Long before Washington politicians discovered the strategy of talk right, govern left, university administrators were mastering its use, paying lip service to conservative alumni off campus while using their contributions to fund liberal activism on campus. This strategy only works as long as its targets are kept in the dark, however, and recent events at Stanford University are shedding some long overdue light.
After the university developed a Strategic Communication Plana secret document outlining how to deal with alumni, the media, etc.the plan leaked to local media and prompted an outcry. The backfiring of this often-blunt, 30-page public-relations blue-print may spark a new beginning in relations between elite universities and their alumni donors.
The centerpiece of Stanfords marketing strategy is a list of key words for faculty and administrators to repeat when dealing with the public. The approved lexicon of hyperbole, as one professor called it, includes incomparable, challenging, boundless, and stunning. Despite the elimination of Stanfords Western Culture program, another key word is Western, a term disfavored in every room on campus except, apparently, the Office of Development. (Oddly, the Strategic Communication Plan elaborates that Western connotes warm weathera big plus.) The phrase burning the midnight oil is recommended to describe student life at Stanford, where the average grade is an A- and students receive academic credit for tennis and golf.
Some of the plans tactical recommendations are tellingly at odds with its overall message. While urging faculty and administrators to trumpet Stanfords diversity, it warns that an institution must speak with one voice, not many, and that for maximum effect, a single message must be repeated for continuity and consistency. Needless to say, it doesnt mention the university motto, let the winds of freedom blow.
Similarly, officials are urged to tout alumni excellence, but the plan itself displays naked contempt for the intelligence of former students, directing that the universitys public message be kept as simple as possible, so as not to exceed their reading ability.
The document identifies Stanfords independent skeptical faculty culture as a major obstacle to conveying a positive image. Independent clearly does not mean intellectually diverse. Stanfords humanities faculty, for instance, is over 80 per cent Democrat. What it means is rather that the faculty cant be controlled. While administrators are capable of modulating their words off campus, professors are potential time bombs from a public-relations/fundraising standpoint.
History professor Kennell Jackson recently blew up, for instance, when his course on black hairstyles was exposed. Another ongoing liability is Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford who bilked the Federal Government out of millions in research funds and who now teaches a course on ethics. University apologists say that critics pick and choose marginal examples from among the faculty. But those they call marginal believe themselvesmuch more honestlyto be the norm.
Official communication vehicles identified in Stanfords secret PR plan include the slick alumni magazine and sporting events, such as the annual football game on Homecoming Weekend. The latter consists of a series of catered buffets and celebrity speakers with the Potemkin-like goal of keeping alumni from looking at the actual workings of the university. Never once in our combined 11 years at Stanford did we see an alumnus visit a classroomwhich is obviously not an approved communication vehicle.
Since the underlying purpose of Stanfords Strategic Communication Plan was to avoid an actual public reporting of current campus events, it is not surprising that the plans leak to local newspapers has itself prompted a public-relations crisis. University President Gerhard Casper, who is acknowledged as an important contributor to the plan on its first page, was forced to disavow it, noting ruefully that it was never meant for any press attention. Nevertheless, Casper said that he still plans to draw on the strategy in talks to alumni.
All in all, not a good reflection on an incomparable, challenging, boundless, stunning university.