LIVING THE SOCIAL JUSTICE BRAND: ATTRACTING PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS TO A MASTERS OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION PROGRAM.
This article focuses on the branding of a Masters of Public Administration Program (MPA). When trying to convince a prospective student to enroll in an MPA program, the department is not only competing with other colleges and universities, but also in some cases with other academic programs--very often Masters of Business Administration programs. Specifically, I will focus on how Seattle University's MPA program has put greater emphasis on its brand and how the faculty members and students of that department are living the social justice brand by making its principles an integral component of our academic program. Of course, other programs might choose a different brand. We chose to emphasize social justice brand because it aligned with our values as a faculty and was consistent with the overall values of our university.
What kind of messages do MPA programs convey to prospective students? After having reviewed all of the MPA programs accredited by the field of public administration's principal accreditation association, the Network of Public Policy, Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), the following questions are often answered to a greater or lesser extent on member websites:
* How will students benefit economically and from a career perspective because of enrollment in the university or program?
* Relatedly, what resources does the organization have available to students that make their career success likely and what career successes have recently alumni attained?
* What knowledges and skills are students expected to acquire as a result of their educational experience?
* What makes the organization different and potentially superior to its competitors?
* What are the degree requirements?
* How is the program "cutting edge?"
* How is the student advantaged by a program's location?
* How do students gain hands-on, practical experience?
* How accessible is the program to working professionals? At what times are courses offered and is the program offered partly or wholly on-line?
* Does the program provide an opportunity to apply their newly acquired skills with a hands-on experience?
* Does the program offer prospective students financial assistance?
* How much will the degree cost?
* Is the program accredited?
First a caveat-although academic administrators are likely to embrace the importance of branding, many academics are cool to branding, seeing it as a form of crass commodification. In the past, I shared this apprehension. I have become a late convert to marketing and branding, not surprisingly when I became an administrator. I now subscribe to the point of view that branding is an important strategy for attracting students. By engaging in a deliberate branding effort, universities are being responsive to their environments and thus attempting to grow and prosper.
That environment is characterized by a decreasing supply of high school students in many states (Stephenson et al., p. 489) and an increasing supply of competing educational institutions (Weisbrod, et al, p. 39-40)--institutions that in many instances given the Internet, know no regional boundaries. In the not too distant past, most universities were relatively closed institutions with long hallowed traditions. Especially with the rise of the Internet and the educational world's embrace of distance learning, those same institutions have become increasingly open and adaptive institutions. Of course, there is a continuum of those institutions which have or have not bought into this relatively new dynamic educational environment. Driori, Delmestri and Oberg (2016) identify what they believe are four archetypal narratives that define the modern university: the guild-like classic narrative, a Republic of Scholars, which is managed by the academics; the professional scientific narrative that reinterprets the university into a science-centric institution; the local narrative in which the university is first and foremost of service to the community or the broader state; and the organization narrative, which is governed by a "managerialized" ideology whose governance and practice is not that dissimilar from a modern corporation. The guild-like Republic of Scholars institution is becoming increasingly rare, whereas the university that is guided by a "managerialized" ideology, has become more commonplace. And in that environment, branding is a central component.
As competition for students has increased, many institutions have placed an increased emphasis on branding. Rothblatt notes that within academe "an entire branding industry has arisen" (2008, p. 28-29). Peruta, Ryan and Engelsman write "Market factors such as increased competition, economic pressures, and scrutiny by parents and students acting as 'consumers' are putting increasing amount of pressure on institutions of higher education to stand out and differentiate from competitors" (2013, p. 11).
What is branding? The American Marketing Association defines it as "a customer experience represented by images and ideas" (2014). Judson et al. (2009) write that for the university, branding functions as a stamp of excellence. Bulotaite notes that "When one mentions the name of one's university to someone, it will immediately evoke associations, emotions, images, and facts (2003, p. 450). Waeraas and Solbakk write that branding is "making higher education organizations more aware of the link between what they 'stand for' in terms of values and characteristics, and how they are perceived" (2009, p. 449). According to Bock, Poole and Joseph, "branding is particularly important in helping to position a product in the minds of the product's target market" (2014, p. 19). In addition, Pampaloni writes that brands create an image and "For institutions of higher education, image is important because it helps create a positive view of the organization, which determines if potential members are attracted enough to want to become affiliated (2010, p. 21).
