Unbound Edition. Meaningful conversations about brand, from Davis Brand Capital.

#FounderBrands: Not your Founding Father’s Brand

This summer, if you start talking about the challenges institutions of higher education face, everyone immediately assumes you’re referencing Penn State and that university’s highly publicized issues.

While the Penn State scandal and abdication of leadership is deplorable and unfortunately merits its sad attention, what happened at the venerable University of Virginia this spring is, in another way, astounding. It laid bare the unrelenting business assault roiling educational institutions, their custodians and their brands.

In June, UVA’s Board of Visitors ousted its President, Teresa Sullivan, only to reinstate her 16 days later. The drama around both the dismissal and the reinstatement, as the New York Times put it:

“…opened a window on the pressures public universities face nationwide, as they grapple with shrinking state support, rising tuition, the growing availability of college-level courses online and pressure to shift resources from traditional liberal arts programs to education in business and technology”

The Times reported this was about “a board uneasy about a university future…shaken by the way prestigious institutions like M.I.T., Stanford and Harvard have dived into the online realm.”

Thomas Jefferson founded UVA  in 1819 and considered it one of his greatest achievements. He had a vision for a new kind of university, one that would educate leaders in practical affairs and public service. It was the first nonsectarian university in the country and the first to use the elective course system. It was, in short, an innovator in its time.

And now, almost 200 years later, that former innovator is facing challenges that are unprecedented and an environment that demands innovation circa 2012. Today’s institution is having a hard time living up to its founder’s imagination. We’ve written on this blog before about the challenges facing educational institutions and since those posts the situation has only grown more intense.

Here are just a few of the many challenges traditional institutions face:

  • Pricing challenges: how long can they just increase tuition to cover costs?
  • Operational challenges: how can they effectively and quickly change a system that is positively tethered to inertia due to tradition, such as tenure?
  • Competitive challenges: how do they prove value in a marketplace full of nimble innovators and a relentless pace of change?

It’s not just the student loan debate. Consider the fact that more and more motivated potential students, not to mention PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, just don’t see the value of the institutions as they stand.

No one would argue that less education is the answer, even presumably overachieving dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom have gone on to become brand founding fathers. If anything, we need more, better, and m
aybe different education to tackle the kinds of wicked, interdisciplinary problems we face these days. It’s great to be armed with the classics. But once you know the wisdom of the past, how do you keep up with the fast paced changes of our future?

Some traditional educational institutions are aggressively reinventing themselves to address these kinds of questions. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has been lauded as a national leader in innovation and undergraduate teaching, tied with Yale and just ahead of big brand names Brown and Stanford.

MIT received a lot of attention its interactive e-learning venture featuring open online courses—and, for the first time, certificates to outside students who complete them. Carnegie Mellon and Stanford also have open-learning initiatives.

But even while established players are trying to navigate change, others are rushing in to fill the perceived void, creating entire educational businesses, not merely programs, to address educational needs.

We all know about the impact of online universities and even the old school institutions are finally getting in on that act, most lately with Coursera. But the latest crop of comers aren’t only focused on delivery of information; they’re focused on the content and the needs left unaddressed by the established institutions of higher learning. Their business models and innovations are based on their consumers:

  •  What should students know?
  •  How can students best navigate the radical changes we face today?
  •  What do students need to understand in order to tackle the problems and opportunities of the immediate future?

In New York, education startup General Assembly raised more than $4M in funding last September and is now opening a facility in London.

Sal Khan has been lauded as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME magazine for his Khan Academy. (He has also been criticized)

And then there is Singularity University which has been described by The Guardian as Silicon Valley’s “elite future think tank”.

So, in the face of this landscape, what can UVA do? How can it channel its founding father and innovate for today? Right after reinstating the President, the University signed on with Coursera. But it will take more than copycat tech adoption to solve this educational and institutional challenge. A recent Pew study on the Future of Higher Education found that 60% of the respondents agreed with the scenario: By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today.

One way forward that both respects the tradition and acknowledges the times: thoughtfully revisit the founder’s principals that led to this unique educational brand and use them to propel a sound, forward-looking strategy.

The business and brand challenge for UVA is in remaining true to both its founder and to its students. There is unlimited potential to exploit, unlimited opportunity to assert leadership. And so much educational need to satisfy.

As Jefferson wrote to John Adams from Monticello: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”


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