On SUNY, branding, and internal competition

John Quiggin writes in “Brands of Nonsense” about the ideology behind the current “branding” craze among college administrators:

First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness. The University of Florida does not want to seem part of a global community of higher education, but rather as a competitor in a crowded marketplace.

It’s absurd and destructive when the University of Florida sees a Georgia or Michigan as, first and foremost, competitors. And it’s even more senseless when the same relation is assumed among colleges within a single state university system. That’s the case with SUNY, with its eleven “comprehensive colleges” and four research universities not working in concert, but each pitted against the others for students and their tuition dollars.

For an unsavory business-world parallel, look at the corporate structure within fading retailer Sears:

Many of its troubles can be traced to an organizational model the chairman implemented five years ago, an idea he has said will save the company. Lampert runs Sears like a hedge fund portfolio, with dozens of autonomous businesses competing for his attention and money. An outspoken advocate of free-market economics and fan of the novelist Ayn Rand, he created the model because he expected the invisible hand of the market to drive better results. If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, he argued, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.

Instead, the divisions turned against each other—and Sears and Kmart, the overarching brands, suffered.

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