Branding also focuses on differentiation. Organizations need to ask themselves the question how does the experience that 1 am selling differ from the experience other organizations are selling? And, importantly who am I targeting? An organization cannot be all things to all prospective students. The market is divided into segments. Bock et al. write "The objective of market segmentation in higher education is to improve the competitive position of the college or university by dividing the diverse college university market into groups of student-consumers with distinct needs and wants and then identifying which market segment it can serve effectively" (2014, p. 12).
Related to market segmentation is what Aaker and Joachimsthaler (2000) describe as brand identity "a vision of how that brand is perceived by its target audience," an identity that according to Goi, Goi and Wong "is not what a marketer creates, but what consumers perceive has been created" (2014, p.62). Furthermore, a distinctive brand identity is especially important in influencing consumer behavior toward a particular institution (Pinar, Trapp, Girard and Boyt, 2011). Weisbrod, et al. notes "Brand names are assets to any firm or organization. Colleges and universities are no different. Those that have national name recognition can attract a broader and more talented pool of applicants, more tuition revenue, and more donations" (2008, p. 175).
If a university is successful in developing its brand identity, it enhances its brand value. Rouse (2016) argues that a university's brand value is actually a proxy for rankings, especially important given many academic administrators and prospective students' penchant for a university's placement in outlets like the U.S. News and World Report and the Times Higher Education. Higher rankings, especially as compared to one's peer institutions, undoubtedly results in more students and hence more revenue.
This article is a first-person account of how a chair of a public administration department and its faculty members sought to enhance its brand identity by more closely aligning their department's brand with the overall brand of their university. We believed that it would enhance our department's position vis a vis our competitors both regionally and nationally, but also because normatively we believed it would be of genuine value to our university and the surrounding community. Additionally, as mentioned previously, I reviewed the websites of all of the MPA programs accredited by NASPAA to determine how all of these programs were either deliberately or not deliberately trying to brand themselves.
The University and the Region
The department, in question, is a public administration department at a private Jesuit university in the Coastal West--that in itself makes the program unusual because the vast majority of public administration departments are housed within public, often land grant institutions. Nevertheless, it is not incongruent that Jesuit institutions would offer an MPA and that the program offered would have a strong social justice component. According to the Jesuits, "Today, the service of faith and the promotion of justice is the animating characteristic of the work being done at Jesuit middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities, parishes and retreat houses and in ministries around the world" (the Jesuits).
The Jesuits have played a central role in establishing and maintaining the organizational culture at Seattle University. Although the number of Jesuits are relatively few in number, they continue to shape the university's culture. They make their impact felt by emphasizing in a variety of forums the University's commitment to social justice. The mission of Seattle University is straightforward and concise "Seattle University is dedicated to educating the whole person, to professional formation, and to empowering leaders for a just and humane world" (Seattle University).
The mission statement is not empty rhetoric. Students who choose to enroll at Seattle University quickly find out that this is an institution where service to the larger community is valued. That message is conveyed on university websites and in its brochures, in classes and when the President of the University Father Steve Sundborg presides at public events inevitably he reinforces the University's commitment to service and social justice. Furthermore, as evidence that Seattle University's faculty, staff and students also take the commitment to service and social justice seriously, the University proudly states on its website that faculty and staff contribute 200 thousand hours of service annually and also that three out of four undergraduates participate in community service.
The Jesuit fathers and other university administrators also have instituted a number of policies to ensure that university's culture remains imbued with a service ethic. First, the University demonstrates its concern for its community by funding a very active Center for Community Engagement, which encourages students and faculty to participate in programs that aid our community's low-income residents. Second, job applicants applying for faculty positions are required to read a statement regarding the Jesuit philosophy of service and asked to explain whether their goals are aligned with those values. Third, whereas in most universities, faculty service is almost an afterthought, at Seattle University it takes on more significance. Illustrative of that commitment is that during their annual performance review faculty members can elect to have up to 30 percent of their evaluated time devoted to service.
It is also conducive that Seattle University is located in the Coastal West. The Coastal West has a long-standing tradition of liberal politics and social justice. In such an environment, a university with a commitment to similar ideals is highly consistent and reinforced by its larger environment.
The department called the Institute of Public Service (IPS) has been in existence for about 40 years. IPS enrolls approximately 140 students at the graduate level, most of whom work full-time and are employed by either government or non-profit organizations.
