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The Point: What’s Up with the UMB Website?


Today's Point was written by Professor Steve Striffler of Labor Studies.

A Website “For the Times?: When Marketing Rules the Day

Is UMB’s mess of a new website the product of a clumsy rollout?  Or is something else going on? 

Spoiler:  It’s both!

UMB has recently undertaken two major branding/marketing initiatives: “For the Times” and the redesign of the university website.  These moves were no doubt driven by factors internal to the university such as the arrival of a new Chancellor and the perceived need to “up our game.”   But the significant reallocation of resources towards marketing should also be seen as part of a larger trend within higher education – a trend driven largely by two factors.

First, there is real competition for students, generated by demographic shifts and the growing unaffordability of higher education.  The latter has not only made it difficult for many students to attend college, but led to increased skepticism that college is worth the cost. The days when we could assume there would be more and more students, and that they would be able to afford higher education, are probably gone – or at least will be without a major political struggle to invest more resources into higher education (Support the Cherish Act!!).  

The second force driving university dollars into marketing departments is that within the last two decades administrators began to realize (correctly) that they needed to work harder to attract students and decided (without much reflection) that the best/only way to do so was to pour more money into marketing.  They did so in part because of the pressures mentioned above, but also because of the threat posed by for-profit competitors and big online education.  Institutions like the University of Phoenix experienced incredible growth, spurred by the fact that they could spend seemingly endless dollars on marketing since they had few of the costs associated with running a university.  This was seen as a real threat to traditional universities, and Administrators quickly settled on increased marketing as the solution.

Side note:  There seems to be few studies about whether increased marketing actually leads to increased enrollment.  One study, in fact, concluded that there is “a weak association between advertising expenditures in higher education and the key performance indicator of new student enrollments.”  But evidence, or lack thereof, hasn’t slowed the spending spree.

Spending on marketing by colleges reached over $2 billion by 2018 and continues to grow.  This has largely been dominated by the for-profit giants, big non-profit online players such as Southern New Hampshire University, and elite private colleges (see here).  But more than half of universities now have very well-paid chief marketing officers serving at the university executive level, often reporting directly to the President/Chancellor. 

Virtually all colleges have felt compelled to get in the game, with Administrators reasoning that they must jump in the pool because everyone else is already there.  There is a certain truth to this.  Marketing now feels like the price of admission.   But this “common sense” has to be weighed against other realities and needs, especially at resource-poor institutions (that are coming late to the party and with insufficient money to make a splash).  There is the real danger that once we are on the marketing bandwagon that we could head down a path where no amount of marketing dollars/staff is ever enough.  Put another way, if marketing eats enough of our budget there won’t be a product left to market. (Even the US Congress recognized this, proposing legislation prohibiting colleges from using federal dollars for marketing if they don’t also spend enough on instruction.  Yikes!)

All of this is to say that faculty, staff, and students should resist the urge to bury our heads in the sand when we hear either the “m” word (marketing) or “b” word (branding) and instead ask tough questions. As Mark Fisher observed, in the present moment, “all that is solid melts into PR.” We need to resist that tide.

Key Questions:  At a recent Faculty Council meeting, UMB’s Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Engagement assured faculty that – contrary to the rumor mill -- the recent website redesign had not been carried out willy-nilly by four random people in a basement.  It had been the product of years of planning.  The university had hired outside firms with experience and expertise in website design within higher education.  This begs the question:  If UMB hired the best outside consultants money could buy, how did the website rollout end up so….well…bad?  Part of the answer is no doubt internal.  It seems likely that UMB did not have sufficient people to do the immense amount of work required by such an overhaul.  Fair enough -- and hats off to those staff who took on the massive task.

Many faculty and staff were also struck by how little we were consulted prior to the flawed website rollout.  This lack of consultation on the front end helps explain many of the most glaring problems (such as the disappearance of faculty/staff from the website, the vacuous program information that appears to have been written by AI, and so on).  It also helps explain why the new website seems largely oriented toward prospective students, and not toward current students, faculty, staff, and outside entities.  What does it mean going forward if the Administration did not think to collaborate with the very people who are the most connected to our students?  See the FSU petition on website here.

Others have asked: How much did we spend on the “For The Times” rebranding and the website redesign -- in terms of outside consultants, new UMB hires, and other costs?  And what will we get for it beyond a new slogan or sleeker look?  Are these initiatives leading towards increased enrollment that will bring in more revenue than we are spending on marketing?  Are there other benefits?  And, while we are at it, who are we marketing to? My bet is on students who can afford to pay full freight, which raises other issues given who the university traditionally serves.

The bottom line is redirecting money into marketing, at least in the short term, necessarily takes resources away from other needs (such as financial aid, lowering student-to-faculty ratios, hiring faculty/staff. etc.).  These are needs that are much more closely aligned with our core mission of education and research than the marketing of that mission can ever be – needs that faculty, staff, and students should have meaningful say over.  We should all stay tuned.

Please consider signing the FSU petition about the website by October 16th.