/ 1 March 2010

A little PR would go a long way

Another year. Okay, we’ve seen the usual demonstrations at the Tshwane University of Technology.

Is it just me, or is this so predictable by now that you have to start thinking there is a Flash Crowd behind the protests that convene annually to trash the place?

A strike at Thohoyandou at the University of Venda over worker’s rights; the theft of jewellery from Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT); another student murdered at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

You have to start thinking there is something wrong with higher education in this country. In reality, there is and there isn’t.

There are just less than a million students, lecturers and management at our universities. It stands to reason that within this population there will be those who behave badly, as in any other one million randomly chosen individuals.

The difference is that we have a collective noun to describe this arbitrary grouping: higher education. It has attained a numinous quality, like a religion, to which is ascribed the ability to heal a multitude of ills. Its symbolic value far exceeds the contribution it can actually make to the amelioration of social and economic woes.

It’s made worse because education journalists are fully aware of how easy it is to exploit the university’s precarious position: an incident of transactional sex, as happened recently at CPUT, assumes almost biblical proportions because it damns not only the reputation of the institution but is also generalised to all academics.

I’m not quite sure who runs the PR and marketing function at universities, but I have a horrible suspicion that whoever heads these departments are failed and/or ancient academics who used to lecture grass management and water poverty and have been slotted into PR as a stopgap before retirement.

Any minor crisis that befalls a university will either get no response, or one so defensive as to irritate both the journalist and readers.

Before Jonathan Jansen took over there was an incident at the University of the Free State (no not that one) where an academic was defending teaching in Afrikaans because it would ensure that the institution remained pure. As in white.

When questioned by the SABC, the university responded by saying that it was a perfect example of academic freedom at work. Hoo boy.

Admittedly the Big Five (research institutions) have put in place more or less professional units to deal with crisis management, but the smaller institutions are plain embarrassing in their ineffectual dithering in the face of calamity.

Not only do our institutions struggle to respond to criticism, they are also clueless when it comes to promoting their brand.

A perfect example of this is in the ongoing turf war between Wits and the University of Johannesburg (UJ). It started with UJ poaching rated researchers from its neighbour so as to improve its National Research Foundation rating.

It then landed Adam Habib, who happens to be an expert on everything and is more than happy to walk his Hush Puppies across to the SABC for an intimate chat to the millions.

Wits — by way of rebuttal — puts out earnest pieces full of important phrases such as ‘strategic imperatives” in publications read by businessmen delayed at airports.

If anyone drove around Johannesburg at the end of last year, they would have seen a massive ‘adopta-light” campaign run by UJ, full of catchy phrases that made education sound like a brand of designer jeans.

In fact, it came second, behind UCT, as the best university brand in the country last year.

Although Wits is in need of a lick of paint, down the road UJ is opening up a brand-new campus in Soweto that is so Generation Z I’m surprised the Black Eyed Peas didn’t do the opening.

Maybe UJ vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg should start running brand workshops for the rest of our higher education leaders. They sure need it.