Brand on the run

It is always an interesting challenge to work with an institution that is going through a brand identity crisis. Brand messaging becomes a moving target as we focus on language to communicate a new, evolving mission. “Crisis” of course is the other side of opportunity.

I have worked with institutions that were evolving from regional college to national university status; adopting a brand for the first time; or, as in the case of Florida Polytechnic, starting a university from scratch. These are exciting opportunities for the institutions as well as the writer.

I like this challenge–which is why I’ve been enjoying my work with the University of Southern Maine. As I write copy for USM’s undergraduate viewbook, recruitment and alumni newsletters, or website landing pages, I am constantly integrating freshly minted ideas about what the university is and should be, now that it has adopted a new mission as “Maine’s Metropolitan University.”

John Diamond, a specialist in stakeholder communications in the higher education space, recently shared an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that had a description of a metropolitan university. The article, entitled Rebirth of the Research University, was written by Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks of U.C. Berkeley, and described a metropolitan university as follows:

“…an institution that combines accessibility to education for a diverse population, representative of the region and the nation, with an academic program grounded in the research and the production of new knowledge.”

I will add this to my growing collection of definitions of the metropolitan university and see what sticks.

Lower Education

I write a lot of copy for higher education websites and recruitment campaigns, and I am fully aware of the skepticism that greets proponents of the humanities these days. In the past few years, liberal arts institutions have been challenged to defend their very existence (or at least their tuition), as their students struggled to find jobs after graduation. The new mantra is: follow your passion (e.g., writing)…but make sure it leads to a real job on day one (e.g., writing software).

Liberal Arts Job
Reprinted from Simon Fraser University’s Liberal Arts Blog

All this negativity hurts the feelings of sensitive English majors like me, and more importantly, it’s just wrong.  For many critics of liberal arts education, practicality trumps all; they are ignoring the lessons of the tech revolution. Remember: “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that…makes our heart sing,” to paraphrase that poet Steve Jobs.

Of course, there are little things like massive student debt to consider. But I’m not here to defend the cost of liberal arts education, just the theory.

The reason I’m on this rant has less to do with higher ed, and more to do with…lower ed. A recent project I worked on introduced me to a K-12 program that is so interdisciplinary in nature that it could turn even would-be poets into scientists. The program is called a Trail to Every Classroom, sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and it is part of a family of programs (Forest for Every Classroom, Park for Every Classroom, Iditarod Trail to Every Classroom) that utilize place-based service learning concepts.

Imagine if the Appalachian Trail ran through your town, somewhere between Georgia and Maine, and you had teachers who used the Trail to teach math, science, reading, writing, art, music, and history lessons.  Now imagine that these lessons also incorporated projects that benefited the local community, increasing knowledge about and connection with the place where you live. Restoring a stream, inventorying species, reclaiming a park, solving local problems.

After experiencing this kind of curriculum, students would have gained plenty of “practical” skills like measuring, using microscopes, calculating, analyzing, observing and communicating.  Their perspectives on the world around them would have significantly broadened. What’s more, they would have developed problem-solving and critical-thinking skills––which is what every college promises to do. Believe me, I know.

These kids will be the liberal arts majors of the future and when they graduate from college, damned if there won’t be real jobs waiting on day one.