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Campus image: a vital part of a university's brand: if a university wants to strengthen its brand, then upgrading its visual image is one very effective way to accomplish this goal.

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR TOPICS in the world of organizational management and marketing today is the concept of "branding." While I am certainly no expert on this subject, those who I have consulted have defined a "brand" as the total package of characteristics that define a product or organization (called retail branding) and set it apart from the other products or organizations in the same field (called business-to-business branding). Branding is the process of strengthening that brand so as to improve the competitive position of the organization. The two aspects of branding contribute to the accomplishment of different institutional goals. In higher education, retail branding is effective in areas such as recruiting students (particularly undergraduates) and building loyalty and support among the institution's alumni and friends. Business-to-business branding is more effective in areas such as recruiting graduate students and faculty, gaining research funding, and attracting philanthropic and donor support. A friend of mine was recently offered two academic positions at the same time. One was a postdoctoral position at Stanford University; the other was a faculty position at a somewhat less highly ranked institution. He told me that despite the fact that the faculty position was the better one, he would probably accept the Stanford offer because in the long run it would be better for his academic career to be "associated with the Stanford brand." Universities are academic and intellectual organizations that like to view themselves as engaging in "the life of the mind." They do not like to think of themselves as competitive entities in the same sense as business or entertainment organizations, but the fact of the matter is that they are. They compete for students--or the best and brightest among them. They compete for outstanding faculty members, research dollars, philanthropic and governmental support, and alumni loyalty. They compete in their athletic programs, cultural programs, and student amenities. They are, in truth, highly competitive organizations, and one very effective means of improving their competitive position is by strengthening their brand.

A university's brand consists of many different components, including the general reputation of the school, the quality of the faculty, the amount and quality of research, the competitiveness of the athletic program, the quality of the academic facilities, and the student-life environment. The development of a strong institutional brand should be of great importance to a school.

At the majority of American universities, the first unit to recognize the advantage of branding, and to capitalize on it, was the athletic department. This came about as a result of several things. To begin with, universities put great pressure on athletic departments to be self-sufficient so as not to be a financial burden on the overall university budget. At the same time, the national media showed great enthusiasm for broadcasting games between "top ranked" university teams and a willingness to pay handsomely for the privilege. Thus in order to generate the desired income, athletic departments became highly motivated to establish their reputation as a "top tier" program, and they recognized what an effective tool branding could be in accomplishing this goal. As a result we have now reached a point where many of America's leading universities are better recognized for the quality of their athletic teams than for the excellence of their academic programs. This imbalance needs to be redressed. The current situation may be helpful in areas such as undergraduate recruiting and alumni support, but it is of little benefit, and may even be harmful, in areas such as faculty recruiting, graduate student recruiting, and competition for research dollars. Universities need to develop programs for branding the academic aspects of their operation that are as effective as those that have been developed for their athletic programs.

Could the visual image of the campus be an effective tool to accomplish this objective? To explore this question, I tried the following experiment with a group of friends. I asked them to tell me the first thing that came into their minds when they heard a university's name. I chose the University of Notre Dame, a school with an excellent academic reputation as well as a famous athletic tradition. The responses included such things as "South Bend," "The Golden Dome," and "a Catholic school," but by far the majority of the responses related to athletics and, in particular, football. I then showed them a picture of the Notre Dame campus and asked the same question. This time I got responses such as "college campus," "beautiful landscape," "academic complex," and "stately buildings," but no one mentioned athletics or football. It was clear to me that in the minds of most people, the visual image of a campus is strongly associated with the academic component of university life, not the athletic. Therefore it seems that a positive visual image could indeed be a useful vehicle for strengthening a university's academic brand.