The median age of the student body is approximately 30 years old. So as to accommodate working students, all classes are offered on weekday nights and on Saturdays. Students are taught by seven full-time faculty members and approximately 10 part-time adjunct instructors. The vast majority of students are drawn from the Coastal West.
In terms of admission requirements, students are expected to have achieved a 3.0 undergraduate grade point average or better. They are required to provide two letters of recommendation; a resume; evidence that they have at least one year of organizational experience; and a letter of intent in which in addition they articulate their reason for applying. We also look at both their letter of intent and their experience to determine whether they have a commitment to social justice.
In years past, the Institute of Public Service had almost a lock on students interested in a MPA degree within the immediate area. However, in recent years, like many MPA programs, IPS is undergoing competition with on-line programs and to a certain extent MBA programs in the area. Due to that increased competition, IPS has explored and in some cases undertaken new approaches to increase enrollment, including considering whether to open a branch program in another relatively nearby city; offering courses that include an on-line component, which require less time for students to spend on campus and thus increase our regional reach; offering a four course certificate program in public administration that serves as a method of inducing students to enroll in the MPA program; and entering into agreements with foreign universities for the purpose of increasing international enrollment.
How Other MPA Programs Market Themselves on Their Home Pages
I analyzed the home pages of 173 websites, all of which are NASPAA accredited. I examined only the initial home page of the NASPAA accredited programs, which contained themes, which presumably were ones that these programs most wanted to highlight. Some programs only listed the requirements necessary for a MPA degree and/or the requirements for admission while making or no effort to convince potential students of the value of a degree. On the other hand, it seemed clear that other programs, given their alluring photographs and eye-catching layout, had chosen to hire a marketing firm. The majority of MPA programs fell between these two extremes. What were the major themes that programs emphasized?
Program status was a theme that frequently came up. Those programs with a high overall national ranking advertised that fact. Indeed, 10 percent of all MPA programs noted that they were ranked, usually by the U.S. News and Report, as one of the highest ranked MPA programs in the country. Some programs noted their ranking within a particular specialization, such as city management or budget and finance. The most common component of NASPAA accredited programs was the mention of their status as a NASPAA certified program and 54 percent did so.
Many programs made a point of demonstrating the usefulness of their MPA degree. In this regard, repeatedly programs emphasized that their MPA degree provided their students with the requisite skills and abilities, often of a practical nature, that would enhance a student's career. Relatedly, they also made a point that they were in the business of training people to be leaders and managers. Furthermore, 10 percent of all program websites included biographies and pictures of current students or recent graduates as a means of providing real-life examples of the utility of their degrees. Twenty percent of all programs emphasized what values they stood for in the form of their mission statement. Additionally, 27 percent of all programs laid out in varying levels of detail the special programs or concentrations they offered.
Several programs advertised their accessibility. That accessibility was emphasized by six percent of all programs stressing that their classes were held during the evening and/or on weekends to emphasize their program's suitability for working professionals. Accessibility was also a selling theme for 13 percent of all programs that had an on-line or hybrid component.
Curiously, only one percent of all programs identified the overall tuition cost of their degree and only two percent of all programs mentioned the availability of financial assistance. Finally, four percent of all programs emphasized their location. In some cases, the programs emphasized the beauty of their surrounding area or the utility of living in a large urban area. In other cases, they made reference to the resources available in their area--in several cases describing their communities as "learning laboratories." Other selling points for an MPA degree, included emphasizing the quality of a program's faculty and their research production; the availability of student internships, particularly those that were paid; and the existence of a student association.
Very few programs mentioned an emphasis on social justice on their home pages --only two percent. That presents an opportunity for our program. Specifically, it presents an opportunity for market differentiation. The remainder of this article outlines the process that IPS underwent to develop a coherent social justice brand.
Efforts Taken at the Institute of Public Service to Enhance the Brand
What do we mean by social justice? We subscribe to a definition developed by the Center for Economic and Social Justice. That definition states:
Social justice encompasses economic justice. Social justice is the virtue which guides in creating those interactions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person both individually and in our association with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to work with others at whatever level of the 'Common Good' in which we participate, to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development (2017).
Specifically, how do the members of IPS live its social justice brand? Furthermore, how has the theme of social justice better permeated our values and curriculum? The efforts taken in this regard included the following:
* revising our curriculum to include required courses in Ethics and Human Resource Management;
* offering courses relevant to our students' social justice concerns;
* providing courses that utilize service learning and emphasize service to the community;
* developing a mission statement, which emphasizes the importance of social justice;
* incorporating social justice into the learning outcomes that we want our students to take away from our Program when they graduate;
* sponsoring public discussions, which we call "Conversations" with leading public officials that emphasize issues related to social justice; and
* housing within IPS a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, which funds the Project on Family Homelessness.
