I recently took on a role as the interim director of Drexel University’s Center for Corporate Reputation Management. I was fascinated with the title of the center from the moment I learned of it. Reputation management is central to what agencies do. And when I met with the students, both undergraduate and graduate, I quickly learned as much from them as they did from me. They worry about their own reputations, which can be tarnished in a moment’s posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. It’s a hot topic they have a passion for and want to discuss in the classroom. To add to my higher education journey, I sit on the Board of Visitors of the College of Communications at my alma mater, Penn State University. So I have a fair amount of exposure to what kind of teaching is going on today’s campuses.
Much as administrators try to keep up, higher education in communications has often been a step behind the private sector, in terms of studying topics like reputation management, social media, digital marketing, etc. Professionals who have had careers in agencies, for example, often choose a second career teaching on college campuses. For a while, their knowledge is very valuable to students, but diminishes every passing day away from the agency battlefield. No shocker there. The conundrum is that it is difficult for professors and the universities that employ them to remain on the leading edge of change in the marketplace.
Some universities, like Drexel, have co-op programs, where students work in the private sector, in a paid capacity, doing the things they aspire to do upon graduation. My agency employed Drexel co-op students long before my association with the university; it is a fundamentally smart way for students to learn what’s really going on in the careers they intend to pursue, while employers get an early look at talent before graduation. There are others ways for learning to stay relevant: I have had Penn State professors ask me if they could spend a few days shadowing and observing my team at Brownstein Group, in an effort to bring back fresh thinking and practices to their classroom teachings. So smart on their part. I’m sure there are many more examples out there.
But when I speak with students and recent graduates from dozens of other universities about how valuable the marketing content was in their classrooms, the answers are often sobering. Some feel they learned more in a single summer internship in an agency than in four years in college. I’ve heard that classes promise “integrated marketing,” while delivering insights about only traditional tactics. Other students have complained to me that subjects like “mobile marketing” aren’t even offered at their schools.
So what are the solutions? Should universities commit to monitoring the relevance of their curriculum by sitting in on classes, maintaining a dialogue with students to hear their feedback and regularly grading their own performance? Can more schools send their professors to work in the private sector for a while, or institute co-op programs? I’d like to see the advertising professor who teaches mobile marketing by creating a class designed and delivered on his/her students’ iPhones and Androids in place of textbooks.
As a parent of three college and high school-age kids, I know what’s it like to write those tuition checks. It makes me sick to think that a growing portion of that tuition is going to waste.I propose that agencies of all sizes open their doors to educators who want to learn and stay current. And I encourage more universities to start co-op programs and insist that their students spend summers in meaningful internships.
Otherwise, agencies large and small are going to have to spend valuable resources teaching new hires what they should’ve learned in college.