We live in a visual age in which visual images are often a more effective and universally understood means of communication than the written word, and visual images can play a highly important role in a successful branding strategy. Like most other organizations, there is a strong visual component to the university brand. This includes not only school mascots such as The University of Texas Longhorn or the University of Washington Husky or graphic symbols such as the University of Michigan's block M or the University of Miami's U, but also the campus itself. The yard at Harvard University, Jefferson's lawn and rotunda at the University of Virginia, the campanile at the University of California, Berkeley, and a host of similar iconic collegiate images all serve to identify their respective institutions without having to spell out their names (figure 1). Such images include both open spaces such as the mall at the University of Illinois, the oval at The Ohio State University, the diag at the University of Michigan, and the quadrangles at Stanford University and The University of Chicago, as well as landmark buildings such as Nassau Hall at Princeton University, the Wren building at the College of William and Mary, Old Queens at Rutgers University, and Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles. The image can even be a consistent pattern of open space, such as the park-like setting of Michigan State University or the architectural continuity of Princeton University's Collegiate Gothic or Miami University's (Ohio) Georgian. Richard Dober has discussed this subject repeatedly in his many books on campus planning, especially in Campus Image and Identity (Dober 2011), Campus Heritage (Dober 2006), and Old Main (Dober 2007).

These powerful visual images can prove very effective in strengthening a university's brand. A number of years ago the Carnegie Foundation documented just how influential the visual image of the campus could be in regard to the decisions of incoming freshmen with respect to their choice of schools (Gumprecht 2008). It stated that the campus visit was the single most important factor in determining which institution to attend and added that the plant manager may play a more important part in a student's decision than the academic dean. Of course, in other areas such as competition for graduate students, faculty recruiting, or competition for research grants, the appearance of the campus is less influential. But in almost any area, an attractive campus setting is clearly a competitive advantage. When it comes to alumni there is an additional factor to be considered-their emotional attachment to campus places and buildings that they remember from their student days and that may have personal significance for them. This in turn can have a real effect on alumni loyalty and the very important area of fund-raising. So clearly the visual quality of the campus environment is a very important component of the university brand, and if a university wants to strengthen its brand, then upgrading its visual image is one very effective way to accomplish this goal.


If a university wishes to upgrade its visual image, then what are the most effective strategies to pursue? Here we have a bit of a dilemma. I have been a practicing planning professional for over 40 years (39 of them in campus planning), and over the course of my career I have listened to, or read, the leaders of the design professions as they advanced their various theories of what the built environment should be. Most of them exhibit a clear bias in favor of a dense, urban type of development based on the model of the European city and the Southern European lifestyle that emphasizes the public realm over the private. It has also been my observation that the majority of Americans are not comfortable with this model. They prefer a lower density development pattern that emphasizes landscape and the natural environment over a more densely developed, building-dominant pattern. This bias is well rooted in the American character, dating back as far as Jefferson and other of the founding fathers, and it extends to the notion of an attractive university campus as well. In the mind of most Americans, while the ideal campus consists of a balanced composition of attractive landscape and traditional collegiate architecture arranged in a clearly discernable pattern of order, the landscape element is vital (figure 2). Without it, they really do not accept the idea that you can have a "campus." There may be some flexibility with respect to the style or quality of the architecture, but the landscape is essential.

In the following list I have attempted to identify some of the qualities that the majority of Americans like or dislike with respect to a campus's visual image. It is based upon my own observations and experience and is not the result of a scientific survey (although that would be a desirable subject for a research project).


* Maximum greenery, especially trees (park-like setting)

* Landscaped setbacks between buildings and street

* Campus artwork, fountains, memorials, entrance gates, etc.

* Special paving and plaza areas

* Traditional collegiate architecture

* Contextual buildings designed to blend with existing ones

* Pedestrian-oriented environment

* Clear division between campus and city

* Harmonious design environment

* Sense of order in campus layout

* Beautiful natural setting (e.g., Cornell University, University of Colorado, University of Washington, University of California, Berkeley)


* High-density, urban environment

* High-rise buildings (except bell towers, steeples, domes, cupolas, etc.)

* Campuses cut up by city streets

* Large surface parking lots

* City buildings mixed in with campus buildings

* Modernist architecture (except the very best)

* Large expanses of unrelieved paving lacking pattern, landscape, artwork, fountains, etc.

* Confusing or disorganized campus layout

Of course, many schools are not in a position to create an "ideal" campus image that incorporates the preferences listed above. The realities of institutional location and land availability often dictate that a variety of strategic approaches be applied. However, the overall goal of enhancing the brand by improving the visual image of the campus remains constant.


