In the last few years, higher education has undergone a reckoning not seen in decades. Many stakeholders, including those in federal and state governments, are calling the need for elite universities into question, due in part to admissions scandals, rising costs and issues of equity and racism. In some cases, these stakeholders no longer see the tangible impact universities are making in their local and global communities. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the concern over equal access to these universities will be in the limelight this October as the Supreme Court hears two cases on affirmative action.
As state and federal government officials, parents and prospective students continue to question the value of the ivory tower, university leaders should ask themselves two questions: are they doing enough to advance significant or positive changes that solve or address social injustice and challenges? And are they communicating these efforts effectively?
Universities have a long tradition of furthering social impact in their communities and around the world. The 112 U.S. land-grant universities were founded in 1860 with a mission to teach, conduct research and provide service to communities. For leaders who are doing the hard work of embedding social impact into their strategic planning, it is no longer a question of if they should communicate their impact, but how. University leaders must embed social and global issues into their communications to ensure that their constituents understand how their institution is making the world a better place.
The social impact disconnect
In 2019, Times Higher Education (THE) introduced Impact rankings, which measure global universities’ progress towards tackling the world’s greatest challenges, specifically institutions’ success in furthering the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Fast-forward to 2022 and only one U.S. university is ranked in the top 10: Arizona State University, ranked second overall. Conversely, U.S. universities make up 19 of the top 30 in THE’s main World University Rankings, which evaluate universities on excellence in teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. An important nuance of the Impact rankings is that the universities themselves provide direct evidence of activities and make that evidence public.
This tension could stem from two possible causes: either U.S. universities are not as committed as global universities to activities related to social impact, or U.S. universities fail to properly communicate their social impact priorities. I believe that it is the latter. Most universities in the U.S. have been working to make progress on major social issues. Several U.S. schools—especially top business schools—feature academic programs related to social impact, many with a global focus. Additionally, nearly every one of the top 30 U.S. institutions shares annual sustainability reports, and a smaller cohort report out consistently on other key issues such as gender and racial equity, economic development in their communities and the like.
Often these reports are created as accountability measures to internal stakeholders, such as students, faculty, staff and board members, with little creativity or rigor behind the communications strategy. Universities must eliminate the disconnect between doing the good work and communicating it externally.
Three ways universities can communicate their impact
Universities have the potential to make tremendous impact in their local communities, and many—especially major research institutions—have the resources to extend that impact globally. However, universities must be strategic about their goals across these major areas of social and global impact: from climate change to gender equity to reducing economic inequalities in their communities. Here are three ways universities can more strategically communicate their social impact.
Be clear and tangible. Just as many universities made commitments in the wake of the George Floyd murder, institutions must be clear about the tangible ways that they can and will impact their local and global communities. Using SDGs or other global measurements can help universities underscore their efforts and add a welcome layer of accountability. Universities could also survey the campus community to better understand what issues their constituents care about or are currently collaborating on.
Avoid over- and under-communication. Unfortunately, in today’s world, every day can feel like a crisis and many university leaders feel the desire to respond to every event or social issue—or to not say anything at all. It’s imperative for organizations, especially those in higher education, to lead with their values when deciding how to respond externally to these issues. Many c-suite leaders have utilized corporate responsiveness frameworks to help guide these choices. Again, using global measurements or a human-centered framework for response can help universities make these decisions. Proactive measures to decide when, where and how to respond minimizes the risk of overcommunicating on every little issue.
Embed social impact into the communications strategy. In times of tragedy or crisis, universities need to communicate how they and their constituents are working to make communities better, safer and more equitable. Communicators must create strategic pillars that emphasize research eminence, teaching excellence and social impact equally. When executing on these strategies, communicators should think creatively about how they are engaging both their campus communities and external stakeholders on important social impact issues.