part because we have socialized families to believe that they shoudn't have to carry a large portion of the burden.

A third factor is the power of information technology. While I'm not alone in believing there is nothing better than a faculty member and a student engaged in a face-to-face conversation, there is no doubt that technology is changing how we can offer education in ways that allow for more efficient—and in some cases, more effective—delivery. Another complicated issue is the increasing globalization of higher education. I fear a number of colleges and universities are going headlong into this without really thinking through all the consequences for the institution and for the students involved.

Finally, as evidenced by recent scandals, there is the issue of commercialization of higher education that most visibly manifests itself in intercollegiate athletics, and to a lesser degree, research scandals. These are issues that strike at the integrity of our enterprise. For too long there has been a naive view that what happens at another institution couldn't happen at mine. I think there now is a general consensus that events can and do have a spillover effect. Athletics is an area that must be looked at with far greater care, recognizing that so much of the brand for many institutions stems from the visibility of intercollegiate athletics.

From a communications standpoint, how can institutions effectively navigate this environment of enormous change, increased public scrutiny, and ongoing resource challenges?

The best public relations is good substance. With academic and administrative leadership of the institution working together to clearly articulate the values you stand for, and where you provide an excellent product, you can decide where you will focus attention and, as important, where you won't. When institutions try to be all things to all people, they lose the capacity to manage through difficult times because they're spread too thinly. This is where a strong communications and messaging strategy is essential.

For too long, colleges and universities have tended to view communications as a cost, not as an investment. If you have a scientist who needs a piece of equipment to do his or her work, you purchase that equipment so you can get the full benefit of the scientist's work. In an age when electronic communication is instant and social media has fundamentally changed how people get and impart information, the same should be true for your communications function. This requires investment not only in competent people to develop content, but also in the infrastructure to support message development.

How can the CBO best contribute to the overall external relations and communication strategies for his or her institution?

As I have suggested, the institutions that will thrive going forward will be those with a clear understanding of their own niche. I worry that, over time, institutions have not taken full advantage of the experience and data-driven approach that business officers can bring to determine not only financial considerations, but more broadly, strategic questions about institutional priorities.

You've mentioned perception challenges for higher education. Recently headlines have highlighted the rising volume of student debt. How would you see this issue playing out over the next several years?

This has become almost a white-hot issue. We've heard it echoed in the Occupy movement, and for the first time in my memory, it's been mentioned in the presidential debates and in campaign trail messages. The long-term implication of this debt load for young people is incredibly important and is an issue that will only get harder for higher education to address unless we find ways to partner with government and others to fix it.

More broadly, I believe higher education has made a big mistake over time by not effectively making the case that paying for college is like a three-legged stool, where government does its part, campuses do their part, and families take care of the rest. With states cutting back so dramatically in their support, we now must have some hard conversations about the cost of education, in part because we have socialized families to believe that they shouldn't have to carry a large portion of the burden.

Why haven't we as a sector been able to effectively explain to the public why our costs are what they are?

One reason we haven't done a good job in this area is because campus administrations in general-not all, but many-have been reluctant to deal with the internal politics of transparency of internal allocation of resources. As a result, we haven't been able to discuss cost externally at the very time when we need to do a much better job of explaining the benefit of our institutions to society.

Leaders must get comfortable being more candid with their own faculty and campus communities about the realities of their budgets so that we can show others we are spending money in ways that reinforce the primacy of the education we're offering students. This won't necessarily be easy for many to do, but in laying it all out, you ultimately build more trust and understanding. This is also important for communications professionals and for financial officers, since a large part of our job is—or at least ought to be—telling the leadership of our institutions what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear.

You earlier cited the presidential campaigns. How do you see higher education in the context of the 2012 elections?

I don't remember a presidential election cycle where you had candidates going after higher education so directly. Much of this is driven by increasing student loan indebtedness. This suggests that we must become much more aggressive in making the case for what our institutions offer a diverse audience of learners. This communication is as important for state races as it is in the national race, since the cuts in state funding are a major contributor to escalating costs of higher education.

In large part because of the student debt problem, we are in this communication struggle for the long term, so we need a clear strategy and we must become much more candid than we've been about the trade-offs to society. I am a trustee of our local community college, and in the face of increasing demand for its programs, we are not matching public resources with need.

To the degree that our public institutions in particular are subject to the vagaries of state political fortunes, this has huge implications not only for the quality of our institutions but for the nation, if we can't preserve what has been the driving force for economic and social progress in our country, and what has allowed so much opportunity for so many people of all backgrounds.

MATT HAMILL is senior vice president, advocacy and issue analysis, at NACUBO.