There are those who would argue that universities should embrace the avant-garde in design and employ cutting-edge, form-giver architects and designers who lead the way in their respective professions regardless of whether their designs are appreciated by the general public. This may or may not be. But if the goal is to enhance the brand by improving the visual image of the campus in ways that will be appreciated by a broad cross section of the public, then attention must be paid to the public's relative likes and dislikes. In crafting a strategy to improve the visual image, some measures can be effectively applied on almost any campus while others will vary in their effectiveness depending on the character and location of the individual institution. The following are some of the most effective measures that can be applied on almost any campus:

* Adhere to a reasonable standard of maintenance for university buildings and grounds. A poorly maintained campus environment never looks attractive.

* Preserve, enhance, and if possible expand the green component of the campus. Almost everyone admires trees, shrubs, flowers, and landscaping, and landscaping is one of the least expensive and most effective strategies to employ.

* Preserve and restore historic campus architecture. This may include landmark campus structures, buildings by noted architects, locations of historic events, or even groups of structures that contribute to the unique character of the campus.

* Install features such as public art, fountains, memorials, etc., throughout the campus.

* Create an attractive, uniform system of signage and graphics for use throughout the campus.

* Establish a consistent palette of campus furnishings and design details.

* Take maximum advantage of attractive natural features and views both on campus and in the surrounding area.

* Create an attractive interface with the surrounding community.

While it is true that each campus is unique, it is also true that when it comes to defining strategies to improve the campus image, a number of distinct typological groupings can be identified.


A number of American universities are located in the midst of major cities (figure 3). They are often land poor, and the opportunities to expand their land holdings are both severely limited and very costly. The emphasis is clearly upon the most efficient use of existing resources while at the same time meeting the needs of students and faculty. In the case of smaller schools or those with stable enrollments, this is probably more manageable than at larger institutions or those with growing enrollments. In either case, architecture usually plays a more influential role in defining the image of a city campus than in other types. Indeed, some urban schools such as New York University really have no campus in the traditional sense. They are simply a concentration of buildings in the urban fabric. They often assert that "The City is our Campus," and when they are in an exciting city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, this can be an effective selling point. But when it comes to creating a visual image, architecture, either in terms of a historic building or a new building of outstanding design, is their most effective tool. Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, which is located in Carrere and Hastings' historic Hotel Ponce de Leon building, has made excellent use of this architectural landmark to enhance its image. Similarly, the Savannah College of Art and Design occupies a number of historic buildings that have been preserved and adapted for academic use in the heart of one of America's earliest planned cities. Many other urban institutions have also embraced historic preservation as a means of enhancing their brand. A new building of high-quality design is also an effective image enhancement tool, but only if it is a structure of timeless architectural quality as opposed to a glitzy design that attracts much attention when it first opens, but after a period of time looks dated and unappealing. Many buildings from the 1950s, '60s and '70s have suffered this fate and now detract from the campus image rather than enhancing it. Other techniques available to these "campusless" institutions include creating mini plazas with public art, fountains, and some landscaping as part of new building designs; adopting attractive and uniform systems of signage, campus furniture, and detailing; and capitalizing on adjacent city amenities such as public squares or landmark buildings. In the end, however, quality architecture is still the most effective tool for defining the image of a campusless institution.

Major cities are also home to a number of universities with traditional campuses including such schools as Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, Rice University, the University of Chicago, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Washington. Some, like the University of Washington, possess a substantial quantity of land sufficient to meet facilities needs for the foreseeable future. Most, however, have limited amounts of contiguous land on their main campuses. In addition, they are usually surrounded by built-up portions of the city, leaving few opportunities for significant land acquisition and then only at a relatively high cost. Therefore, as older buildings need to be renovated and new facilities added, trade-offs commonly must be made that can have serious effects on the campus image and the university brand. Unfortunately, many institutions lack adequate data to evaluate this effect in the same way they evaluate the effect of the proposed changes on the academic program or the capital costs. In addition, most universities lack a thorough evaluation of their existing stock of campus buildings and open spaces from an architectural and historic point of view. They also lack data on the attitude of alumni, students, faculty, and the community regarding the overall campus image and the various elements that combine to form this image. Such information needs to be collected so that the outcomes of proposed changes to the physical environment can be considered in terms of their effect on the university brand in the same way that the budgetary effect is assessed by comparing the cost of renovation versus the cost of new construction.


