Research universities are shortchanging their storytelling

Universities might start to think about crafting and socializing a compelling research narrative much like they would a fundraising campaign narrative.
David Rosowsky

The higher education industry has long been reproached for its slower pace of reform. The pandemic exacerbated this, with the world intently watching and assessing the industry’s ability to quickly pivot—and to not only reflect societal realities, but to drive systemic change going forward.

Sitting inside academia or working alongside it, we know from experience that colleges and universities have some monolithic tendencies. Systems of checks and balances are complex, decisions are by committee, and movement toward change can feel sluggish.

But we’re perhaps quick to forget that many of the world’s greatest innovations have been thought up, fostered, and fast-tracked by American research universities.

The internet first blinked to life at UCLA, and Google got its start at Stanford’s School of Engineering. Plasma screens were invented by a team at the University of Illinois.

Kimberly Hallman

Gatorade was discovered and brought to market by the University of Florida, while nearly 90% of all U.S. hard winter wheat can be genetically traced to Kansas State University. The world’s first successful bone marrow transplant is linked to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota, and the discovery and development of the first insulin pump is credited to Yale University. And with the help of two radio telescopes coordinated by the University of Arizona, astronomers have taken the first direct image of a black hole. The list goes on and on.

Higher ed unequivocally sits at the tip of the spear for ideation and invention. And research universities are its leading incubators, moving the world forward in every field.

Related: The top 100 colleges and universities that spent on R&D in 2020

But on the whole, universities’ research stories aren’t being told well enough, broadly enough, or consistently enough. Universities often struggle to make the case for how research contributes to their educational mission when speaking to prospective students and their families, despite research, learning, and discovery being intrinsically linked. They’ve historically had a hard time translating research endeavors to alumni [and alumni donors], a presumably friendly audience when it comes to showcasing and celebrating university successes. And similarly, universities have fumbled efforts to powerfully convey research ROI to legislators. Yet each of these constituent groups are incredibly important to ensure ongoing support and investment.

The greatest missed opportunity may be in communicating the value, importance, and outcomes of academic research to the general population. The term “research” itself is often poorly understood and sometimes unnecessarily daunting. This must change if public universities, in particular, are to secure continued and increased levels of support from their states in order to bring solutions to those in greatest need.

Is it that universities are reticent to talk about research because it is a complicated subject matter? Without being research specialists themselves, communicators may doubt their ability to accurately capture research intricacies or worry they’ll inadvertently dilute key research detail. Is it that university research narratives are dutifully being developed, but in efforts to tell a single cohesive story about discovery and innovation, universities are failing to tell the story effectively to any one audience segment? Or are schools taking a too-limited or too-literal approach to research promotion, prioritizing published research papers but not tapping research experts for regular thought leadership?

Speaking from personal experience having [for many, many years] collectively produced and promoted high-quality research and scholarly work, research storytelling is both art and science. The goal is to respect the integrity of the research while translating it appropriately for mainstream audiences—finding the hook, framing why it matters, and making it relatable.

Universities might start to think about crafting and socializing a compelling research narrative much like they would a fundraising campaign narrative.

Related: U.S. universities remain No. 1 in world rankings on academic subjects

The topline could sound something like this: Research universities are engines of discovery, innovation, and economic development. They are also places of teaching, learning, mentoring, nurturing, and personal growth, guided by exceptional faculty that care about their students as much as they care about their research. For prospective students: Research enriches classroom environments, honing critical thinking, contextualization, and interpretation skills and igniting faculty and student passions alike. For alumni and corporate partners: Research empowers new generations of problem solvers, fostering a start-up mentality that reframes existing constructs and focuses not only on having the right answers but asking the right questions. And for legislators and the lay public: Research enables us to address the most fundamental and monumental societal challenges of our time, pursuing solutions to make every day better, brighter, and more equitable. Pretty powerful stuff in the case for investment.

Then, it becomes a matter of universities articulating their authentic research storylines, proof points, and spokespersons. A few communications best practices:

  • It should be an intentional effort to capture the university’s research strengths and areas of excellence; to consider unique audiences’ values, motivations, and overarching wants and needs from the institution; and to apply cultural context for what is happening in the world and how/why practical, purpose-driven research can make a difference.
  • It should have a recognizable voice and tone, flexible enough to work for individual research disciplines and to be personified by individual researchers. This will help transcend stats and facts, however important; to humanize the narrative; and to deliver on higher-order emotional benefits resulting from research endeavors.
  • As much as it points to tangible outcomes, research storylines should also celebrate and communicate the process of learning and discovery, much like a fundraising campaign touts big-picture goals but also progress along the way. Research ROI can be measured in more ways than academic papers published or patent counts or even jobs created. Research is, by definition, systematic inquiry—or as we sometimes say in marketing speak, organized curiosity. It is as much about the spirit of ongoing endeavor as any specific result. And there is opportunity and appetite to promote credentialed research expertise as much as research end-products.

Already, American research universities are widely regarded as being the best in the world—in mission and model—and are being emulated elsewhere. A compelling research value proposition and storyline could leverage that position of strength for practical gains, opening up the admissions funnel, opening up new funding and revenue streams, and opening up a seat at the global table in terms of discovery and impact.

Now more than ever, universities must communicate the impacts and outcomes of their research, the value that research adds to their educational mission, and the importance of continued investment in their research enterprise—clearly and effectively, mindful of different audience segments, and in a way that engenders support and long-term commitment.

David V. Rosowsky, a 30-year veteran of higher education, is Vice President of Research at Kansas State University, one of the nation’s leading land grant universities. Kimberly Hallman is senior vice president at 160over90 and oversees the firm’s higher ed strategic communications practice, working regularly to promote universities’ academic and research excellence.

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