Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The temptations of distinctiveness

I've been thinking a lot about institutional distinctiveness lately.  The nonprofits whose boards I chair are both trying to find their niches in complex sectors of the non-profit world (culture and K-12 education); a big chunk of marketing colleges revolves around crafting a distinctive image of the institution; and job ads for college administrators consistently tout the distinctive characteristics of the school. Distinctiveness is everywhere.

I understand the importance of distinctiveness--potential customers, friends, and colleagues can only find you, and you them, if there is something that distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd.  And no organization wants to find itself unable to articulate a vision  (think about this tagline: "We do lots of stuff pretty well"), or a niche ("We do pretty much the same stuff as lots of other organizations.")

But the quest for distinctiveness carries with it three temptations that can be as damaging as the absence of distinctiveness.  Here they are:

  1. An "arms race" for new stuff: One of the critiques of American higher ed is that it would cost less if campuses stopped thinking they needed the newest or the most unique stuff. That stuff could be buildings (LEED certification anyone?), or programs, or activities.  The now-ubiquitous climbing wall is the symbol of this sort of problem--once a campus built a climbing wall.  Now no self-respecting campus seeking active students would be without one.  (We have two--one indoors and one out).
  2. Imprecise language: The search for distinctiveness leads us to suggest that certain things are evidence of distinctiveness when in fact they are not.  Every school I know of touts its small class sizes.  Small class size is a proxy for lots of things: faculty-student interaction, welcoming environment, and care for individual students.  But when the local Research I, community college, and liberal arts college all tout small class sizes, that distinctiveness marker means almost nothing.
  3. A loss of community: students who are attracted to one thing--a program, a professor, a building--are both more likely to be at-risk, and less likely to be engaged than students who engage with many things.  And engaging with many things means that students become part of a community, where they are connected in many places and to many people.  Distinction, in other words, can mean isolation.  And isolation is neither good for the student nor good for the institution.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd add another temptation to your list: the inclination to SAY a college is distinctive in certain areas, rather than ensuring the college IS distinctive in those areas. Distinctive competitive advantages that are clearly defined, well understood, widely accepted, and substantiated by reality are far more valuable than slick and catchy but less-than-honest marketing campaigns. Of course, true competitive advantages require much more discipline to establish and sustain, and that probably explains why so many colleges and universities rely on marketing campaigns instead.

We miss you in the business school!