Perhaps a majority of American universities are located in "college town" settings; that is, in smaller communities in which the university is one of the largest, if not the largest, components of the economic base (figure 4). Some, like their big city counterparts, are surrounded by built-up areas of the community. However, since they are located in smaller cities with generally lower land costs they have more options for accommodating future growth. Some modest land acquisition of adjacent parcels is often possible. Also, the creation of nearby satellite campuses is another solution that is commonly used. In general, while the challenges faced by these campuses are very similar to those faced by traditional campuses in big cities as described in the previous section, in the smaller communities there are more options for dealing with them. In these situations, the preservation, or even expansion, of campus open space and the preservation of historic or landmark campus buildings becomes a more achievable goal.

A second variant of the college town campus is one in which the campus adjoins the community on several sides, but on at least one side the university owns a substantial amount of land that is large enough to accommodate any future growth. On at least one edge, the campus often adjoins a commercial area of the host community. Such configurations are common at the land-grant schools, which use substantial tracts of land for experimental farms and other natural area uses. The problems faced by these campuses in terms of image include a tendency toward sprawl with large surface parking lots dominating the view and the lack of a perceivable pattern of order in the placement of buildings and open spaces. In the case of newer institutions, the problem may be more of creating an image in the first place rather than preserving and enhancing an existing one. In these cases the challenge is to use future growth to create a positive image that will help to strengthen the university's brand.


A number of American universities have chosen to create a visual image based on the concept of the campus as a park (figure 4). This is the opposite of the campusless big city university. The emphasis is on landscape and open space, and the image is much less dependent on architecture and formal patterns of organization. Roads are often curvilinear in nature, creating a "Romantic" pattern shaped by the contours of the land. Buildings are sited in response to natural topographic features rather than in a pre-planned geometric pattern. Such campuses require a fairly large and unified parcel of land, but the results are generally admired for their beauty. These park-like campuses appeal to the long-established American preference for the beauty of nature over the man-made environment, and they convey a very positive campus image that in turn helps to strengthen the university's brand.

If the institution is of a relatively fixed size with modest needs for new facilities, then all that is necessary to sustain a positive image is to maintain the quality of the landscape; sensitively site any new buildings so as not to disrupt the overall park-like setting; and judiciously add elements such as fountains, public art, or special gardens when the opportunity presents itself. If the institution is a large, growing one, then a more serious problem presents itself: how to provide for growth and expansion while at the same time preserving the park-like character of the campus. While it is usually possible to accommodate some growth within the context of the existing park-like setting, too much development tends to destroy the qualities that are so important to the campus image. Therefore, major growth is often accommodated by expanding the campus into previously undeveloped areas. The challenge is how to extend the park-like campus image into the new areas while at the same time maintaining a functional academic complex. To begin with, there are limits to how far it is possible to expand the boundaries of the campus without adversely affecting a student's ability to move from class to class within the allotted time period. This tends to encourage density, which is often at odds with preserving a park-like setting. Second, the demand for parking often leads to the utilization of open areas for parking lots instead of green spaces. Third, the desire for efficient traffic flow has led many planners to favor straight over curvilinear roads in the newer development areas. Other factors such as the addition of larger, more massive new buildings, high-rise buildings, etc., also make it more difficult to maintain a park-like image. It is clear that a university with a park-like campus has real advantages in terms of campus image and branding. At a growing institution, however, it can be a challenging and often difficult image to maintain.


A number of American campuses (whether as a result of wise site selection or simply luck) are fortunate to have views of some of nature's most beautiful creations. I refer to such things as the University of California, Berkeley's view of the Golden Gate, the University of Washington's view of Mt. Rainier and Lake Union, the University of Colorado's views of the Rocky Mountains, and Cornell University's view of Cayuga Lake and the dramatic gorges and waterfalls that frame the main campus. Such features, though usually not owned by the university, contribute to the quality of the campus image and should be taken advantage of. As Henry Elder, former chair of the Graduate Architecture Programs at Cornell, once remarked to me: "Campus planning here is not that difficult. All you have to do is site the buildings so as not to obscure the view of God's handiwork and everything will be fine." This seems obvious, but in fact there are a number of instances in which this principle has been violated. Cabbell Hall at the University of Virginia, which blocks Jefferson's carefully planned view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is perhaps the most infamous, but there are others. Such actions detract from the campus image and devalue the brand. Great care should be taken by campus planners and project architects to make sure such things do not happen as campuses grow and larger and taller buildings are added.