Previously, our program was primarily known as a MPA program that catered to working students because of the availability of classes during weekday evenings and on Saturdays. That was our default brand--a program that was accessible. In my view, this was a losing strategy, because on-line programs, of which there are many, are even more accessible than a program that offers night and Saturday classes.
Requiring Courses in Ethics and Human Resource Management Requirements
To better align our focus on social justice, it was essential that we augmented our curriculum. Thus, we added three new courses to our core requirements, two of which were directly related to our social justice agenda, namely courses in ethics and human resource management. Prior to this change in our curriculum, an ethics course had never been offered and a human resource management course had been offered only occasionally.
It is absolutely essential to make an ethics course a requirement in a program that emphasizes social justice. Presumably employing ethical norms is a necessary approach for determining what is socially just. Such a course provides students with a necessary compass.
Furthermore, it may seem rather peculiar that human resource management was not a requirement, particularly since almost all NASPAA accredited programs have made that course a requirement. Nevertheless, there may have been a paradigmatic reason why the human resource management and the ethics course were not part of our required curriculum. As Burrell and Morgan (1979) note in their seminal work Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis, public administration is a field divided into four paradigms and the proponents of two of those paradigms view the field as science-based, whereas the proponents of the other two paradigms are decidedly values-based. Given that previously faculty members in IPS were firmly committed to a science-based paradigm, they likely did not believe that courses that are usually decidedly values-based like Ethics and Human Resource Management should be part of the required curriculum. Nevertheless, a Human Resources Management course could be taught focusing almost entirely on human resource techniques to the exclusion of the explicit consideration of values. For example, the instructor in a science-based program could devote her course on issues like how to hire; conduct performance evaluations; and set pay scales. A broader course, specifically one that also focuses on values, would additionally examine hiring along with the justification and implementation of equity concerns like affirmative action and diversity; whether performance evaluations are actually necessary and what could be implemented as an alternative; and whether the market should be the primary determinant of salary setting or whether one can deduce the "inherent worth" of a position, employing the methods of comparable worth.
Offering a Social Justice Course and Other Courses that Mirror Our Focus on Social Justice
Prior to our increased emphasis on social justice, one of the ways that the program specifically focused on social justice was a course entitled "Social Justice and Social Policy" that related social justice to topics, including income distribution, globalization, taxation, regulation of business, racial discrimination, poverty, education and campaign finance. Additionally, in Academic Year 2016-2017 we offered a year-long course on homelessness. The problem of homelessness not only plagues most major cities in the United States, but it especially affects Seattle. Thus, we offered a course that over a year covered the literature on homelessness; established a dialogue with leaders on homelessness issues in Seattle; all of which culminated in conducting studies developed for two city governments, specifically Seattle and the neighboring suburb of Auburn. Working in groups of 4-6 students, the teams conducted three projects, which included the following:
* best practices for managing a homeless shelter;
* how to get sheltered residents to interact more humanely with unsheltered residents; and
* best practices for establishing and maintaining a tiny house village.
Offering More Service Learning Courses
We used the homelessness course as an experiment for how we might want to offer additional service learning courses in the future that could provide assistance to our community. We found that service learning courses probably would involve more work on the part of the instructor--especially with regard to logistical issues. The principal planning and logistical issues include identifying potential clients; getting the clients to commit to a project; ensuring that the students stay on task; and producing a final product that answers the client's questions and is of high quality.
Although the homelessness course was not without its implementation problems, we felt that the course was of sufficient value that we should incorporate elements of the model into some of our future courses. Specifically, we decided to alter the nature of one of our final Capstone courses. Until recently, students in all of our Capstone courses were required to write a 15-20-page paper on a policy issue. Now students have the option either to write a policy paper or participate in a group project that serves a particular client. Our hope is that students who choose the service learning option will be able to apply the skills and knowledge they learned during our program while at the same time providing service to our community partners.
Developing a Mission Statement
In the past, our program did not have a mission statement. Our mission statement has been an ideal vehicle for driving change in our department. We also found that in many ways the process of developing a mission statement was just as important as the mission statement itself, because it required faculty to consider the main values that should guide our program.
