Forget Higher Ed Rankings: It’s Time to Get Back to Reputation Basics

11 min read

Rama Eriksson

In the cutthroat world of higher education, reputation stands as the ultimate currency. 

It's not just about attracting students anymore; reputation dictates funding, lures top faculty, secures partnerships, and ultimately determines institutional triumph. Universities face the daunting task of ascending the ranks of prestigious lists such as those from U.S. News and World Report, which have become pivotal in shaping both perceptions of institutional prestige and marketing strategies. 

Yet, the credibility of these rankings has been called into question, with accusations of bias and manipulation tarnishing their once-impeccable facade. Recent scandals only deepen the skepticism, forcing a critical reassessment of their influence. 

Add to this mix the rising skepticism among the American public regarding the value of a university degree, and universities face a seismic shift in perception. 

But amidst this storm, there's an opportunity for universities to reclaim control. By refocusing on the core tenets of reputation management, institutions can transcend the constraints of rankings and bolster their international standing and credibility. 

In this article, we will explore the importance of reputation management in the higher education landscape and provide actionable strategies for universities to bolster their profiles and fortify their reputations. 


Why Reputation Management Matters in Higher Education 

No longer a peripheral concern, reputation is a core component of strategic decision-making.  

Institutional reputation reflects stakeholders' cumulative impressions, shaped by various interactions and experiences. Whether positive or negative, reputation significantly influences factors such as student enrollment and faculty recruitment. 

Media, particularly social media, now wields considerable influence in molding public opinion. Everything from athletic achievements and academic accolades to Greek life exploits, safety concerns, and campus activism can impact the perception of a university. 

As a result, universities find themselves continually reacting to manage and improve their image, striving to garner support and maintain credibility in an increasingly interconnected world... where it should instead be proactively molding it. 


The quotes from Oliver Freedman in this article are from his appearance on the Keystone Higher Ed Chats podcast. Listen to Oliver’s full episode here for additional insights into reputation management and higher education. 


Understanding Reputation Management 

According to Oliver Freedman, Managing Director for the APAC region at The Reptrak Company, reputation is based on “two core components” 

“One is the capability of the organization to deliver its core services. It doesn't matter whether you're a telecommunications company and you've got to deliver excellent data and phones and all those sorts of things. Or a university, where you're to deliver excellent education, excellent research. That's that capability aspect. And then the other half is character.” 

He goes on to emphasize that capability and trust are not mutually exclusive:  “[L]eaders nowadays have to deliver on both. They need to be seen as excellent in delivering capability, but they also need to be seen as excellent in terms of character and that people can trust them[.] 


Rethinking University Rankings 

With 20+ years of expertise in reputation management, Freedman confidently declares, "The ranking will come if you're doing the right thing." 


In the pursuit of higher rankings, universities often face the dilemma of prioritizing metrics that may not align with the interests of their key stakeholders, like prospective students and employees. Ranking lists are transient and subjective, with methodologies varying across different platforms.  

Instead of fixating on rankings, Freedman advocates for a focus on delivering quality education and fostering a positive campus experience. 


Best Practice Tips for Managing Your Institution’s Reputation 


1. Continuous Monitoring: Reputation management begins with understanding how your institution is perceived. Implement continuous surveys and monitoring mechanisms to gauge stakeholder perceptions. These tools and technologies provide valuable insights into reputation drivers and areas needing improvement. 


2. Identify Key Stakeholders: Different stakeholders have varied expectations from universities. Identify and prioritize stakeholders such as students, parents, alumni, faculty, donors, and the community. Tailor communication and engagement strategies to meet their specific needs and concerns. 


3. Transparency and Authenticity: In an era of instant information, transparency is paramount. Be honest about challenges and proactive in addressing them. Authenticity builds trust and credibility, essential for maintaining a positive reputation. 


4. Crisis Preparedness: Crisis management should be a proactive endeavor rather than a reactive one. Develop comprehensive crisis management plans, including media training for senior leaders, scenario-based simulations, and clear communication protocols. Swift and effective response during crises can mitigate reputational damage.  


5. Focus on Core Values: Emphasize your institution's core values and strengths. Highlight academic excellence, research contributions, impactful community initiatives, and commitment to diversity and inclusion. Align all activities and communications with these values to reinforce a positive reputation. 


Oliver Freedman_reputation basics_higher ed chats podcast6. Engage with Stakeholders: Actively engage with stakeholders through various channels, including social media, newsletters, events, and alumni networks. Encourage feedback, address concerns promptly, and showcase success stories to foster a sense of belonging and pride within the community.  


7. Strategic Partnerships: Collaborate with reputable organizations, industry and community partners, as well as peer institutions to enhance credibility and expand opportunities for students and faculty. Strategic partnerships can also bolster research collaborations, funding opportunities, and global recognition. 


Reputation management is not a one-time task. It is an ongoing process that requires dedication, strategic planning, and proactive engagement. By prioritizing the authenticity, preparedness, and stakeholder engagement necessary, universities can build and sustain a positive reputation in today's competitive landscape.  

Your institution’s reputation is an invaluable asset that influences every aspect of institutional success. By investing in reputation management, higher education institutions can strengthen their position, attract top talent, and make a lasting impact in the academic world... regardless of rankings lists. 

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