Universities exist within a competitive environment. They compete for students, faculty, research grants, alumni loyalty, philanthropic support, etc., and one effective technique for creating a competitive advantage is branding. Many athletic departments have embraced the concept of branding, with the result that a number of American universities are now more widely known for their athletic performance than their academic excellence. This disparity needs to be redressed.

The American university campus is internationally recognized for its beauty and order. In fact, the word "campus" is widely used to refer to any well-ordered complex of attractively designed buildings set in the midst of landscaped open space, including medical centers, research complexes, office parks, and K-12 school complexes. In Washington, DC, recently, the Speaker of the House even referred to the area around the National Mall including the Capitol and the White House as the "Federal Campus." "Campus" is obviously a powerful visual image, and visual images are a significant part of most branding strategies. Therefore, a university campus's positive visual image has great potential to help strengthen the university's brand.

In this article a number of strategies that universities can use to improve their existing campus image have been identified, and several additional studies that will make it easier to evaluate potential decisions with respect to their effect on the university brand have been recommended. While each institution, of course, must develop its own strategies based upon its own unique character, philosophy, traditions, and strengths and weaknesses, I have attempted to show how various strategies can be adjusted and where emphasis should be placed depending on the physical setting and character of the campus. The visual image is only one component of an overall branding program, but it is a very important one. It is immediately understood and elicits an emotional response (either positive or negative) from everyone who sees it. Therefore, it is something that should be given serious attention by the decision makers at every institution of higher education. These concepts will come as no surprise to my fellow planners and design professionals, but the challenge facing many of us is how to bring them to the attention of executive officers and governing boards who are beset by a wide range of academic and financial issues and inclined to give lower priority to an issue like the visual image of the campus. But failure to maintain and enhance the visual image can have serious negative effects on the university's brand, and if the brand is not strengthened, or if it is allowed to decline, then the viability of the institution itself may be put in jeopardy.


Dober, R. P. 2006. Campus Heritage. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

--. 2007. Old Main. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

--. 2011. Campus Image and Identity. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

Gumprecht, B. 2008. The American College Town. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.


FREDERICK W. MAYER was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey; studied architecture at Pratt Institute in New York City; and received his A.B. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in 1961 and his MRP from Cornell University in 1963. In 1966 he joined the staff of the University of Michigan as assistant university planner and in 1968 was promoted to university planner--a position he held until his retirement in 2003.

In the course of his 37-year tenure at Michigan, Mr. Mayer oversaw the preparation of master plans for each of the university's Ann Arbor campuses as well as those in Dearborn and Flint. He was also intimately involved in the implementation of all those plans. During his career over 100 new buildings or major renovations were carried out on the Michigan campus; the vehicular circulation system serving the campus was significantly reconfigured; several minor streets were converted to landscaped pedestrian ways; numerous landscape and site development projects were carried out (including such major undertakings as Ingalls Mall, East University Mall, and the diag renovation); and the collection of outdoor public art was greatly expanded. In addition, during his tenure he fostered the university's appreciation of its architectural heritage and encouraged it to preserve and restore its outstanding examples of American architecture. In short, Mr. Mayer played a significant role in the transformation of the University of Michigan's campuses that took place between the mid-1960s and the beginning of the 21st century.

Mr. Mayer was a Henry Rutgers scholar while at Rutgers and a Sears Fellow in City Planning at Cornell, a founding member of the Society for College and University Planning, and editor of Planning for Higher Education. He received the K.C. Parsons Founders' Award, the society's highest award, in 1997. He has also written numerous articles and lectured extensively on the subject of college and university planning.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Mayer, Fred
Publication:Planning for Higher Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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