As a first step, I set two parameters--our mission statement should include a statement of our values and the skills we want to teach our students. I wrote the first draft. For the next several months, the faculty and staff edited the document. Once we reached a consensus, we then provided the draft mission statement to our newly formed MPA Advisory Council, a group composed of nonprofit and university executives, alumni, the president of our student association, and two faculty members. The Advisory Council also suggested several changes and thus the mission statement went back to the faculty and staff for additional drafts. The final Mission statement reads:
The Institute of Public Service's Master of Public Administration program educates public service professionals primarily in the Pacific Northwest. We develop our students' leadership and administrative potential to solve public problems in the government and nonprofit sectors. Our program is guided by the following values consistent with Seattle University's Jesuit tradition.
* Social justice and the empowerment of diverse communities through policy and service;
* Ethical standards of accountability, integrity and transparency in pursuing the public interest; and
* Positive relationships that foster respect and fairness for colleagues and community members.
In our program, students will learn:
* Practical skills to address organizational problems;
* Management and leadership skills that incorporate collaboration, teamwork and self-reflection;
* Oral and written skills that emphasize cogency and professionalism;
* Critical thinking skills to competently develop and design empirical research and engage in logical analysis; and
* Advocacy that facilitates civic engagement and collective action.
Incorporating Social Justice into Our Learning Outcomes
Learning outcomes are skills that students should learn as a result of taking a particular course. We have two learning outcomes for each of our 11 required classes. Each quarter our Curriculum Committee evaluates one course's learning outcomes to determine whether our students are learning the desired skill. We do this by looking at class assignments that are tied to a particular learning outcome to evaluate whether the student has, in fact, attained that skill. In the process of doing this evaluation, we also provide feedback to the instructor regarding how that person may want to adjust his course for the purpose of better meeting the learning outcomes.
So as to further incorporate social justice into our MPA program, two of our learning outcomes relate directly to social justice. One of these learning outcomes is part of our Economic Analysis course and it states, "Demonstrate ability to analyze and communicate how economic decisions are made and can be used to advance social justice." The other learning outcome is part of our Capstone course and it states, "Apply analytical skills in the conduct of original research for the purpose of furthering social justice."
Sponsoring Public Interviews with Area Leaders on Issues Pertaining to Social Justice
We are fortunate enough to have sufficient funding to host prominent area leaders who are active in issues pertaining to social justice. The discussions are conducted by Joni Balter, a prominent Seattle journalist and myself. We stage these public discussions three times annually. These "Conversations", not only reinforce our brand, but they also provide us with considerable free publicity since most of the programs have been televised.
Recently, we put on the following Conversations:
* The Governor of Washington Jay Inslee discussing the issue "Government Service and Ethical Leadership in the Era of Trump;"
* Prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben discussing the issue of global warming;
* Mayors Ed Murray of Seattle and Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco discussing the issue of homelessness;
Hosting the Project on Family Homelessness
In 2016, we inherited a grant from another department in the University that is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation entitled the Project on Family Homelessness. The goal of the Project is to work with advocacy partners, dedicated to reducing family homelessness, across the region to help tell the stories of families who are homeless and connect those stories to meaningful action. The Project sponsors relevant conferences, films that focus on family homelessness and speakers on the subject. In addition, it also convenes informational meetings on a bi-annual basis of relevant nonprofits.
By effectively branding a program, academic departments are able to more effectively communicate what they are prepared to offer prospective students. Effective branding transforms a program's message so that it is succinct and easy to understand. It also can distinguish your program from cross town and internet competitors.
However, beyond establishing a brand, the department, including faculty and students should also be willing to live the brand. Establishing a brand and living a brand usually involves changing to a certain extent the culture of a given program or department. Our department did undergo cultural change. Probably the greatest change we have undergone is changing the focus of the program from one that was known for its accessibility and convenience for students to a program that is values-focused and committed to living and teaching social justice.
As a consequence of this change in emphasis, the students who apply to our program have also changed. We have seen a decided increase in the percentage of applicants who not only mention their interest in social justice in their letter of intent, but also have work or volunteer experience in that area. Furthermore, as more of our students have been attracted to our program because of our emphasis on social justice, not surprisingly the racial composition of our students has also changed. In our most recent year 40 percent of our enrollees are students of color as compared to 27 percent just two years ago. We have found our niche and in upcoming years we will continue to refine our emphasis.
Dr. Larry Hubbell
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