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Challenge for Universities: Differentiating Their Identities
Business Journal

Challenge for Universities: Differentiating Their Identities

by Nate Dvorak and Dan Sinnott

Story Highlights

  • University identity comprises purpose, brand and culture
  • Leaders' descriptions of their university's culture vary widely
  • University presidents can significantly influence culture

If university presidents want their university to survive -- much less thrive -- in the coming decades, they must confront a challenge: differentiating their institutions from the pack.

As part of the July 2015 Gallup and Inside Higher Ed Presidents study, Gallup asked university presidents to describe their institution's identity. That identity comprises the institution's purpose (why it exists), brand (how it is known to others) and culture (how those at the institution interact and get work accomplished). An organization's identity communicates what it values and what is important to it.

The results of this study are mostly positive, but they also point to the previously mentioned challenge for an institution and its leaders. The study results also call attention to significant opportunities.

A Higher Purpose

Let's start with the good news: University presidents are overwhelmingly positive when describing their institution's purpose and brand. When Gallup asked presidents to describe why their institution exists -- its purpose -- in three short words or phrases, almost six in 10 responses fit into three categories (58%). One-third state that their institution's purpose is to educate students, to prepare them for the future or to transform their lives. Others (14%) respond that their organization's purpose is to serve a specific population, whether it is a state, region or demographic group. About one in 10 say their institution's purpose is to provide access to education (11%), and many leaders mention serving students who are first-generation college attendees or students who would typically not have access to higher education.

The responses that describe an institution's brand are more varied than those describing its purpose. But responses about an institution's brand are almost equally as positive, and many clearly link to the institution's purpose:

  • Frequent responses include being "known for excellence" (12%) or for serving specific populations, such as students from a certain state or region or a particular demographic group, such as women (11%).
  • Some leaders mention their institution is known for providing value or access to higher education to students who may not have had an opportunity to attend college in the past (9%), or it is known for educating students in specific job fields, such as healthcare (8%).
  • Other leaders state that their institution's brand focuses on a particular religious identity (7%).

Presidents Must Differentiate Their University's Identity

Differentiation: The Presidents' Challenge

But here's the problem: The presidents' descriptions of mission, purpose and brand are so similar that it made differentiating one institution from another difficult; many leaders use the same or similar words and phrases repeatedly to describe mission, purpose and brand. What's more, when Gallup asked leaders to describe the culture at their institution, their responses changed. The largest group -- slightly less than one in five leaders -- mention "collaboration," "teamwork" or "shared governance" (19%). But beyond that, descriptions of culture varied widely:

  • Some leaders describe their culture as one that puts students first or emphasizes the student experience (12%).
  • Some leaders stress a close-knit or "family-like" community (9%), while others mention "compassionate, genuine caring for others" as a hallmark of their culture (8%).
  • A small group of leaders consistently describe their culture as being "innovative," "dynamic" or "nimble" (5%).
  • Another small group of leaders call their culture "open and transparent" or "inclusive" (5%).

Institution's culture

Many higher education institutions have a purpose and brand that is deeply embedded in what they are and where they came from, Gallup's analysis shows. These institutions were founded decades ago to fulfill a specific mission, and that purpose endures. The brand and reputation of many institutions also are a natural extension of their mission or purpose. Though there is some room for an institution to influence how people perceive it in its marketplace, its brand will be difficult to change and will remain anchored to the institution's mission or purpose.

What does this mean for higher education leaders? Culture offers the best opportunity to differentiate their institution in the higher education space. Leaders can design culture to provide a unique and positive experience for students, faculty and staff. And leaders can intentionally manage and market culture as something different in a landscape where the purpose and brand of their competitor institutions may be similar.

What University Presidents Should Think About

Though the presidents' responses are generally positive, Gallup analysis reveals two important points university leaders should think about: First, if people on campus or in the community were asked to describe the university's purpose, brand and culture, how would they reply -- and how aligned would those responses be with the president's response?

The greater the level of alignment of a university's purpose, brand and culture, the stronger and more consistent its institutional identity. If responses from people on campus or in the community are widely different from the president's description of purpose, brand and culture, this suggests that the university and its community don't agree on its actual identity. This has direct implications for student recruitment and enrollment, the student experience, and the institution's long-term sustainability.

Second, how can a leader use the institution's culture to define and differentiate it from its competitors? Defining and differentiating the organization's culture offers a leader the best opportunity to put his or her "stamp" on an institution. Mission statements are often set when an institution is founded, and they rarely change over its lifespan. Brands are also difficult and slower to change. But the university culture can change -- and leaders and their teams can significantly influence it.

Over the past 20 years, the college experience has evolved from emphasizing content mastery to fostering human development. One university president recently said, "The last 100 years have been largely about the faculty; the next 100 will be about the student." An institution's ability to help its students apply classroom lessons to real-life, real-world scenarios will be paramount to its future success. Regular, committed measurement of an institution's brand, purpose and culture will be crucial to ensuring its future success. Colleges and universities must have a better understanding of these vital components if they expect to survive for the next 20 years.

Survey Methods

The survey is an attempted census of U.S. college and university presidents. For this survey, Gallup purchased a list of email addresses from 4,047 college and university presidents across the U.S. Data are not weighted, and the sample reflects the opinions of those surveyed only and is not representative of all U.S. colleges and universities.

The results are based on 523 Web surveys completed July 9-24, 2015.

To see the full methodology, download the report.

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